It is paradise: A place so perfect and beautiful it heals your heart and fills you with the burning fire of life from a sun so benevolent everything it touches turns to life and gold. It is Thailand. Phuket Island, Thailand.
A spur of land disjointed from the dog’s leg of the Thai peninsula between Malaysia and Myanmar, Phuket Island is a shining gem brilliant in the golden setting of the Andaman Sea. You will not believe such a place exists. So pristine and idyllic a setting that it has been the focal point of James Bond movies (1974:The Man with the Golden Gun) and a Leonardo Decaprio film called The Beach that dispelled the myth of ultimate paradise. But that movie was fiction, and the place it was filmed is real, and it is here.
Triathlon event producer, athlete agent, general heavy-hitter and multisport bon vivant Murphy Reinschrieber took Hollywood’s lead and came here to stage a race in a place so perfect for our sport it begs one question: Why don’t more people come here to do this race?
2003 was the 10th anniversary of the Laguna Phuket Triathlon. This year the event attracted 405 athletes from 20 countries. The race is a 1.1-mile swim (roughly), 34-mile bike and a 7.4-mile run on Phuket Island beginning and ending in the magnificent resort of Laguna Phuket. The event is produced in cooperation with several agencies promoting tourism in Thailand, on Phuket and within the resort itself and Thai Airways International. As a result the normal logistical concerns over producing a race are non-existent here. The Island wants the race. The Thais want the race. It seems like most of the Island supports the race in some way. I have never seen so many police on a racecourse. The only place I have seen aid stations so well staffed with such well trained volunteers (many of them complete strangers to the sport until race day) is Ironman Hawaii.
How cooperative are the local authorities? Well, put it this way: Two days before the race a group of athletes (including myself) wanted to pre-ride the bike course. Race Director Murphy Reinschrieber had no difficulty arranging a full police motorcade for us complete with Thai Police on BMW motorbikes and police cars with lights flashing. We had a police escort the entire way and a sag vehicle as well. They also closed the freeway and re-routed traffic so we could train on the course. When was the last time you got a presidential escort for a training ride?
The host resort for the event is Laguna Phuket. Laguna Phuket is what happens when a resort is done correctly. It melds well with the environment and only barely “feels” like a resort. I am not a resort person, but it is easy to love this place as an athlete and traveler. It’s perfect for a triathlon. Accommodations are spacious, so luxurious Conde Naste travel magazine voted one of the hotels within Laguna Phuket “The Best Resort in the World”. The service is so impeccable and attentive you understand what it must be like to be a Saudi Prince, British Royalty or some other elite.
I also have to give credit to Deepak Patel of Premium Plus Sports in Chicago, Illinois. I made all my travel arrangements through Premium Plus Sports and recommend them highly. Premium Plus Sports has been dedicated to organizing and providing logistical support at multi-sport events for over 16 years. Patel himself has visited the venues of every race he supports travel too. He is fluent in English, Arabic, Italian and Hindi. Deepak Patel has been in the travel business all his adult life, and he understands the logistics and details involved in athlete travel as well as the unique requirements. Premium Plus Sports arranges complete travel and lodging packages for athletes going to events around the world such as worldwide Ironman events (France, Brazil, New Zealand, etc.), the ITU World Championships and virtually every other high level marathon, triathlon and adventure race around the world. I made one phone call to Deepak Patel (who answers the phone personally) and he made all my travel and lodging arrangements. I made some additional inquiries using Expedia.com and Northwest Airlines as well as another travel agent. Premium Plus Sports was over $300 less expensive than the next closest alternative (which was Expedia.com). They provided extras such as ground floor accommodations (easier when you travel with a bike case), free bike flight on Northwest and Thai airlines, a four star hotel at my layover in Bangkok and even excellent ground transport. It is worth pointing out I received no additional discounts or incentives for writing about Premium Plus Sports. Deepak Patel didn’t even know I intended to do a story on the race.
