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Back in time: A visit to Phuket in 1976

PHUKET: Englishman Eric Walker first came to Phuket with his wife Lily in 1976. What they saw and experienced so delighted them that the couple, from the island of Jersey, have come back every winter since then, always staying in the same hotel, the Pearl on Montri Rd in Phuket Town.

Thursday 3 January 2013, 03:46PM


Mr Walker, who served in the British forces in Italy, Greece and France in World War II – he is the last of the British soldiers who liberated the Channel Islands from the Germans – is now 89 years old.

This year, he says, is probably the last time he will come here. “Travelling is just getting too difficult.” Here, he tells of his and Lily’s first delightful visit to the island, a trip very different from the one visitors today experience.

 

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It was 1976. My wife and I were holidaying in Bangkok when a chance encounter with a reporter from the Siam Travel News changed our lives.

He had just returned, he said, from the grand opening of the Pearl Hotel in Phuket and he was so full of praise for this new hotel and this lovely island that we decided to see if his words were true.

This was more easily decided than done. The bus left Bangkok about 3pm and the journey, I think, was about 15 hours. We were the only tourists aboard.

Late that evening found us in a large car park where the nightly convoy was assembled. I have no idea where this was but everyone had a good meal of rice and crab so it must have been near the sea.

The army were in control, giving everyone a place in the convoy: cars to the front and lorries to the rear. As a passenger bus we had the safest place in the middle. We also had an armed guard. So, with an armoured car in the lead, and permitted to use sidelights only, we took the road to Phuket.

Soon the bus was asleep – until one passenger woke and ran to tell the driver that his bus was on fire.

The driver was not a bit worried. He knew the white stuff was not smoke but fine dust. It was just like a London fog and most unpleasant. My advice: don’t ride in the middle of a convoy.

The dust became really bad when we passed the night’s northbound convoy and we had to stop and clean the air filters on the engine using buckets of water.

I took the opportunity of asking the escorting officer why we could not travel in the daytime. He explained that it was safer at nighttime as the bandits could not shoot so well in the dark. This seemed reasonable.

QSI International School Phuket

Once we were underway again I must have fallen asleep and when I woke we were alone, rolling through green countryside.

At the Pearl Hotel we were most welcomed, with flowers, fruit and lobster for dinner every night. The staff lent us a motorcycle and we soon set about discovering Phuket.

We even took the road to Patong Beach. That was a real adventure – not for the faint-hearted. This road was closed every night.

We heard of an especially beautiful island that was a must-visit. But how to get there? The fishermen of Chalong Bay promised us that if we were able to put together a party of 15 passengers they had the necessary two boats. So we became travel agents and managed to collect some tourists and the money.

Phi Phi Island was well worth the that trouble. Flying fish flew around our boats as we landed at the little fishing village, where the main attraction was a tame fish eagle. The island was so peaceful.

Not so Phuket. Tin was the industry and every possible method was employed to extract it. Bucket dredgers operated day and night in most bays. Suction pumps worked the inland ponds while water jets washed tin from the hillsides.

Even the village ladies joined in this tin rush, panning for tin in the shallow water. Seeing this, I thought I would take a chance to get rich so, borrowing a pan and a leather bag and big hat, I started.

I soon found it was very hot, hard work for very little tin. But all was not lost. When the girls at my wife’s hairdresser had no customers they would sit on the floor with a tray sorting tin from gravel. I joined them but soon discovered this task tedious and not easy money.

So I tried another get-rich idea. At night time we would go along the beach looking for the telltale tracks to lead us to the turtles’ nests where there were lots of eggs – about 120 to a nest. Most shops had the eggs displayed for sale in large glass jars. That is why there are so few turtles today.

The children of Chalong Bay also had a bad idea. They would catch a certain type of fish. These, when put in a jam jar would fight each other. Each child would claim to have the champion fish. I think they also bet on the outcome. This activity would not be approved of today.

We did have one small fright when a policeman ordered us to stop on our motorbike. We had no paperwork or license plate, so I expected trouble. However, after some pleasant conversation I asked, “Why have you stopped us?” He replied, “I just wanted to practice my English.”

Until 1976 we had been world travellers but this visit changed everything. We had found our paradise and have returned to the Pearl Hotel every winter since then.

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