Thailand is turning the tide

In the maze of dive shops, souvenir stores and cafes tucked behind Tonsai beach on Phi Phi Don island, shopkeeper Mab Pat waited for paying customers. “People come,” she said, “but they don’t buy.”

On one wall was a T-shirt emblazoned: “2001 Bomb Alert. 2002 SARS. 2003 Bird Flu. 2004 Tsunami. 2005 Earthquake. What next?”

What next, it turned out, was civil unrest and a worldwide recession, the latest blow to the resorts of southern Thailand. No small matters, but not as devastating as the events of Dec. 26, 2004.

On that day a 9.0 underwater earthquake off Sumatra triggered a tsunami that killed a quarter-million people throughout South Asia and devastated hundreds of villages in Indonesia, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Six provinces in Thailand along the Andaman coast, home to some of Thailand’s best-known resort islands, including Phuket and Phi Phi, were hit about two hours after the quake. Nearly 6,000 people died.

Five years later, tourist-dependent Phuket and Phi Phi have mopped up and tried to move on. Hotels have been repaired or reinvented with new names. In and near Phuket, dozens of new hotels, many of them deluxe, have opened or are to debut by 2011.

Things are not quite back to normal, I learned on my November visit, my second since the tsunami tragedy.

Besides the swine flu epidemic, there have been reports, as recently as April, of anti-government protests in Bangkok. The U.S. State Department warns tourists of the potential for political violence in Bangkok and in the far south near the border with Malaysia, but not specifically in Phuket, about 500 miles south of Bangkok.

Then there is the faltering economy. Top-end hotels are discounting rooms and spa services as Phuket grapples with filling 42,000 hotel rooms -- and 5,000 more to come by 2011. All this is in the face of 3 million fewer foreign visitors to Phuket in the last two years and hotel occupancy rates that have dipped from 66% in 2007 to 57% in the first quarter of 2009.

“And today they spend less,” said Bangornrat Shinaprayoon, director of the Phuket office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

So Shinaprayoon is focusing on selling Phuket as an “amazing value.” It’s true: Phuket is a relatively inexpensive destination, where you can find top-end restaurants and luxury hotels or backpacker lodgings and modest meals.

New properties include four Courtyards by Marriott, the minimalist B-lay Tong at Patong Beach and the Rixos Premium Khao Lak, on the site of a Sofitel that was destroyed by the tsunami. Coming in March is the Westin Siray Bay Resort & Spa. Other properties slated to open in 2010 are the Regent Phuket Cape Panwa and the Yamu, a boutique hotel with designer Philippe Starck’s imprint. A Four Points by Sheraton Phuket at Makham Bay is to open in January 2011.

When I visited Phuket and Phi Phi a year after the tsunami, I saw beachfronts where only crumbling foundations and swimming pools remained and shredded long-tail boats washed onshore. At small shops along Phuket’s Patong Beach, merchants told me of losing everything in the tsunami. Tourism fell by half in 2005, bumped up in 2006, then fell again.

I had returned in November to see how things had changed in the wake of all that had happened. I found every imaginable amenity, as well as friendly and accommodating people, and at no time did I feel in any danger, although I stayed out of the seedier places at night.

Sun-seekers -- many of them Aussies -- have returned to Patong Beach, the largest and most popular of Phuket’s 17 sandy strands. Above them, a few parasailers swooped over Patong Bay. But there weren’t enough takers for the pedicures, manicures, massages and hair weaves offered by women who set up shop on Oriental rugs placed on the sand.

Opposite the beach, visitors strolled past the jumble of tourist-targeted souvenir, T-shirt and bikini shops, tattoo and teeth whitening parlors. But few, it seemed, were buying. In his tailor shop called High Versace, Hom Perkhas waited for customers. He said he had lost everything in the tsunami and started over. Now, he said, “people are scared because of the economy. Everybody is the same as me in Phuket. Sometimes three days, zero customers, and costs keep rising. No tourists, no job, no eat, no sleep.”

Outside, Crayon-colored little taxis -- tuk tuks -- lined up at the beach, waiting for fares.

Return to Phi Phi

I also was eager to return to Phi Phi, which lies 30 miles off Phuket and was hard hit by the tsunami. I wondered what had become of the people I’d met there five years ago, in particular Ibrahim Ngankaeng. I’d come across him sitting among flattened coconut palms in front of a sign that read “Return to Paradise.” Ngankaeng, then 64, had told me he lost his wife and two grandsons in the tsunami, as well as his rental bungalows and restaurant.

I thought I had booked a one-hour speedboat trip to the island but, through a miscommunication, found myself on Tropical Andaman’s all-day snorkeling adventure, which did not stop at Tonsai, the main village on Phi Phi. I explained my predicament, and the crew members -- bless them -- agreed to make an unscheduled stop at Loh Dalam Bay, where I could wade ashore and make the short walk across the island to Tonsai beach. At midday, I was to hire a long-tail boat to rejoin the snorkelers down the coast. Somehow, it all worked out.

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.

Phuket excursions

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.