The car ride to the top of the mountain was something similar to a rickety roller-coaster ride one might be dared to take on at an aging amusement park. The winding roads got increasingly narrower and my stomach got increasingly knotted at every bend. As we passed a family of elephants walking along the side of the road, I was convinced the change in altitude had caused me to hallucinate.
Then, just when I was ready to yell "stop!" to the driver and spend the next few minutes managing my car sickness on the side of the road, it appeared: a giant Buddha at the top of a mountain.
The Burmese white marble 150-feet high structure is one of Phuket's most revered landmarks on top of the Nakkerd Hills, offering panoramic views of the island -- Chalong Bay in one direction and the Andaman Sea in the other. The only noises you'll hear near the Buddha are the tines of bells, and on a windy day, the whips and whistles of the wind as it swooshes around the Buddha's 82-foot base. Within seconds of being in its presence, and wrapped in a local scarf to cover my legs and shoulders, I forgot about the car sickness, sharp cliffs and random elephants. The Buddha (which is still under construction and funded entirely from donations) is simply an awesome presence. But there was an entire other side to Buddha I was about to discover...
Knot, my guide for the day and one of the Renaissance Phuket Resort & Spa's local "Navigators", had pulled me aside from the base of the Buddha and asked "what day of the week were you born?" Odd question, I thought, but I had been to Asia enough times to know that everything in this culture has a meaning, from the day of the week you were born to the color of nail polish that's on your fingers. When I told the hotel I wanted to see what the locals are most proud of in Phuket, I never imagined they would take me to the obvious tourist spot -- the big Buddha. But underneath the buddha, along his base, were seven buddha statues representing specific days of the week. There were no signs or boards explaining what these Buddhas - positioned in various different poses - represented. Only a local would know, and only a local could explain it.
I was born on a Friday, so Knot and I walked the base of the big Buddha until we found "Friday's Buddha" - a tall standing Buddha representing "contemplation", with his arms covering his chest, the right hand covering the left. The pose, according to Knot, implies a complete spiritual transformation through meditation. Not sure whether this meant I needed to meditate more or just breathe a little more, I was somehow overcome by "my" Buddha -- not because of what he represented, but because while everyone else was in awe of the big guy, I was experiencing what they weren't. In Phuket, a top tourist attraction was just made personal on my account, thanks to one guide from one hotel situated along one unspoiled beach on one perfect little island.
This isn't the Thailand you've read about in books or seen in movies. There are no rainbow-colored umbrellas lining Mai Khao Beach, no drug-selling monkeys or lace bra-clad women's prisons. There are no Singha-induced benders and unrecognizable stinky street food that resembles something that might belong inside you, instead of on a stick. This is other side of Thailand - the quiet, peaceful, proud, and lush landscaped Phuket. Most travelers know Phuket as Bangkok's little sister - not quite as sinister as Thailand's capital city, but it has its own edge, which normally takes place late night along Patong Beach. On Mai Khao Beach, however, another side of Phuket shines -- the quiet side. That's the beauty of Phuket -- its devastating perfect in its simplicity.
WHERE TO STAY:
Mao Khao Beach is full of hotels and resorts, most that line the beach but have their own privacy about them. The hotels are separated by gardens, so you truly feel as if you're on the only one on the island. Mai Khao Beach is only 10 minutes from the Phuket airport and Old Town Phuket, and 20 minutes from the chaos of Patong Beach. The Renaissance Phuket Resort & Spa's perfection lies in its exclusivity, which was precisely what I was looking for on this trip. The resort has 180 guest rooms with resort views; and 25 villas, each with their own private plunge pool, outdoor shower, and whirlpool spa bath. During the off-season, a regular guest room, which has a king-size bed, full bathroom with separate tub and shower, resort views with partial ocean and garden landscapes, rounds out to $98 USD a night. A poolside villa (where I indulged for a few days) was $250 USD a night. The resort has four restaurants, each with a different 'theme', and an infinity pool that overlooks Mai Khao Beach (the sight of many scenic photos during this trip).
PLAN YOUR DAY:
As avid a traveler as I am, it's hard to plan the 'best things to do in a destination' (especially when most of my time is spent working inside hotels). This trip was different, however. I had promised myself one day off to really explore Phuket -- I had come all this way, I was determined to make the most of it. That's where Renaissance's Navigator program comes into play. The program is part of all its hotels, and its purpose is to have a "local" design a day that's catered to what you want to do, whether you're a family, solo traveler, couple or here with friends (which was my fortunate situation). I told the Navigator team we wanted something purely local - we wanted to see as much as they could show us that embodied the spirit of Phuket in half a day. When you're here, be sure to see the following: Big Buddha, Old Town Phuket, Patong Beach (if only to see the stark difference from Mai Khao Beach), stop by the schools, spend a little money supporting Phuket's tapestry shops, and have your guide take you out for traditional Phuketian food.
When our car pulled over to the side of the road in front of the little make-shift stand with stickers on the front glass panel, I was more than mildly intrigued. Knot knew I was in need of a caffeine fix and suggested we go get coffee from his favorite coffee shop. I had no idea the "shop" would be a sidewalk "cafe" (read: something that resembled a lemonade stand the kids down the road popped up for a quick 5 cents a cup). I turned to my friend who was with me on this trip and quietly asked, "This is the coffee shop?" She just shrugged her shoulders, took out her camera, and replied, "When in Phuket..."