Back to the 19th Century on Phuket Island

Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

Hawaii and the Bahamas must have been this way once--gorgeous tropical isles with deserted beaches where you could sit beneath a palm-frond hutch and devour grilled lobster and great chunks of fish with your bare hands, then meander into a tin-roofed town that seems locked forever in the 19th Century.

Phuket and its halo of smaller islands off the Thai southern coast comes about as close to this idyllic fantasy as one could hope for in today's world, give or take a few inroads by well-hidden hotels and the internal-combustion engine.

Centuries, or even a decade ago, Phuket was just another tin-rubber-coconut island lapped by incredibly blue waters, its natives as friendly, hospitable, easygoing and handsome as their mainland brethren. It hasn't changed that much, but cash flow in the coconut business can't match that of tourism, boding change in years ahead.

Two things have kept Phuket's almost overnight transformation into a major resort from becoming the drawback that other too-much too-soon destinations have suffered.

First, the island is big enough to take 10 times its present development without strain. Second, what is here is scattered in the foliage, sparing visitors the long and dispiriting lines of high-rise.

So if you're looking for a place that is still "the way it was," make haste for Phuket while the dew is still on the mango, guava, papaya and jackfruit trees.

Here to there: United, Japan, China and Singapore airlines will fly you to Bangkok from LAX, Thai International from Seattle, the last on to Phuket in an hour.

How long/how much? Give it between three days and a week. Many Europeans spend their entire three-week holidays here. Lodging costs are from downright inexpensive to moderate, the same for dining.

A few fast facts: The Thai baht recently traded at about 25 to the dollar. November to May is the driest season, weather in the 85- to 90-degree range all year, breezes off the Adaman Sea and Bay of Bengal keeping it forever pleasant. Rental cars and Jeeps are moderate, mini-buses and tuk tuks get you around for a pittance. The tuk tuk is an open, three-wheel affair of riotous colors that runs on cooking gas, breezy but fun.

Settling in: Phuket Island Resort (73 Rasda Road; $36-$56 double) is right on Lame Ka Beach, a handsome contemporary complex on 64 acres of lush gardens. Half a dozen small islands float outside your window, one of which the hotel owns, and the Swiss director keeps the staff and services splendid.

There's a free bus to and from Phuket Town, enormous buffet breakfasts, and a lovely pool with waterfall just beneath your room balcony. Don't miss a boat ride out to the hotel's Bon Island for a superb lunch of seafood in its little thatched-roof hutch, then take a swim at the beach or cove of your choice.

Baah Sukhothai (Pathon Beach; $32 double room or bungalow, both with kitchens and air conditioning) is a traditional island place. Delightful little separate houses, all plaited bamboo-strip walls and teak.

The open-air lobby building has a profusion of plants, singing birds in cages and a small fountain. Short walk to beach, central-patio pool, coffee shop with Thai and Western food, small playground for kids.

Phuket Cabana (Patong Beach; $40-$56 double) is also in the Thai style, this one on a magnificent beach where you may have a massage while catching a few rays. Each room has its own veranda or terrace, open-air restaurant and bar, pool just a step from the surf. Lots of water sports gear available.

Regional food and drink: Satay is very large here, chicken and pork versions served with spicy sauces of local red peppers or ground peanuts. Phuket lobster is a favorite. Also enormous prawns sauteed in a hot and heavenly sauce of peppers, goong sou-sa .

Squid in crispy garlic struck our fancy with a bang, while hottest of the hot is tohm yam kung, a seafood or chicken soup flavored with lemon grass and sometimes mixed with coconut milk.

Very sweet and typical are foi thond, little desserts made of flour, eggs and lots of sugar. But we usually went for the melange of glorious Thai fruits that are always served. Beer of choice is Singha, very good.

Moderate-cost dining: Kan Eang (Chalong Bay) is a rambling series of tables beneath thatch right on the beach, where waitresses in native costume are forever refilling your plate and glass. Watch the lights of Gypsy fishermen on the bay and feast on goong sou-sa served from a sizzling hot pan. We also loved the local mong , a grilled whitefish, and beef man-jou style, fried at the table.

Most of the cooking is done outdoors, pretty lights hanging from the trees. Kan Eang means "feel at home," and you will at this colorful place where an enormous meal for two costs less than $12.

None Tunk-Ka (a hilltop restaurant just outside Phuket Town) is another charmer at which you dine inside or out in Thai decor with stunning views of surrounding hills. Very good treatment of local specialties, including fried crab, Thai salads, pineapple and banana fritters. There's an unusually good wine selection, some Western dishes.

For the full Kan-Tok evening of dinner and classic Thai dancing, head for Banthai Beach Resort Hotel (Patong Beach). Dine in a beautiful room at long tables, lots of Asian artifacts around, brightly colored cushions to lean on. Your meal is a bountiful, a six-course affair of Thai dishes.

Thailand's best dancers all come from Chiang Mai up north. They perform eight or nine stylized dances to end the evening. Rooms and dining at this new and handsome hotel are inexpensive, a double for $44.

Going first-class: Phuket Yacht Club (Nai Harn Bay; $104 double) is the ne plus ultra of island accommodations, a magnificent hillside of tiered rooms overlooking the small emerald of a bay. Each room has its spacious balcony or patio, elegant Thai furnishings, sunken baths, marvelous art and artifacts. Most public rooms in main building open to the elements, lovely pool area, private beach, everything fitting comfortably into the landscape.

On your own: After scouting the beaches for a favorite, have a go at Phuket Town for a swing through the busy market loaded with atmosphere, perhaps a satay and beer at a street stall. Then go to the south end of the island for a look at the sea Gypsies village, a run up to Laem Phromthep Hill to buy coconuts or fried cockles and squid from the tent vendors there.

Patong Beach village is where Phuket's bright lights burn, a formidable lineup of bars or whatever, each filled with Thai women working their wiles on strollers.

Every hotel has its program of island tours and cruises, Phi Phi Islands being noted for their cave paintings and the bird nests collected as the main ingredient of Chinese bird-nest soup. And if you'd like to see where James Bond chased the baddies in one of his flicks, steam over to Phang Nga Bay.

For more information: Call the Thailand Tourism Authority at (213) 382-2353, or write 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90010, for a brochure on Phuket, another on southern Thailand, and maps and a list of accommodations.

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