The trip to Thailand itself is perhaps the only deterrent from Detroit. It is almost exactly half way around the world, 12 hours and one day different on the clock. My flight took me non-stop from Detroit to Tokyo, (13 hours), then Tokyo to Bangkok (7+ hours), a one-day layover for shopping and seeing the legendary Muay Thai (kick boxing) in Bangkok and then an hour and a half flight across the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman Sea and Phuket Island.
Bangkok is, well, Asia. It’s an important place to visit if you intend to see the world before you die (I do). It is a lot of what is good and bad about Asia today. Crowded, polluted, frantic, perpetually in a state of being simultaneously torn down and built up and riding an economy as jumpy as a mongoose fighting a cobra.
But what you learn is that the average Bangkokian loves their country and city, is happy and wants to welcome you to Bangkok and show you everything there is to do and see here. Unlike some urban settings removed from western culture this society seems exclusively friendly. Thais are always smiling. They love to be in your photos and are quick to lend a hand with detailed directions even over a fifty-foot language barrier. They are passionate about their food and tireless in being sure you experience the culture to the fullest. Their hospitality is second to none I have experienced around the world.
Bangkok Airport can be a bit tricky to negotiate though. It is an old airport with antiquated security, small elevators, poor signage and long lines. Patience and a sense of humor serve you well in your transit through Bangkok International.
Adjacent to Bangkok International was my headquarters for my almost one-day expedition to Bangkok, The Airport Amari Hotel. It is a fine but unremarkable four star hotel with a courteous and enthusiastic staff roughly equivalent to a U.S. Hyatt. Once I got a shower in Bangkok it was time for some Thai food, a shopping trip and then the spectacle of the Muay Thai tournament.
Shopping in Bangkok is incredible. Thailand is the manufacturing origin for companies like Nike and The North Face. The goods are sold here in huge malls at prices that range from normal U.S. retail (when you do the conversion from the Thai baht) to nearly free. I bought Nike sandals for the Thai equivalent of $6 U.S. I saw clothing discount 96%. The volume of goods is incredible, far too much to cover in even a week. Counterfeit goods are sold alongside the genuine articles, often produced in the same manufacturing facilities and sold “out the side door”. Curiously, the counterfeits are labeled as such to avoid confusion. Thai retailers often refer to them as “reproductions” or “tributes”. But the preponderance of stuff being sold is the real thing: Nike shoes never seen in the U.S., new 2004 The North Face apparel, all the designer stuff I’m not into, an amazing array of stuff. Retail stores vary from street vendors and warehouses with long tables randomly stacked with stuff in no particular order to beautiful, state-of-the-art brand concept stores with amazing lighting, polite, soft spoken staff and piped in techno-trance muzak.
But the main spectacle for a one-day layover in Bangkok is the ancient Muay Thai martial arts matches. Muay Thai is the original kick-boxing martial art. It is a brutal spectacle, barely an update over the gladiatorial combat of ancient Rome. Two diminutive athletes, neither tipping the scales much above 120 pounds in the best matches, enter the ring and (following a protracted ritual) proceed to beat and kick the down-south shit out of each other. Although there seems to be some administration of “rules” it is basically anything goes. Kicks and punches are merely precursors to the deathblows dealt by knees and elbows. A strategic, lightening fast knee to an opponent’s face sends him whip-lashing to the floor spraying an arc of blood above the ring. Thousands in the smoke choked, sold-out packed house erupt in maddened frenzy, chanting and jumping, bookies shout unintelligible commentary into four cell phones simultaneously cupped in their hands. It is bedlam. I’ll be the first to tell you the brutality and overall “weirdness” of this is overwhelming, but it is so “real” you can’t help but be awestruck. It is an ancient, raw ritual: Violent, primitive and unflinching. Nothing like this could exist in the U.S. It is too insane.
