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Lovely Thai Island Still the Way It Was, Almost : On Phuket, you can sit on a near-deserted beach and devour mangoes or great chunks of fresh fish.

August 08, 1993|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

PHUKET, Thailand — Five years ago, we cautioned that a visit to this gorgeous tropical island off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea should be undertaken before rampant development cleared its mango, guava, papaya, coconut and jackfruit trees, and before sunning bodies clogged its pristine beaches.

Not to worry. Phuket (pronounced poo-KET) is Thailand's largest island, and its sheer size (502 square miles) has kept the new hotels and resorts spread out and reasonably well-hidden. Which isn't to say that Patong, a very popular beach town on the island's west coast, hasn't exploded into a garish crescent of hotels, condos, restaurants serving spaghetti Bolognese and schnitzels, and a proliferation of bars whose army of "hostesses" prey upon tourists.

But, although the tigers and elephants that roamed Phuket's jungles freely in the 19th Century are long gone, it's still possible to sit on a near-deserted beach beneath a palm-frond hutch and devour great chunks of fresh fish or grilled local lobster with your bare hands. Or to sail to one of the smaller islands forming a halo around Phuket for a day or longer, far from the crowds. Apart from Phuket Town, Patong and a few developed beach resorts, the island is made up of tin-roofed towns and villages that seem locked in the previous century.

Thailand's first kingdom was established in the 13th Century. The country was known as Siam until the 1940s. Phuket was just a tin-rubber-coconut island until the 1970s, when foreign visitors began to take notice of its incredibly blue water, lovely landscape and friendly islanders. That's when island fathers realized that the cash flow from coconuts couldn't match that of tourism, and the big push for more visitors was on.

If you're looking for a beautiful island that's almost the way it was, try to get here before the dew is off the fruit trees. Only, bear in mind that tourism is already booming in these parts.

Getting settled: Pearl Village is a spread-out affair near the airport on the north part of the island. Its lovely tropical grounds are right on the beach of Nai Yang National Park, with a small canal weaving through the palm trees and shrubbery. It's a beautiful setting; Sports Illustrated shot its annual swimsuit edition there a few years ago.

The open lobby is a small museum of Thai antiques and brilliantly colored umbrellas from Chiang Mai, in Thailand's far north. All bedrooms have balconies with garden or pool views, and there's a year-round program of water sports, horseback riding, tennis and children's activities. We really liked Pearl Village, particularly the open, over-water restaurant.

Patong Beach's Phuket Cabana resort manages to keep itself separated from the town's hurly-burly at its seaside location. The place is all done in Thai style with lots of rattan and breezeways, and each unit has its own front porch or balcony. The hotel will pick up clients from the airport.

The pool is a step from the marvelous beach, and bar and terrace dining are beneath the swaying palms. There's lots of windsurfing and other water sports.

On the small bay of Nai Harn Beach at the southern tip of the island, the Phuket Yacht Club resort is the stuff of dreams, built upon a lush hillside overlooking the water. Each room has a spacious and secluded terrace rimmed with bougainvillea and tropical flowers, a great place for breakfast or evening drinks.

The club's Chart Room has fine Thai dining and nightly entertainment, and there are several other bars and dining rooms inside and out. A sleek catamaran owned by the club is available to charter for day and overnight cruising, including full meals aboard or picnics on nearby islands.

Regional food and drink: Malay-type satays are a big favorite here, either chicken or pork, usually served with a torrid sauce of local red peppers or ground peanuts. Goong sou-sa is a dish of enormous prawns sauteed in yet another pepper sauce, and the squid with garlic also struck our fancy with a resounding but pleasant jolt. Hottest of the hot is tom yum gai , a chicken soup flavored with lemon grass, peppers and sometimes mixed with coconut milk.

Wash all this down with Singha, an excellent Thai beer, even with Phuket's glorious lobsters.

Good local dining: Our second visit to Kan Eang Chalong (Chalong Bay), one of the island's best seafood places, was just as happy as the first. Dine at one of a series of thatched huts right on the sand, served by waitresses in native costume, and watch each dish being cooked outdoors. You may also watch the lights of sea-gypsy fishermen, Phuket's oldest inhabitants, as they net the bay's luscious bounty.

Go for the local specialties of goong sou-sa ($2.40), beef man-jou fried at the table ($3.20) or crab in coconut curry Phuket-style ($2.30). The local grilled whitefish, mong, is superb.

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