In the far north of Phuket, gibbons sing their haunting love songs to each other above the Bang Pae Falls, wild boar roam in the last of the island's rainforest and some of the most beautiful white-gold beaches in Thailand remain undiscovered. In this untouched corner of Thailand's largest island, the sea is as still as turquoise glass, you can hitch a lift on a fisherman's longtail boat and dinner is barbecued seafood at a beachfront shack. Phuket is one of the great destinations of Thailand — only commercialised Pattaya packs in so many punters — and yet the quiet, understated glory of north Phuket remains a secret known to a discerning few.
Two million people pass through the north of Phuket every year — Phuket International Airport is just five minutes from Hat Nai Yang, a northern beach so quiet that, between November and February, sea turtles crawl ashore to lay their eggs on its sleepy golden sands. But the visitors are rushing to the bright lights, big hotels and beaches of Phuket's west coast. The hordes barely glance at north Phuket when they arrive and, as it is a good hour's drive from the package tour action, they only glimpse it again on the day they return to the airport to fly home. And for those of us who love this secret corner of Thailand — that's just fine. Why do we fall in love with a place? For the same reason we fall in love with a person.
Your eyes suddenly open and you are struck by the revelation that you are in the presence of magic. That is what happened to me one morning on Hat Nai Yang beach. I had been coming to Thailand for over 20 years. I'd been to weddings and wats, lazed on the beaches and swum the warm waters, taken a ride on tuk-tuks and elephants. But it was not until I came to that pristine beach that I fell in love with Thailand.
The Andaman Sea was as unmoving as a mirror. Nothing stirred on the crystal waters save for the solitary longtail of a fisherman the colour of teak. Wade out for 30 minutes and the water only came up to your chest. The bay was a perfect bow shape, lined by tall, feathery casuarina trees. The only sound was the soft voices that drifted across from the line of seafood restaurants on the beach. The heat made everything shimmer and shift, like the vision of a tropical island in a dream.
All the trappings of mass tourism — the jet skis, the sunburned crowds and the banana boats and the babble — were conspicuous by their absence. Hat Nai Yang, I thought, must have looked exactly like this one hundred years ago. I had never seen a beach so totally unspoilt. And my heart went boom.
Just beyond the majestic sweep of Hat Nai Yang's bay is Hat Mai Khao — the last beach before Phuket ends and you cross the bridge to Phang-Nga and the Thai mainland. This final beach is far more remote than Hat Nai Yang. There are no restaurants here, no longtails, and no people. A combination of fast currents and the presence of a national park keep almost everyone away. While writing my novel set in north Phuket, Catching the Sun, I spent endless hours walking on Hat Mai Khao and I never saw another soul.
With its huge expanse of sloping white sands, and its feeling of total solitude, Hat Mai Khao is a wild and lonely place, a dead ringer for the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes, when Charlton Heston discovers the Statue of Liberty poking from the sands. Walk a while on Hat Mai Khao and you feel like the last person left alive in the world. Then you go inland from those lonely, beautiful beaches of north Phuket. And you are reminded that, before the last 40 years of tourism, this island had centuries when it was one of the world's great trading posts. There are still plantations of pineapple and rubber in the north of Phuket, although the tin mines are abandoned now. It is an area of thick, lush vegetation, and tiny villages surrounded by 50 shades of green.
The great walk of this part of Phuket is between the north's two waterfalls — the Ton Sai Falls and the Bang Pae Falls. You will read in guidebooks that this walk takes a few hours — however, you will only hear this from someone who has never done it. The reality is that the two waterfalls are separated by miles of dense rainforest where tigers and sun bears once roamed, and boar, cobras, flying foxes and gibbons still thrive.
You should not embark upon the trek without good walking boots and a machete. You will know when you have made it because you will hear the singing. It reaches you as you stagger out of the last of the rainforest, a high-pitched and bittersweet hooting, unearthly and unforgettable, like nothing you have heard in your life. This is the song of the gibbons.
You see gibbons all over Phuket. In the bars of the Bangla Road, on the beach at Hat Patong — gibbons who are dressed for tourist photo opportunities and a few cheap chuckles. Gibbons are not the only species who get roped into street performance in Thailand, but their story is the saddest.
Gibbons who live in that twilight world of bars, beaches and tourists forget that they are gibbons. The lucky ones are taken to Phuket's Gibbon Rehabilitation Project to remember and, if possible, to find a mate and get released back into the wild. This is why the gibbons sing their siren-like songs — to find love. Without a mate gibbons cannot have a family, and without a family gibbons cannot survive in the wild.
The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project, of the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation,
is the unmissable destination here. The individual stories of the gibbons, and the endless sorrow in their bottomless black eyes, will melt even the hardest of hearts. Not all of the gibbons make it back to the wild — some are too damaged from their years as a tourist attraction to be released. But the sound of the gibbons that have survived and been set free is my enduring memory of north Phuket.
The rest of Phuket feels like a nice place for foreigners to visit. But the north of the island feels like where the locals live, love and die.
Catching the Sun by Tony Parsons is published
on 7 June (£7.99, HarperCollins). We have 20 copies to give away.
Read more: Gordon Ramsay's family holiday in Phuket.
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