Phuket’s dirty little secret is the rainy season isn’t all that rainy. In fact, with cheaper flights, great deals on accommodations and monsoons bringing in big swells, it’s a great time to explore the western beaches.
Any list of Southeast Asia surf spots will include Bali tubes and island hopping in Indo. Intrepid travelers may scribble down Sri Lanka or even Papua New Guinea, but jot down Thailand, and you’ll draw some raised eyebrows. Beautiful beaches and great scuba diving? Thailand definitely has both. Delicious sweat-inducing cuisine and sunburned Speedo-wearing Europeans? No doubt. But surf?
Ten years ago finding people riding waves in Thailand would have been rare. Today, Cobra, the world’s largest surfboard manufacturer, churns out high performance epoxy boards for brands such as Surftech from their factory near Pattaya. Production costs have more to do with the location than the quality of the waves, but although Thailand doesn’t get as consistently big as the heavy hitters, it does get its share of small, fat waves, great for longboarding and beginners looking for some relaxed holiday fun.
Thailand’s western coast gets enough waves to attract a sizeable surf contingency, with the most popular spots found on Phuket. Regulars in the water are a mix of Thais and ex-pats who have become part of the now large foreign community. The biggest swells arrive from May to September during monsoon season when rain showers can also be common; however, it also means it’s the slow season in Phuket, so there aren’t nearly as many tourists, hotel staff can be friendlier and there are some great deals to be had.
While Japanese salary men, like the ones swilling whiskey on our direct flight from Haneda to Phuket, flock to Patong for golf tours and other entertainment, Kata Beach, about 45 minutes southwest, has a much more laid back feel.
Surf and Sand
Kata Beach is actually two beaches separated by a headland. If you walk or motor up the hill behind the south side of the beach, there is a lookout where you can see, from north to south, Kata Noi, Kata Yai and then Karon further north. Kata Noi is smaller and quieter, with the Katathani Resort nestled just behind the beach.
The beach breaks here are for more experienced surfers, as the undertow can be strong with the best waves peeling off the northern headland. In the mornings, you’ll see a mix of locals and experienced tourists out for a paddle. There is a hut on the north end of the beach that rents boards at reasonable prices, and there are other options at the hotels.
On the other side of the point is Kata Yai. This big, half-moon beach is the place for beginners and weekend warriors. Because the waves are fairly consistent, it’s been the venue for international competitions, and even in low season it can get pretty crowded, but if you head out early, you’re likely to get some waves to yourself.
Rental boards are available on the beach or at a shop in town for about ¥400 / hour, ¥1,000 / half-day, ¥1,200 / full-day, but note the shops usually don’t open until 9 a.m., so if you want to get in an early session, ask to rent a board for a day or two.
With all the tourists, the atmosphere here is relaxed and friendly, and there are some great places to enjoy dinner or drinks while taking in the beautiful sunset. The laid back Ska Bar, set into the rocks on the south side of the beach, is a great place to chill out with a cold drink after a day in the water.
Kata has a wide range of guesthouses, boutique hotels, even a Club Med in the neighborhood. The farther you get from the beach, the less you can expect to spend, and with scooters available for ¥500 a day, it’s easy to get around. If you are planning a surf trip, the surf shops can arrange accommodations and might offer some breaks on rentals as well.
There are some high-end places on the beaches, but the prized piece of property in Kata sits on the headland separating Kata’s two white sand beaches. Mom Tri’s Royale Villa looks down upon the azure waters of the Andaman Sea, with a clear view of Kata Noi, the smaller, quieter beach to the south.
While reading up on Kata before leaving Japan, we noticed Mom Tri’s name kept popping up with rave reviews. The name elicited the image of a large, stern-faced Thai woman reigning over her place with an iron spoon.
Yet, Mom Tri is short for Mom Luang Tridhosyuth Devakul, a Harvard-educated artist and architect who helped pioneer the development of Phuket and the Kata area going back to the 1970s. After getting his degree in architecture, he was invited by a relative to build a small hotel on Kata Beach, so he headed down to have a look.
“There was nothing in this whole area… nothing on the west coast existed,” he said. “It was fantastic. And so, I sort of enjoyed it here for myself for eight years, just beach combing and sharing the beach with all these naked hippies.”
In the meantime, he fell in love with Phuket and realized the beaches were too beautiful to be kept a secret for much longer. While working on some groundbreaking projects such as Club Med and Le Méridien, he also built himself a house on the hillside between Kata Yai and Kata Noi; it was a simple thatched-roof bungalow at first but, over the years, he kept building additions to his personal retreat.
Today, Mom Tri’s Villa Royale consists of 40 suites and welcomes guests from around the world who come to enjoy the same calm and tranquility Mom Tri found here. Mom Tri is a descendent of King Monkut Rama IV, so the royal moniker doesn’t just allude to the treatment you’ll receive here.
His boutique hotel is unpretentiously, yet tastefully, decorated with lots of rich woods and authentic Thai antiques and art that feel thoughtfully selected. The architecture and room layouts are simple, yet elegantly designed, and there is just an underlying calm and comfort. He also recently opened five exclusive Ocean Wing Suites for guests who require even more privacy.
Breakfasts on the terrace, as sea breezes blow in off the Andaman Sea, are magical and, if you stay a few days, you end up sharing a few meals with new friends in this intimate setting. There are nooks around the property where you can spend all afternoon lost in a book and the sounds of the waves crashing against the rocks. You can see why a number of authors have taken up residency over the years while working on projects.
Many people visit Mom Tri’s just to dine at Mom Tri’s Kitchen, the Wine Spectator award-winning restaurant. The Thai and European dishes are exquisitely prepared at surprisingly reasonable prices considering the fanfare the place receives. However, you can go as crazy on the wine list as your wallet allows.
Beyond the Beach
Kata Town is a fun place to explore as well. There is some good, cheap Thai food in town, plenty of western, European and Asian restaurants at various price ranges and even some festive bars along the main road going north toward Karon. You can relax at one of the spas, get tangled up in a Thai massage, drop in one of the Thai boxing gyms or spend hours wandering the streets shopping for keepsakes.
If you feel the need to ride an elephant, you can take a lumbering tour at one of the jungle safaris up on the hill or even rent an ATV. Hiring car, motorbike or bicycle is a great way to explore the peninsula and the south at your own pace, where you may just discover your own secret spot.
Surf Shop Nautilus
Board rentals, repairs and lessons right on the beach across from the Ska Bar. They also can arrange accommodations.
Located in town, Phuket Surf offers private lessons for less than ¥4,000, surf school camps, arrange accommodations, and they run The Tube Surf Bar & Restaurant, a friendly place down the street from their shop.
Top class accommodations and award-winning restaurants in Kata Beach.
Mom Tri’s Villa Royale: www.villaroyalephuket.com
Mom Tri’s Kitchen: www.momtriphuket.com
Surf forecasts for Phuket and Kata Beach
Siam Bike Tours
If the surf isn’t up, or you just want to explore the area on your own two wheels, Siam Bike Tours is conveniently located in Kata. Join a tour or rent one of their well-maintained bikes and go out for a spin. If you aren’t used to the heat, bring plenty of water. www.siambiketours.com