Following my spectacle in Bangkok I am greeted upon landing on Phuket Island by a neatly dressed young Thai in a lapel-less suit, the kind villains in James Bond movies wear. I am no more than four steps out of the jetway:
“Ahh, good morning Mr. Dem-mahr-yee. Was your trip of pleasants? I have arranged for your baggage- it is already in the car. This way please…”
I am ushered to a waiting black Mercedes “E” Class. My bike case and duffel have already been secreted into the boot. I am seated in the left rear, like a German bank president, adjacent to my driver in the right hand drive Benz.
“You are at the Hotel Allamanda? We will be there in twenty minutes Mr. Dem-mahr-yee.”
My driver delivers me to a comfortable seat in the reception area of the Hotel Allamanda inside Laguna Phuket. An attentive Thai waitress brings me a glass of juice laced with honey as a concierge issues my room key and gives me a map tour of the grounds including the lagoons, pools, restaurants, water taxis, beaches and elephant trails. I don’t even see my bike case or duffel. It just materializes in the living room of my condo when the concierge opens the door.
Left to my condo the concierge politely excuses himself, but before he does, asks, “May we get you a kayak, sailing boat or riding elephant for this afternoon Mr. Dem-mahr-yee?”
“Ah, no sir, I am preparing for the race this afternoon, thank you…”
“Very well then Mr. Dem-mahr-yee, and my wish to you on a good birthday Mr. Dem-mahr-yee. Welcome to Phuket Island.…”
The man disappears and I am left to explore Phuket Island.
Phuket Island is a small, 502 square mile jungle island ringed mostly by white sand beaches hemmed with graceful palms. The center of the island is home to short, steep jungle hills and rubber plantations. The triathlon bike course crosses three of the steepest, the lair of the dreaded “Tiger’s Back” on the outer rim of the rubber plantations. The majority of the course is easy- except that it is contested in the environmental Asian blast furnace that is Phuket in November. Temperatures routinely crack 98-100 degrees Fahrenheit with 100% humidity. There is no breeze through the dense jungle, but stiff sea-headwinds on the roads around the rubber plantations. But to finish the bike course and graduate to the scorching run you must first ride the “Tiger’s Back”.
The “Tiger’s Back” is, like the shoulders of the predatory jungle cat’s back, a series of three difficult climbs that begin at exactly 8 kilometers on the bike course and lasts until 15 kilometers. And exactly like riding on a tiger’s back, if you make one slip on this steaming jungle road, it will bite you. One descent is so harrowing it is neutralized by a crowd of yellow-flag waving race marshals and marked on the pavement as a “no-racing zone” where racers must place their hands on their brake levers, are not allowed to overtake other riders and cannot exceed 20 kilometers per hour. The hills are steep and difficult, rivaling the toughest climbs in triathlon anywhere in the world. St. Croix has “The Beast”, Ironman has “Pay N’ Save Hill”; Laguna Phuket has “The Tiger’s Back”. Race instructions specified a minimum 39/23 low gear for “Tiger’s Back”. I used a 39/23 but wished I had a 39/25, which is what most experienced Phuket veterans (and the owner of the day’s fastest amateur bike split) had. My speed up the three lumps on the Tiger’s Back was about 6 m.p.h. on race day when my back was bothering me and about 10 m.p.h. at an honest 85% effort the day we pre-rode the course. The climbs are steep, no doubt, but mercifully short. The descents are tricky and the race organization did well to neutralize one short area.
For the week prior to the race you will be able to explore the island. Phuket and the resort itself are ideal destinations for someone new to international travel. You can leave the resort area for daily sojourns into Thai culture but return to the comfortable familiarity of western plumbing and accommodations at your leisure. This is a great introduction into international travel.
