More than three years on, the resort island of Phuket, on the west coast of Thailand, is nearly fully recovered from the devastating 2004 tsunami. In the beach areas of Patong, Karon and Kata, the ubiquitous shops, stalls, tailors, bars, restaurants and tattoo parlors are all in full swing, and tourist numbers have returned to pre-tsunami levels. Trees along Phuket's beachfront will take longer to recover, but the overall visual impression is good.
There are plenty of hotels and resorts along Phuket's beaches. The range of accommodations is endless, from top-end resorts such as Le Meridien and Hilton Phuket Arcadia at Karon Beach and Kata Beach Resort to a plethora of apartments, beach cottages and even rooms in private homes.
There is a Club Med Phuket at Kata Beach, and the Novotel Phuket Resort, at the northernmost end of the beaches, commands fantastic views over the action; its Thai buffet alone merits a visit.
Karon and Kata beaches are quiet, attracting couples and families. Lounge chairs with colorful umbrellas are in big demand as tourists take a relaxing break from dips in the warm waters or indulge in a massage from masseuses patrolling the beaches. Tuk tuk taxis are cheap and convenient ways of getting between beach locations.
Phuket is the jumping-off point for a number of half- and one-day excursions. The popular tour to Ko Tapu, better known as James Bond Island -- the 1974 Bond film "The Man With the Golden Gun" was shot there -- in Phang Nga Bay starts with a bus ride to the top of Phuket Island, affording glimpses of local village life away from the gaudy resort areas.
A stop is made at the Monkey Cave Temple, with a 50-foot, reclining Buddha inside and many monkeys outside, pestering tourists for bananas and other food scraps. A relaxing ride in a longboat past towering rocky outcrops brings passengers to James Bond Island, its beauty spoiled by a cluster of tacky souvenir stalls. The return trip stops at Koh Pannyi, a floating fishing village populated by some 1,300 people of mainly Indonesian origin.
The incredibly beautiful Phi Phi Islands, in the Andaman Sea halfway between Phuket and Krabi, is a popular destination for the scenery and snorkeling.
Although there are day trips in larger cruise boats, I would recommend one of the smaller jet boat tours. They can maneuver into small coves, allowing time for snorkeling amid the coral and colorful tropical fish.
Idyllic Maya Beach on Phi Phi Lay Island was the location for the 2000 drama "The Beach," starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The cruises stop at Phi Phi Don for lunch and shopping. This island, too, is slowly recovering from the tsunami to regain its reputation as a place to get away from it all.