Two million visitors go to Phuket in Thailand every year but most miss the best bit – the island’s glorious north. There, gibbons sing their love songs high above the Bang Pae waterfall, wild boar roam virgin rainforest so thick you need a machete to pass through it, and some of the most spectacular beaches in Asia remain largely undisturbed by human footprints.
I have been visiting Thailand for more than 20 years and nowhere else I’ve found comes close to matching the unspoilt wonders of north Phuket. Take Hat Mai Khao, the last beach in north Phuket before you cross Sarasin Bridge to Phang Nga and the Thai mainland. Hat Mai Khao is far from a secret. The eight-mile beach, the longest on the island, features in most lists of best things to do on Phuket but nobody ever seems to get round to going there.
I have spent many hours on Hat Mai Khao in recent years, researching a novel set in north Phuket, and I never saw another soul on that incredible beach. Not once – it felt as lonely as the Gobi desert.
Yet this is one of the most spectacular beaches in the world, where the sand is closer to white than gold, sloping steeply down from the mangroves and casuarina trees to the Andaman Sea. Hat Mai Khao makes you feel like the last man on the planet … a feeling you get used to in north Phuket.
Ironically, Phuket’s 2m visitors all touch down in the north when they land at Phuket International Airport, five minutes from Hat Mai Khao. But then the hordes rush south and west to the big hotels, crowded beaches and saucy bars of Patong and its brash neighbours. Most visitors come and go without even glimpsing the deep mystery and unspoilt magic of the north. For those of us who love Thailand’s best-kept secret, that is just fine.
Why do they stay away? As most visitors reside in the great tourist strip of the west coast, it is a long yomp to get there on hair-raising roads swarming with rickety motorbikes, roads where the locals eat lunch, admire babies, flirt, text mum and exchange gossip – all at 50mph.
There is currently only one good hotel in the north – the Indigo Pearl on Hat Nai Yang – because much of the area is protected land. Sirinath National Park covers a large part, including the two great beaches, Hat Mai Khao and Hat Nai Yang, because there giant turtles come ashore to lay their eggs between October and February.
When you witness the crass excesses of Thai tourism, it can appear that anything goes in this country. But that is not the case – the Thais have a genius for conserving what is most precious to them.
The girly bars, the banana boats and Big Buddha – the biggest statue of the enlightened one in the world, 20 years in the making – are down south. The further north you go, the more Phuket feels like a Muslim island. Though the majority of the island’s population is Buddhist, the 35 per cent who are Muslim are concentrated in the north, where there are as many mosques as temples.
In practice, this means the easy-going Thai credo of sanuk, finding fun in all things, is far less apparent in the north. It is a mistake to come here and assume the area has the same liberal attitudes as the rest of the country. Things that don’t raise an eyebrow down south – western drunks, a relaxed attitude to prostitution, topless bathing – are not tolerated up north.
Up here 40 years of tourism are wiped away and you feel the weight of the centuries when Phuket was one of the world’s great trading posts. The lush green interior is dotted with tin mines, abandoned now, where generations of Chinese immigrants came to work. Everywhere you still see the regimented rows of the rubber plantations, a crop introduced by British traders in the year that Queen Victoria died and taken up by local merchants as the price of tin began to fall.
The great walk of north Phuket is between two waterfalls – the Ton Sai and the Bang Pae. The falls are separated by miles of virgin rainforest, inside the Khao Phra Thaeo National Park.
The trail frequently peters out into nothing, and should not be attempted without a local guide, good walking boots and a freshly sharpened machete. Tigers and sun bears once roamed this dense green world, and wild boar, cobras, flying foxes and gibbon can still be seen here. In fact, it is very difficult to avoid them.
For when you finally emerge from the rainforest, you hear a high-pitched, bittersweet hooting, like the ghosts of a thousand owls. This is the song of the gibbons, and above the Bang Pae Falls is the most remarkable sight of all – the Phuket Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre.
You see gibbons all over Phuket. Despite the fact that a family of wild gibbon has to be slaughtered to capture one baby gibbon, on the tourist beaches and in the seedier bars of Hat Patong you see gibbons dressed up for the amusement of the tourists, to provide cheap chuckles and photo opportunities. Possibly only the poor old performing Thai elephant is more of a slave to the tourist industry.
But around the age of five or six, a gibbon is no longer happy to dress up as a cowboy and sit on the lap of some half-cut tourist. When it reaches sexual maturity, a gibbon is no longer content to play the monkey. That’s when gibbons are abandoned, or have their fingers chopped off, or get pumped with drugs or booze to keep them docile.
The lucky ones are brought to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre, a project of the Wild Animal Rescue Foundation, and a fortunate few make it back to the wild.
There are cages all around the Bang Pae Falls. Small, controlled cages with climbing frames and feed bowls at the bottom, and spacious cages above the waterfall, that hardly look like cages at all. But before a gibbon can be set free into the rainforest, they must find a mate, for outside the family unit, gibbons are unable to survive in the wild.
So they sing. They sing to find a mate and then later, if they are released with their new family, they sing because they are free.
Standing on the white sand of Hat Nai Yang, the Andaman Sea as still as glass, I have never seen a vision of such serene beauty in my life.
The only boats are the long-tails of the fishermen, and the only sound is the whisper of the casuarinas that shade the beach. You can wade into those warm waters for 30 minutes without getting wet above your chest. You never see a single stone. A paddle off Hat Nai Yang slows your heartbeat.
Yet the tsunami of December 26 2004 came out of this same sea and struck Hat Nai Yang and Hat Mai Khao and the north of Phuket just as hard as it hit the beaches further south. What saved the north, the locals will tell you, is that it is largely untouched by tourism.
The beaches still have their steep natural slope so the giant turtles can crawl ashore and lay their eggs. They have never been bulldozed flat like the beaches of the west coast, and that slowed the murderous wall of water.
Yes, in the tiny village of Nai Yang, they will tell you their bay is a perfect bow-shape, and that reduced the terrible impact of the tsunami. But what really saved north Phuket is that nobody has ever been allowed to ruin it.
‘Catching the Sun’, Tony Parsons’ novel set in Thailand, is published by Harper on June 7