Within the resort there are over 20 restaurants with menus varied from traditional Thai to seafood (usually caught within hours of being served) and even excellent Italian fare at two four star restaurants. Outside the resort the options are even more endless. Traditional Chinese cuisine as well as the excellent Thai and seafood are everywhere. While you should stick to bottled water everywhere in Thailand (for that matter, all I drink is bottled water here in Dearborn) I found there is almost no risk of food-borne problems if you exercise common sense. The food in Thailand is so incredible you realize how crappy we truly eat here in the U.S. Even simple things like the chicken in the delicious, spicy Pad Thai, has a level of flavor gone from the synthetically produced, genetically altered U.S. factory farm food. On early morning training runs you can see trucks bringing in fresh fruits, vegetables, bags of rice and tea and live chickens to restaurants in the resort. Prices in restaurants are below reasonable with a fine dinner in an elegant setting going for under $20 max for one person and much less for the restaurants on the beaches. My last night in Phuket I had an incredible dinner on the beach, watching the sun set into the glowing Andaman Sea, complete with three courses of appetizer, salad and main dish with a desert plate of fruit and three diet Cokes and bottle of water for $8 including a 100 baht (roughly $2.30) tip.
Your first night in Phuket is an introduction to one of the most beautiful, ethereal experiences of the Southeast Asian jungle: The night sounds. The quiet bird, insect, reptile and amphibian ensemble melds a nocturnal lullaby so beautiful I left both my sliding glass doors open all night for the performance. Gentle night breeze billows your sheer white drapes in a scene familiar to a Sultan.
Rooms within Laguna Phuket range from the least expensive (where I was staying) at the Allamanda for about $75 a night for a large condo. The condo-suites have a huge bed, full western style bathroom with U.S. voltage converters in the wall, beautiful lighted closets, a nice kitchenette with refrigerator (restocked with drinks daily by the hotel at reasonable to very cheap rates), full living room with TV and movie channels and the British edition of CNN. There are two big sliding glass doors with a balcony (even on the ground floor) and view of either the golf course and jungle or the Lagoon for $10 extra a night. The breakfast buffet is about $7 U.S. depending on the exchange rate for the Thai baht and has fresh fruit, rice, potatoes, eggs, cereal, French toast, excellent coffee, every kind of juice and omelets made to order. Breakfast starts at 6:00 A.M.
If you have a taste and the pockets for a more exotic dwelling you can spend over $1000 U.S. per night in Laguna Phuket. The Banyan Tree has enormous, private pool suites each with its own pool, balcony, hot tub, wait staff and every imaginable amenity including the most luxuriant: Total seclusion.
There are room rates at all stops between the Allamanda and the Banyan tree within the five hotels of Laguna Phuket. Including the minimal cost of food and the reasonable room rates this is an incredibly inexpensive vacation/race destination. Even airfare to Laguna Phuket from Detroit was at a low due to a weak economy and lingering, erroneous concerns over the S.A.R.S. virus in Asia. I paid $1070 U.S. round trip for my entire flight. I accumulated almost enough air miles for a free domestic U.S. airline ticket on Northwest also. Doing Laguna Phuket, including all food, airfare and race entry is probably about the same cost from Detroit as doing Ironman Lake Placid from Detroit (driving) when you consider the outrageous room rates in Lake Placid, expensive (marginal) restaurants and common “mandatory” 5 night stays in local Lake Placid hotels.
A system of water taxis connect the lagoons and run about every ten minutes from hotel/resort complex to complex through a series of jungle canals and waterways. On the water taxi you’ll see marvelous birds, leaping fish, an occasional water snake, frogs and toads in abundance, wandering elephants (elephants are the Thai equivalent of our squirrels- they are wandering around everywhere it seems) buffalo and the obligatory daily 4:00 P.M. tropical cloudburst that lasts about 20 minutes.
Laguna Phuket is remarkably uncrowded and the beaches are never busy. There is never any wait for a restaurant or anything else for that matter. There are local grocery/convenience stores and stocking your refrigerator with fresh fruit and food for the week including sports drinks, bottled water, diet Coke, soy milk, cereal and snacks costs about $25 U.S. In the days before the race an excellent Thai bike shop experienced in race service sets up shop in Laguna Phuket for any technical problems you may have.
