Phuket is often called 'The Pearl of the Andaman' but did you know that pearls are actually cultivated here? We decided to find out more through booking a tour that took in two islands and a pearl farm.
The waters to the east of Phuket are sanctuaries of peace. The many attractive limestone islands dotted throughout Phang Nga Bay are famous for such well-known tourist attractions as James Bond Island (Ko Tapu) and fascinating 'hongs' or caves to explore by kayak. This area, although only minutes away from Phuket's west coast, has a character of its own.
Our speedboat's twin 200cc Yamaha engines roar into life and we gently pull away from the jetty at Phuket's east coast Boat Lagoon. Soon we're leaving a snow-white wake behind us as we zoom out in Sapam Bay towards Rang Yai Island.
It only takes 15 minutes and as the speedboat edges up to a raft our guide Ot explains that he wants to show us some oysters. We all clamber aboard the raft and Ot, displaying incredible balance, casually steps out onto some struts.
He then pulls a series of oysters on a length of string out of the water and gives us what is essentially a preamble to our afternoon's tour. "It takes two years for these pearls to cultivate," he says, adding that these are half-pearls, not fully rounded and are used for earrings. But more on that later.
We speed off south and 25 minutes later we disembark at Ko Khai (Egg Island). This is a well-frequented spot and there are a lot of people in deck chairs grabbing some rays while a group of lads hold an impromptu wrestling match near the water.
Still others are browsing the bamboo-and-thatch shops selling souvenirs and beachwear. Ice cream hawkers weave between the chairs announcing their wares in a sing-song voice while in the background the waves crash on the incredibly white beach.
The biggest attractions by far are the shoals of fish that swim between waders' feet on the south side.
Pearl Farm Tour
Visitors drop crusts of bread in the clear water and the fish jump on the food in a swirling mass of bubbles and colours, making for a great photo opportunity.
There's a deliciously cool breeze in the air and we decide to take a stroll to the north side. One thing you should realise to get a realistic feel of this place is that Ko Khai is small. It's about the size of a large football field and to fit a small dive centre, a massage place, several restaurants and shops as well as several sets of deck chairs you've got to be clever with space. Still, the north side is uncrowded and the views out over southern Phang Nga Bay unhindered.
Pearls from the Orient
Ot is handing out complementary chicken sandwiches and soft drinks and he's got quite a few takers as the brisk sea air results in quite an appetite. At midday we board the speedboat and roar back to Rang Yai where we file into a cool room displaying pearls in various stages of growth.
As our shipmates and fellow day trippers are from Russia, a blonde girl with a decidedly laconic outlook on life gets up and explains the life and times of Komrad Pearl. Basically, there are three different types of pearls: Akoya, Mabe and South Sea and all are cultivated on Rang Yai.
Akoya, as the name suggests, is originally a Japanese pearl and is small and dainty – used for earrings and bracelets. Akoya only produce one pearl and that takes two years to grow.
Pearl Farm Tour
South Sea pearls are the biggest pearls and produce three pearls over a lifetime of 15 years whereas Mabe come in a half global shape and are used for earrings and pendants. There are both fresh and seawater pearls cultivated on Rang Yai Island and the seawater pearls are rounder than their freshwater equivalents.
It's easy to tell whether pearls are fake or not: simply rub them together. If you feel resistance and if the pearls feel like they are scratching each other they're real. Fake pearls offer no resistance.
After the demonstration some people went directly to purchase pearl artefacts at the neighbouring gift shop and I went looking for an English-Russian dictionary.
The immaculately clean buffet is a hive of activity as visitors to the island help themselves to the buffet lunch. There's chicken and cashew nuts; fish in piquant sweet sauce, onion rings in batter, breaded chicken and spicy seafood soup (Tom Yam).
The background music is upbeat and it's a great place to chill out at so some people decide to order beer and settle in for the early afternoon. Others borrow a bicycle from the sports centre and ride around the island while others head for the deck chairs in the shade of the seaside trees to have a nap.
There's a lot to do here on Rang Yai; there's a handsome mini golf course underneath nodding palms; a camping site; an airgun shooting range; a volleyball court; kayaking; snorkelling and smaller activities such as darts. Visitors who come on a tour do not have to pay for these activities (excepting airgun ammunition). The staff at Rang Yai can also organise an exciting paintball competition and as there are 40 members of staff things are very well handled. Rang Yai also plays host to corporate events and team building activities and is the perfect venue for a romantic moonlit dinner.
The beach is perfect to get some exercise on and not far from the restaurant lies a line of beachfront bamboo bungalows with a decidedly 'back to nature' feel to them. They're called 'Rim Talay' which means 'by the sea' and there simply couldn't be a more tranquil spot with the only noise being the gentle lapping up of the waves on the shore, not ten metres away. This is where tranquillity reigns and the flash and brash razzle that is Patong seems light years away.
After soaking up the sun and taking a brisk walk along the shoreline as well as a short ride around on one of the bikes it's time to head back to the speedboat and enjoy a breezy ride back to the boat lagoon. We're back at the hotel by six 'o clock to enjoy an evening out.
It's been an educational and entertaining day – not too strenuous and certainly not boring. Rang Yai Island is a pearl in Phang Nga Bay well worth visiting.