Travel Thailand – Exploring Phuket During The King’s Birthday

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Travel Thailand – Exploring Phuket During The King’s Birthday

A Travelogue of a First Timer’s Visit to Phuket in December 2014

By Elizabeth von Pier

This article is a compilation of Elizabeth von Pier’s travelogues – thus, it is written in the format of a daily diary. Her travel partners on this trip were her sister and brother-in-law, Margaret “Midge” and Bill Frieswyk. They traveled to Siem Reap, Cambodia and Phuket, Thailand.


Yesterday was spent traveling and we’re now in Phuket, Thailand. Phuket is an island in the Andaman Sea in the southern part of Thailand, just north of Malaysia and Sumatra. We came here for some R&R and are staying in a lovely resort set into the hillside on Karon Beach. It is fairly isolated but there is a town we can reach by walking about ten minutes down the road.

Here, like in Cambodia, the greeting is a bow combined with the hands in prayer (although the security guards at the entrance of the resort greet us with a salute every time we pass them). We had just come from Japan where the greeting is a deeper bow with the arms straight down at the sides. It’s important to get it right.

Shrine at Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket

Buddhist Shrine at Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket

About 55% of the people are Buddhist and 35% are Thai Muslims. Religion is very evident everywhere (no separation of church and state here). Many businesses and almost all homes have tiny Buddhist shrines near the entrance, decorated with flowers, statues and offerings to Buddha. Here at the Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket, there is a fairly large white and gold shrine as you enter the property, and the tiny snack bars on the beach also have little memorials to Buddha.

The King of Thailand is highly revered. Everywhere are photos and tributes to him. The hotel has a large photograph of him in the lobby, and he is on the home page of their website – described by his “ever grateful and loyal subjects” as “the bounteous benefactor, the master developer, the soul of the nation”. In fact, he is so revered that the violence and demonstrations in Bangkok may well wind down before we leave for that city in a few of days because he is celebrating his 86th birthday, and apparently the demonstrators are planning to stop out of respect for him.


Our travel agent is closely watching the violence and demonstrations in Bangkok to determine if we might have to alter our plans. However, it looks like things are settling down in deference to the King as he celebrates his birthday today. Even the demonstrators will honor him. So hopefully we will be able to continue our journey as planned.

Ko Phi Phi in Thailand

Ko Phi Phi in Thailand

Ko Phi Phi (pronounced: co pee-pee) is a popular and beautiful island for sightseeing and snorkeling. I would call it the “Martha’s Vineyard ” of Thailand, but the geography is quite different. Phi Phi and several other small nearby islands are renowned worldwide for their natural scenic beauty with towering limestone cliffs jutting out of the sea. Quite an amazing sight. As our ferry approached the island we passed a large cave from which there is a thriving bird’s nest soup industry. I was concerned that there would be no place to dock because these limestone cliffs project straight up toward the sky. But as we sailed around the island, a tiny harbor and silver sand beach fringed with palm trees came into view and this was where we docked.

Here we changed to a smaller boat for snorkeling. Midge went snorkeling for about an hour and saw some beautiful fish and coral. Bill and I watched from the safety of the boat and took pictures. Then we were transported back to the beach area where we had lunch and were given some free time to enjoy the beach and wander through the little alleyways filled with restaurants, shops, and massage parlors.

Phi Phi was devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and about 4,000 out of a total population of 10,000 residents and tourists lost their lives. Most of the island has been restored, although we did see evidence of some continuing reconstruction going on.

Later in the afternoon, we boarded the boat for our return trip to Phuket, a very long 1.5-hour trip. At the pier we were picked up by a van that took the three of us along with another couple back to our respective hotels.

The drive back was death-defying. Bill sat in the front next to the driver, periodically glancing over at him with a combination of amazement and terror in his eyes, and double-checking his own seat belt to ensure that it was securely fastened. Midge and I were in the next row of seats and could not find any seat belts. Fists clenched, our van wove between mopeds, pick-up trucks filled with laborers returning from their workday, open-air school buses, and an assortment of dilapidated cars and trucks. There appear to be no rules. We saw tiny tots riding on mopeds, held in the arms of the drivers; neither child nor adult wore helmets. Young girls no older than 13 or 14 were driving, and our van frequently crossed over the solid center line and miraculously the oncoming vehicles parted for us. We drove at breakneck speed, weaving in and out and coming within inches of other vehicles. When we finally reached our hotel, I didn’t know whether to thank our driver or give him the finger. We ran straight to the bar in the lobby and ordered drinks, toasting our good fortune to be alive.


Today I had a massage. Midge and I went into town to do a little exploring and shopping, and I came upon a very nice looking massage parlor. So without much pre-meditation, I followed the young lady in after committing to a one-hour massage for $9. This was the first time for me so I was slightly apprehensive. But I now know that I could get used to this. I had the whole thing – full-body with oils. Perhaps I will consider a lip and eyeliner tattoo next. How great it would be to never again have to apply eyeliner or lipstick. And if I were here longer, I could have my teeth whitened, a little cellulite removed, and a new wardrobe tailored just for me. All for just a mere fraction of what it would cost at home.

So, in a totally relaxed state of well-being, we took an open-air “taxi” back to the hotel. This time, the traffic and driving didn’t bother me even one bit. I changed into my bathing suit and went down to the beach for a dunk in the warm water. The water is aqua and the sand is white and as smooth as talcum powder. Simply glorious.

Now I’m getting ready to go to the hotel’s ceremony in honor of the King’s birthday. When we were in town, there was a huge parade in his honor. It looked like all of the Thai population was marching in it. Very festive. So it is important that we, too, pay our respects and honor the King as a thank-you for our enjoyable stay in his country.

Altar to Celebrate the Birthday of the King of Thailand

Altar to Celebrate the Birthday of the King of Thailand

So at 7:20 pm we set out for the lobby to honor the king. A big space had been set up for all the guests (about 50 or 60) and something similar to what I would call an altar had been set up to the king. It consisted of several long white and gold tables stacked up about 4 feet high. On the top table was a large photo of the King in a very ornate frame. This is the same photo we have seen throughout our time in Thailand–in restaurants, on billboards, at traffic circles, at the entrance to the beach, and on many buildings. As I said, he is turning 86 but this photo looks like it was taken when he ascended to the throne at age 19. Also on the “altar” were many flowers and the flag of Thailand. Next to the altar was a large TV screen broadcasting the ceremonies taking place on Bangkok. We imagine the entire country is pausing at this time.

When the ceremony started, we were asked to stand and face the photo. The hotel staff stood in the front row and we were behind them. Then we were each given a sheet with the words to a song we would sing and a candle, which the staff lit one by one. Once all the candles were lit, we watched the televised ceremony from Bangkok with speeches by the Prime Minister and other dignitaries. Finally the speeches ended and we all joined together in song–“Kor de cha ong phar pha muk phummiphol Mingkwan Poungchon….” and so on. At the end of the song, the candles were extinguished and everyone started to leave, big smiles on their faces.

The “altar” was still there this morning, the King’s youthful face looking out at us as we left.

Click here to read Day 1 and 2 in Siem Reap, Cambodia





Elizabeth von Pier

Elizabeth von Pier

Elizabeth von Pier is a retired banker who has traveled extensively around the world. As she travels, she writes travelogues and sends them to friends and family as a way of keeping in touch with them and also as a way of recording her adventures. Ms. von Pier lives in Hingham, Massachusetts and has been published in and Journey Woman.


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