Travel: Beyond Phuket 

Southern Thailand is full of lesser-known but intriguing islands and resorts

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"If you Google 'Takuapa' you'll get basically nothing," said an Irish expat in the town of that name on Thailand's Phang-Nga peninsula, north of Phuket.

How wrong he was. In fact Google spits out 690,000 references to Takuapa or Takua Pa - even if a majority are pitches for the luxury resorts that have recently taken root along this western shoreline of mainland Phang-Nga province.

But his point was that this long-established town, known for its historic Chinese-shop houses and handsome teak buildings introduced during the tin-mining era of the 19 th century, is not Phuket. In fact, an hour to the south we had left Phuket Island, with its spectacular beaches and tourism scene, for this lesser known area of southern Thailand.

Well, we did return to Phuket to dine at Baan Ram Pa, a celebrated seafood restaurant in the swinging Patong Bay area. Seems that the Baan Ram Pa, sitting high on the rocks, lost some of its protruding balconies in the tsunami, while adjacent sea-level eateries, Joe's Downstairs and Da Maurizio, were partially or entirely destroyed.

Then, for the time being, we left Phuket behind.

From Takuapa we continued north to Khao Lak and a resort called The Sarojin (named for a mythical Thai woman). The Sarojin proved an enticing spread of well-appointed residences and myriad indulgences. But what intrigued me (here I go again) was the fact that the low-lying resort, set among salt-water estuaries and mangrove forest, had been ready to open one week after the earthquake-tsunami hit on Dec. 26, 2004.

One wave washed right through the site (it opened 11 months later). And while no one was killed at the resort, this low-lying Khao Lak region was particularly hard hit, with more loss of life than on Phuket. Embedded into a nearby hillside is a huge police boat that was buffeted what seems like a kilometre inland. It remains a memorial to the more than 5,000 people killed in Thailand alone.

While the nearby Similan and Surin Islands are famous dive sites, we drove on north to the mangrove swamps, where a local boatman (absolutely no English spoken here) took us for a spin. Our smallish long-tail boats glided or sped through a dense tropical forest rich with overhanging flora, flocks of unfamiliar birds and otter-like marine creatures.

Dinner back at the Sarojin was a spectacular affair on the beach, with waves washing underfoot and chefs manning a series of food stations serving, well, just about anything you wanted. Afterwards, we lit and released huge paper lanterns, and watched as they appeared smaller and smaller, before burning out in the cosmos.

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