No place screams TROPICAL VACATION quite like the Philippines. We island hopped around Coron and El Nido on the island of Palawan for 10 days and came away tan, tired, and completely blissed out.Read More
I’ll start by saying that it’s largely chance that brought us to Phuket. MJ and I were ready to write off Phuket as a tourist-heavy, crowded beach with little to do other than party. Given that we were headed to Ko Phi Phi immediately after to do just that, we almost skipped Phuket all together.
In the end, I’m glad we didn’t.
Phuket is one of the bigger islands off of Southern Thailand and there are many ways to see it. Here’s our take.
I know, I know, starting with the obvious here.
Patong Beach is without a doubt the most famous beach and tourist attraction on Phuket Island. This city is a haven for backpackers is probably one of the best places to meet and party with your fellow budget travelers.
The place essentially is a 24/7 happy hour.
There are no shortage of bars and clubs on Patong Beach. As soon as the sun goes down, head to Bangla Road and duck into any one of the tens of bars and restaurants offering food, seemingly endless happy hour deals, and live entertainment.
Not sure where to start your night? We stayed at Slumber Party Backpackers in Patong, which offers amazingly comfortable rooms and a different party itinerary for every night of the week. If you happen to wander over on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday, join their pub crawl and see how long you can keep up (spoiler alert: I personally did not impress anyone).
What else is there to do other than party? Patong Beach is the perfect place to lay out for a nap (go on, you’ve earned it), grab an icy fruit juice (COCONUT!), or even give parasailing a try.
Still not tired? Check out Patong’s night market for some of the most delicious and cheap eats you’ll find in the city.
All right, so maybe you’re a little partied out and are looking for a more relaxing place to spend your time in Phuket. Allow me to direct your attention to…
Kata Beach is yet another stunningly beautiful beach town about 25-30 minutes south of Patong Beach. While it’s also got its fair share of tourists and nightlife, Kata is definitely the calmer of the two.
You’ll have more room on the beach, less noise at night, and less traffic on the road if you’re looking to explore the city on foot, something I didn’t get to do but a friend highly recommended.
After a few crazy nights in Patong, Kata was the perfect place to wind down with a beer on the beach at sunset.
Getting to Komodo
Getting to Komodo is as easy as a short flight from Denpasar to Labuan Bajo Airport (LBJ). The main downtown area is just 10 minutes away. You will be bombarded by eager taxi drivers upon exiting the airport - any driver is good, but don’t pay more than 50,000 rupiah.
The main road of Jl. Soekarno Hatta is right on the water. We stayed in Bajo Nature Backpackers, but there are loads of options. Take a walk along the main drag when you get there to browse some dive shops for packages you’re interested in.
Among the many reasons to fly out to Komodo, we were compelled by the marine wonders within the national park. We chose to go on a day trip with a company our friend recommended, Dive Komodo. In addition to day trips, they also offer overnights and multi-day trips for those who would like to spend more time underwater. When you book your trip, you'll also give them Rp 150,000 per person for the National Park entry fee (one-day general entry).
On certain days, they can also arrange for an afternoon “dragon trekking” adventure on one of the islands. It takes a considerable amount of time to get out to the national park from Labuan Bajo, so if you have a limited amount of time, consider opting to see the dragons on the same day you go diving.
As is usual with diving, expect to get on the boat around 7am. The ride out to the dive sites takes about two hours. The early morning makes for some beautiful lighting, so be sure to sit up top where you can watch the passing boats as your cruise among the islands.
Our first dive was at the Coral Gardens. You descend into an wide open sand field and work your way towards the coral on the far edge. Along the way, you’ll probably spot some camouflaged sea rays, rogue upside-down jellies, and maybe some ornate pipefish in the sand. Once you’re in the coral garden, keep your eye out for turtles munching on the patches of sea grass!
Diving with Manta Rays
Upon begging and pleading, our guides agreed to take us to Manta Point for our second dive. Like any creature of the natural world, you’re not guaranteed to see manta rays, but diving at one of their cleaning stations gives you a good chance. Lucky for us, there were four. We spent the entire dive parked on the sandy slope watching the mantas glide through the waters - a truly magical experience.
Expect to return ashore around 5pm. You’ll head back to the dive shop, log all your dives on paper, and maybe book a second day of diving if you’ve really been enchanted.
Komodo National Park
Komodo National Park was established in 1980, and soon became a World Heritage Site in 1986. The park is a total of 1,817 square kilometers, including both terrestrial habitats and a marine park. The five main islands of the park are Komodo, Rinca, Padar, Gili Mota, Nusa Kode.
The climate of Komodo is mainly hot and dry with less than 800mm of rainfall per year. November is the hottest month of the year, while most rain falls between December and March during the northwest monsoon season. As a result of the particularly dry conditions, over 70% of the park is open savanna habitat consisting of tall grasses, and twiggy shrubs. Other than Komodo dragons, the park is home to 276 other species.
Komodo National Park is the only place in the world where the dragons can be found, on the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motang, and a small part of western Flores. Sadly, they recently went extinct on Padar. Most companies will take you to Komodo or Rinca to see the dragons.
Reminiscent of dragons from high school biology class, Komodo dragons are the largest living species of lizard on the planet. They have no natural predators, which allows for their huge size of up to 90kg, and lifespan of 50 years or more. Dragons are cold-blooded so they need to lay out in the sun to regulate their body temperature. They are most active during the morning and afternoons, but not during the peak heat of the day as they have no method to cool down (we can sweat, they cannot).
