It’s the summer of 2013. It’s getting on for 32O in the shade. And I’m just over 2,300 kilometres away from Hong Kong.
More specifically, I’m in Patong, the infamous bar district on the west coast of Phuket. It’s more seedy than everything-must-go garden centre liquidation.
Dancing on the bar are a variety of what I take to be young ladies. While some favour the relatively straightforward stilettos-and-swimsuit look, others seem to have put a little more thought into their ensemble. While, admittedly, my brief glance around lacks rigour as a research methodology, through the strobing lights and thumping bass lines I still manage to discern two police officers, a fire lady and several nurses. There also appears to a rear-admiral and an unusually rhythmic nun.
Phil, my drinking companion and a long-term Phuket resident, brandishes his half-empty bottle of Singha in the general direction of one of the more comely prancing police officers.
“That’s a bloke,” he says.
Noting my startled look, he warms to his theme.
“And so’s the nun, the admiral and at least two of the nurses…”
“Lumme,” I say, not wanting to query his appraisal nor to know more about his inside track.
This, I think, though, is clearly no place for a family holiday…
Fast forward six and a half-years and I’m queuing for a visa stamp at Phuket International Airport. It’s 1.30 in the morning. I have two suitcases, a rucksack, a Mrs, a two-year-old and an 11-inch Gruffalo. Even though none of the attendant police officers give any indication that a provocative strut is of the offing, I am struggling with the kind of flashback that no much-loved cuddly toy should be within half a mile of.
And then the queue clears, our papers are checked and we’re all waved through. Even the Gruffalo. Outside, our courteous hotel driver awaits us in air-conditioned reassurance and soon, we’re winging our way through the relatively silent streets of Phuket several hours before sun up. This, I think, could turn out all right after all…
Even at this time of the night / morning, it takes the best part of an hour to reach our hotel – the Diamond Cliff Resort and Spa. Although only just a little over a kilometre from the heady, hedonistic delights of Patong, Phuket, Phil – our man supposedly in the know – assures me that family friendliness will be front of house. And, for once, he doesn’t disappoint.
Even at two o’clock in the morning, the traditional warm Thai welcome has not been turned down by so much as half a notch. Indeed, check-in is so brisk and painless that it even excites a smile from a half-asleep two-year-old. Before we know it, we, our luggage and our furry fanged friend, are all safely stowed on the shuttle bus that, every seven-to-eight minutes, takes the pain out of the sharp incline that divides the concierge from the decidedly comfy rooms.
So, there we are. Barely four hours after being wheels up in Chek Lap Kok, we’re bedding down in Kalim – Patong’s decidedly less decadent neighbour – and we almost have enough energy left to argue over who forgot to pack the travel adaptor. Again.
Day one and it’s not a day for voyaging forth. We did quite enough of that yesterday thank you. For many Hongkongers arriving in Phuket – especially those travelling in steerage rather than on Premium Maximum First Class Super Indulgence tickets – the sheer space afforded by a decent sized hotel room delivers joy enough to make your first day in residence suitably memorable. Should you exhaust the charms of crispy linen and multi-jetted hot tubs peremptorily, then, thankfully, the Diamond Spa has enough in-house delights to ensure you don’t have to wander too far too early in your stay.
The handily-sited kids’ playroom is a must and it’s a credit to its ever-enthusiastic personnel that they seem to remain almost entirely undaunted no matter how much topping a two-year-old can cover themselves with in the space of one brief half-hour pizza-making workshop. They also appear to have been trained in tactfully turning a blind eye to the number of crayons a toddler can scoff when they think no-one is looking.
This sizable, supervised play space marks just about the halfway point between room and pool, making it suitable as both the site of tactical retreat or a chance to burn off a little excess energy en route. Either way, the smiles of the staff remain undiminished, even when co-opted into an ad hoc search party for a suddenly errant Gruffalo.
Of course, on every holiday, no matter how hard you plan or how much you think ahead, there comes a time when you have to give in, bow to the inevitable, leave the hotel reluctantly behind and GO AND DO SOMETHING. In our case, something to do with elephants.
Pachyderms and two-year-olds, it seems, have at least one thing in common – they never forget. Should you, say, make the grave error of announcing, almost by way of idle chat, that there are elephants in Phuket, chances are that off-the-cuff pre-vacation comment may come back to haunt you.
And so it was that, decidedly early on day two, a little head popped up and in a tone that was equal parts quizzical and emphatic, said simply: “Elephants?”
Three hours later, our argument about who forgot to pack the bug repellent is temporarily put on hold as our jeep lurches into a big elephant-motifed compound. We’ve been fortunate. A quick Google – thank you free and surprisingly fast hotel wi-fi – gave us the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary (www.elephantjunglesanctuary.com), a nearby ‘ethical’ elephant rescue centre, which majored on both its sustainable and its care credentials.
In Thailand – and in pretty much everywhere else – it’s important to suss out just how genuinely charitable your chosen elephant preservation reserve actually is. As a rule of thumb, any signs of chains or any offer that you can ride one of the magnificent beasts is a no-no. This particular sanctuary actually prides itself on buying ageing tuskers from their moustache-twirling circus owners. The going rate? HK$2.5 million a pop.
The care and respect they show the animals is, however, evident at every turn. Whether you’re feeding them, bathing them or just goggling at their immense bulk close-up, it will certainly bring out your inner two-year-old. An undoubted holiday highlight.
Indeed, five days later, with Monkey Island, James Bond locales, an upside down house and the Splash Jungle Water Park all duly visited and Instagrammed, it’s the watermelon-munching jolly grey giants that remain the a biding memory for at least one departing diminutive tourist.
Queuing up for the return leg to Hong Kong, it’s hard not to feel a little recharged after a break from the increasingly fraught Fragrant Harbour. As to concerns, that this particular stretch of the Land of Smiles may not be wholly family friendly, this trip has certainly dispelled that particular notion.
While refreshed, there’s also a degree of exhaustion after setting out to see so much in such a short time. That must be why I’m momentarily sure the nun three ahead of me in the boarding queue just gave me the kind of wink that almost defines “lascivious”.
Surely, there can be no other explanation…