Ominous black thunderheads stand piled up high overhead, soft explosions of lightning deep within. Tucked away in among the hills, here on Phuket, newly planted rice paddies glow an improbably vivid green in the darkening calm before the storm. Tall palms sway in anticipation of the downpour to come, its arrival heralded by sudden hard gusts of wind. Enormous stands of bamboo rattle quick tattoos against one another and banana plants flap their fronds in dishevelled alarm just before the skies, with a crack of thunder, finally split open.
For an hour and more the rain comes down in torrents, all but erasing the island from view. Then it tapers to a drizzle, the winds easing to a fresh breeze. Finally it stops, and the sun finds its way through a hole in the clouds to flash on irrigation ditches full to overflowing, on temple roofs scaled in bright orange and green, on palm fronds wet from the rain and brilliant against the torn black remnants of the monsoon storm.
Like polished pebbles and seashells along the seashore, Phuket reveals its richest spectrum of tones and colours when washed by the rains. On this island, just as in the rest of Southeast Asia, the coming of the southwest monsoon has traditionally been cause for celebration. This is a time of renewal, when the rains bring forth new life and security for another year, when the land turns so green it is a feast for both eye and soul. And, in times past, the inhabitants of Phuket celebrated the approach of the southwest monsoon not only for its cooling, life-giving rains but also because its first winds arrived bearing the junks and the dhows of traders from India and Arabia.
Nowadays, however, local people often have more cause to celebrate the end of this season, looking forward instead to a northeast monsoon which comes bearing planeloads of tourists. This is because the west coast is scalloped by the island's most popular beaches -- beaches such as Patong, Kata, Karon, and Nai Harn -- and exposure to the southwest monsoon means that small boats are threatened by sudden squalls and heavy seas.
What Water Activities Can I Do?
Sailing, then, on the exposed west coast is often ill-advised. Diving also can be spoiled by the unpredictability of the seas. Swimming may some days be unpleasant or dangerous, as well, with big waves rolling in unchecked all the way across the Indian Ocean to pound up on the beaches.
And the southwest monsoon, especially from June onwards, brings the rainy season. It isn't as though every day sees rain, however. You can still enjoy a fair share of fine skies and moderate seas. Just as the local fishermen do, simply assess conditions carefully before setting out; there's no reason the southwest monsoon should interfere with a good vacation.
Diving daytrips to destinations such as Koh Racha and Koh Phi Phi are still on. There are even live-aboard dive cruises to the Similan Islands and Trang, given favourable weather reports; it's just that they can't be scheduled with confidence much in advance.
Cruising yachts and day tours from Phuket find sheltered waters for sailingin Phang Nga Bay, surely one of the most memorable natural sights anywhere in the world, where the sea is protected from both northeast and southwest monsoon.
Another way to enjoy Phang Nga Bay is to try "sea-canoeing". Hidden worlds of flora and fauna within some of the islands -- the hong, as they are known to locals -- are accessible only through sea caves at low tide. This is an unforgettable adventure; and, according to the operators of Phuket-based Sea Canoe Thailand, the sense of primordial mystery experienced in the hongs is often even enhanced, given the weather at this time of year.
Gamefishermen are in luck during the tourist low season. The sailfish are practically queuing up to take the hook. And that is not much of an exaggeration -- you often find numbers of them jumping while you're trolling, effectively keeping your appetite for action well whetted. True, at this time of year you may occasionally need a good stomach if you're out on a small boat. But the threat of squalls or high seas needn't be a problem, since the boats can fish in the lee of islands such as Koh Racha Yai, which is where the sailfish are generally feeding in any case. Two- and three-day trips, even all the way down to Koh Rok Nok in the south, are still possible in the southwest monsoon.
Another advantage: because of how Phuket's mountains influence local weather patterns, it can be raining buckets on the island while out on the boat everybody's getting a suntan. So, with any luck at all, you may get both fine weather and lots of sailfish right in the middle of the southwest monsoon.
This season is also the only time surfingmakes sense on Phuket. Water-skiing, on the other hand, is possible year-round, now that a cable water-ski operation is up and running in Kathu, between Phuket Town and Patong Beach.
Rainy Season Land Activities
Even on off days for sea sports there's plenty to do. The Blue Canyon Golf Club, which hosted the Johnnie Walker Black Label Classic tournament, a few years ago, and the Honda Invitational more recently, provides a course of the highest international standard. The Phuket Golf and Country Club, Banyan Tree Club, and Century Club also offer year-round golfing in splendid surroundings.
This might also be a good time to explore the interior of the island. Most of the original jungle has gone the way of the tiger. Mining, agriculture and, most recently, tourism have seen to the gradual destruction of the natural habitat. By now, only about seven percent of the land area is covered with natural forest. The greatest part of that is found in Phuket's Khao Phra Thaeo National Park, where picturesque waterfalls, granite outcrops, gibbons and birds in a setting largely unchanged for millennia give the visitor some idea of what Phuket must have been like in times past.
Phuket is also the base for jungle trekking excursions to the neighbouring mainland. Again, at this time of year the forests are greener, the rivers higher for canoeing or rafting, and the waterfalls are more spectacular. (The terrestrial leeches are also out in force, mind you; but this is only a minor nuisance, since they may be removed by applying anything from suntan oil or insect repellent to a lighted cigarette. Try soaking your socks in insect repellent or tobacco water before setting out.)
Tennis and horseback riding are readily available year-round on Phuket. In one instance, riding stables stand right next door to a well equipped shooting range. If those pursuits seem too tame, try go-kart racing or bungy jumping. Taking the big dive has never been so enjoyable as at Jungle Bungy Jump, between Phuket Town and Patong Beach, where you can also have a meal and a drink in scenic surroundings, the restaurant and bar overlooking a pond over which looms the 53m bungee tower. They also operate a "catapult bungee" in Patong, just outside the Expat Hotel. Of course all the fun isn't to be found out-of-doors. Fine restaurants, bars and discosabound, especially on Patong Beach.
And that's not all. Aside from the gamefishing and surfing and so on, the off season has other advantages. The weather is cooler, for one thing. There are fewer people around, as well, with correspondingly less pressure on accommodation and transportation.
The two monsoons, then, bring different moods to Phuket. In fact, however, in terms of enjoyment at hand there is no such thing as a low season on Phuket.