At Loh Dalam, I stopped at a small shrine, almost hidden, where tsunami victims are remembered with plaques and pictures. A young man appeared, pressed some incense into my palm and disappeared.
Armed with Ngankaeng's name, I set out for Tonsai and before long found someone who directed me to Areda restaurant, the name of his former establishment. It was Ngankaeng's new place, but he was in Phuket that day. An employee told me that the 500-seat open-air dining spot had opened in 2006 and that Ngankaeng had remarried three years ago.
My next stop on Tonsai beach was the Phi Phi Island Cabana Hotel, where guests were splashing in the pool. Ninety-six guests and staff died in the tsunami, and when I visited in 2005, that pool was cracked and empty, and soggy mattresses and mud-caked tables had been stacked in what is the now-reopened ballroom. The hotel has been so thoroughly repaired that it appeared as though nothing had happened.
On a hot, sunny November day, day-trippers were disembarking from the ferry from Phuket at the big new concrete pier at Tonsai, some heading for new beach restaurants.
I couldn't believe this was the same place. Like Phuket, Phi Phi had come back.
I then turned my full attention to Phuket, where I spent four nights, staying at three hotels in three areas, sampling the many faces of the city. There's Patong Beach, with neon and night life, prostitutes and "lady men" (transvestites or transsexuals). There's Phuket city, crowded and disorderly and fascinating, and there's the historic town, with its old shop houses shaded by arcades and its Sino-Portuguese mansions. Finally, there are the luxe hideaway beach resorts.
Soon after arrival, I plunged into a full day of sightseeing, starting with a drive through the old Chinese neighborhood -- a vestige of Phuket's 19th century tin mining boom -- with its "dragon houses," whose doors and windows resemble the mouth and eyes of a dragon.
I passed rows of little open-front, tin-roofed shops selling hardware and motorcycle parts, auto seats and wooden doors, flowers and food. There was a garden shop with elephant statuary, a Starbucks, a dinosaur park.
Dodging bikes and motorcycles, I traveled the narrow coastal road, stopping to take in the sweeping view from Prom Thep Cape in the south.
I was wilting in the heat and humidity by the time I checked in at the cool, dark lobby of the Indigo Pearl, where I welcomed a cold towel and iced tea. This hotel, formerly the tsunami-damaged 1980s-era Pearl Village Resort at Nai Yang beach, closed for eight months and reopened in 2006 with a new look and a new name. It is spectacular, sort of tin-mine-industrial chic punched up with Thai silks and jewel colors.
My second hotel, the Twinpalms at Surin Beach, is also a beauty. At check-in, I was told I'd been chosen at random for an upgrade to one of the 21 new residence suites. (I don't think the management knew I was a journalist; I had not booked using my byline name, so I accepted this as pure luck, though in my windblown state I hardly looked like a future prospect for a $1,360 a night suite.) And what a suite -- a spacious town house with private pool, where I cooled off with the champagne set out by my butler.
For my last night, I chose the Burasari, a boutique hotel just off the beach at Patong. As I walked into the open-air lobby, a musician sitting crosslegged on a daybed played Thai music on a Chinese cymbalo, a stringed instrument struck with a hammer. It was all quite exotic.
One day I visited Wat Chalong, largest of the city's 29 Buddhist temples. I also visited Big Buddha, a work in progress atop a mountain. It's being funded by donations and will be the largest Buddha in Thailand, 146 feet tall and 82 feet across at the base. Visitors are invited to contribute for Buddha's marble lotus seat.
Another day I went island-hopping in Phang-nga Bay on Asia Canoe Thailand's double-deck boat.
First stop: Koh Khao Phing Kan, where I made my way past the souvenir stalls to an inlet to see the vertical little island of Koh Tapu. It's where villain Scaramanga hid his laser weapon in the 1974 James Bond film, "The Man With the Golden Gun," and is now known as James Bond Island. Puzzlingly, it's a huge tourist attraction. Maybe you have to be a Bond aficionado.
Later, I went ashore at Koh Panyee, where a Muslim village with more than 1,000 inhabitants sits on stilts over the water.
These descendants of settlers who came from Indonesia subsist on fishing and tourism. Our guide whisked us past the vendors -- many of them elderly Muslim women -- so we could peer into small, dark living spaces with bird cages hanging outside and take in the spicy aromas of cooking food. He told us not to pay to pose with a baby gibbon, because a baby can be captured only by killing its mother. (In 2005, I visited Phuket's Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, which rehabilitates animals mistreated as tourist attractions.)
At Koh Phanak, we piled into inflatable canoes, sailed through an opening in a cave and into a mangrove swamp. As my raft passed under low-hanging stalactites, my paddler warned, "Lay down!" The formations barely missed my nose.
On my last night in Phuket, as I sat in Misty's Bar inside the Burasari's gardens, a drenching tropical thunderstorm pelted the roof. It was a W. Somerset Maugham moment, and it was perfect.