Individual dragons are typically solitary, only becoming social during mating and feeding. When Komodo dragons need to eat, which is about once a week, they use strategy to take down the perfect meal. One dragon will attack a chosen deer, water buffalo, or sweaty tourist. The prey will effectively make an escape after being bitten, but with little hope of survival. Dragon saliva has high levels of lethal bacteria that infiltrates the battle wound. A few days later, the prey will die of infection, exhaustion, starvation, or most likely: a combination of all three. The dragon, having stalked the prey since the attack, now has dinner on a silver platter. Most large prey species can feel multiple dragons. So in general, when a prey is felled, there is a jurassic-park-esque buffet-style feeding frenzy where a who pack of dragons tears into a sweaty tourist. KIDDING - it’s very safe to see the dragons.
Make sure you go with a park ranger. They know what they’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing, and this is their home to show you. It costs about Rp 80,000, which really isn’t much to ask. You can either add it onto a dive trip for the afternoon, or you can book and entire day adventuring one of the islands.
We opted for just an hour or two on Rinca, and we had more than enough time to observe the local dragons. The trekking loop brought us through some of the forested areas, across the shrubby plains, and up the main peak for a stunning view of the surrounding area.
There were many things that inspired us to road trip Australia’s western coast, including the remoteness, the national parks, and the romantic idea of driving an empty road in the desert. No single motivator was quite as strong as the desire to dive Ningaloo Reef in Exmouth.
Exmouth is a tiny, tiny town about 13 hours and 1,247 kilometers north of Perth. It originated as a United States Communication Station in the 1960’s and while the base has since been turned over to the Australian government, the town has been there ever since. Now, Exmouth is famous for one thing and one thing only: some of the best diving in all of Australia, maybe even in the world.
The area garnered this reputation from two key attractions: Ningaloo Reef and the persistent opportunity to dive with whale sharks, which migrate up Australia’s coast through Ningaloo every year between March and September. While we were disappointed to have just missed the chance to see these fantastic giants, we did manage to arrive just in time for sea turtle mating season, which kind of made up for it.
On our way in to town we stopped at our chosen dive shop: Dive Ningaloo. We cannot recommend this company enough - we did a total of five dives with them over the course of three days and loved the experience. We also got the chance to dive Navy Pier with these guys, which is listed as one of the world’s top 10 dive sites (totally deserved).
Navy Pier is a dive site that is directly under and around the jetty on the active military base in Exmouth. Dive Ningaloo has exclusive rights to dive on these premises, another key reason we chose to dive with them. There are many rules and regulations in place due to the nature of the base, so if you choose to do this dive make sure you listen to what they have to say!
The dive is shallow and easy, only about 15 meters, and there isn’t much current. Typically, visibility can be quite low on this shore dive, but we got extremely lucky and had unusually high vis. Before we even could jump in the water we were watching dolphins play around just under the jetty. Then we got to jump in…
No fishing and lack of human visitors has made this dive site truly remarkable in its diversity. In the 45 minutes we were underwater we saw everything from grey reef sharks, sting rays, enormous groupers, fantastically colorful nudibranchs, flat worms, wobbegong sharks, and the largest hawksbill sea turtle any of us, including our guide, had ever seen.
We both agreed it was one of the best dives we had ever done. If you get the chance to dive in Exmouth, DO NOT miss this dive. YOU WILL REGRET IT AND FEEL FOOLISH IF YOU MISS THE CHANCE TO DIVE THIS DIVE. Friendly advice.
Also, keep your eyes open for the BFG (big friendly grouper) who lives under the jetty. This is the single largest fish I have ever seen in my life and he’ll come right up and say hello if you let him.
Our first day trip with Dive Ningaloo was to the Murion Islands. These two deserted islands offer an unbelievable amount of coral, micro life (like our friends the nudibranchs), and tropical fish. We didn’t catch a glimpse of any when we went, but you can also spot big rays and whale sharks out there when it’s the right time of year!
One thing we did manage to see is a ton of turtles. You couldn’t miss them because they were everywhere. Remember how I said it was sea turtle mating season when we went in October/November? The Murion Islands seem to be a personal favorite of theirs. We stopped for lunch and were able to snorkel to the beach to get a glimpse of them up close and it became a game of who could see the most. There must have been over 25 around that beach alone.
Take away: if you visit Exmouth and are bummed that you’ve also just managed to miss whale shark season, stick around for the turtles and they’ll more than make up for it. On our last night in town I managed to get up close and personal with a female digging her nest on the beach near the Jurabi Turtle Centre - it was sensational!
If you do decide to pay the ladies a visit during this season, be respectful and keep noise to a minimum and white lights off. It disturbs them and then you’re that asshole who ruined it for everyone else trying to catch a glimpse of the magic. Don’t be that guy. RED LIGHTS ONLY!!
Aside from the whale sharks cruising through during the winter season, the main diving attraction of Exmouth is definitely Ningaloo Reef. The entire Ningaloo Coast is listed as a protected World Heritage Site and is both the largest fringing coral reef in Australia and the only large reef in the world found so close to land. You can snorkel or dive this reef right from the beach if you want!
The most popular way to see the reef is to hop on a boat for a day (or two) from either Coral Bay or Exmouth. You see slightly different sides to the reef and we were told that you’re more likely to see big mantas from Coral Bay.
We didn’t get to see any of these gentle giants since we got our first stroke of bad luck and had a particularly windy day that made diving too far out in the reef impossible, but we still got an eyeful with sharks, rays, an octopus (!!), and even a sea snake streaking towards the surface above us.
Exmouth is a sensational place to dive and to stay. The town absolutely explodes with activity during peak season, so if you’re interested in heading there during whale shark season make sure you book in advance - it does fill up! As for us, I think it’s safe to say that the only thing we can do, since we missed them this time around, is find our way back to the west coast another time.