In the days before race day there are organized training runs and rides usually attended by 12-25 athletes. On one of the training rides I got in a group with triathlon super-star and Ironman winner Scott Molina and German “uber-biker” Norman Stadler as well as an elite French age grouper named Thierry. In the course of the ride Thierry and I discovered a shared interest in extreme endurance events and spoke at length about the Marathon des Sables, the Raid Gauloises and other so-called endurance “raids”. I had a wonderful conversation with Scott Molina, whom I have always been an enormous fan of. Molina is such a friendly man with a wealth of knowledge and experience about the sport (he’s one of its inventors)and one of the winningest records in history. He gave me substantial insights on the upcoming Ironman New Zealand. I rode on the wheel of Norman Stadler as he pounded into a head wind at 26 m.p.h. Riding on these beautiful roads over the “Tiger’s Back” and through the jungle plantations with these legends of triathlon on a hot, sunny Thai day was the nicest training ride I may have ever been on.
The swim course is up a few days before the race and well marked. You can swim it at your risk but it is wiser to stay closer to shore since there are no lifeguards and that darn shark attack scene from the movie The Beach just wouldn’t leave my head. The water is that mystical, crystal transparent fluid you only see on postcards, usually from Thailand. I am not a big swimmer but the warm, calm, clear water and white sand bottom makes open water swimming a joy for anyone. There are a few jelly fish here and there and I somehow managed a bit of a jelly fish “rash” on my neck which still stings a bit and is pretty ugly.
One of the many great benefits of staying in Laguna Phuket is the incredible sports massage. There are a number of massage tents along the beach where you lay on a low massage table under a big canopy and a platoon of big Thai women give excellent sports massages for about $8 U.S. including a 100 baht tip. I had a massage every day I was there. Awesome.
With the 12-hour time difference I developed an odd routine in Thailand. I woke up about 4:00 A.M. local and took a shower and straightened out my gear for the day. At sun-up I went for a run or a swim or a hike to shoot photos. Before breakfast I got a massage at the beach then had breakfast back at the hotel. Following that I usually went for a ride but also went into Phuket town to do the tourist thing or to Patong Beach, the place made famous by the TV travel show “Wild on E!” with its shady massage places, wild dance clubs, bars and night life. Patong Beach is quite a spectacle and not to be missed at sunset. The dance clubs are meeting places for the “beautiful people” from all over the world and the wild (and daring) garb seen here is a total suspension of normal conservative Thai attitudes. Exquisite specimens of both genders from around the world decorate the beaches clad minimally in postage stamp size bathing costumes, mostly one piece of a two piece ensemble. The micro thong is the uniform of choice at high noon on Patong. In the evening I had dinner around 7:00 P.M. and hit the hay immediately after. This is not a bad way to live.
Eventually, race day does arrive. Registration and packet pick-up is the day before the event. Your race bag is a cool little nylon drawstring backpack with your race number silk-screened on the bag. In it you find all your stuff (race shirt, chip, etc.) and your race number pre-attached to a nice number belt. You bring this bag to the swim start with you and put your sandals, sun screen, warm-up top or whatever else you took to the swim start with you that you are not swimming in inside the bag. The race organizers leave the bag at your transition spot before the end of the race. Awesome. The race numbers are on nylon fabric and silk screened, not made of Tyvek paper. There is a mandatory pre-race meeting the evening before at the Sheraton Grande Laguna Phuket. Race Directors Murphy Reinschrieber and Michelle Payette went into detail about every aspect of the event and answered questions from athletes. The diligence and attention to detail put into the race were evident. Course Preparation Managers Kriangsak Damrongcholtee and Pipop Thabhuwan did an incredible job marking every section of the course. Considering the number of marshals, many of who are from the Phuket Hash House Harriers (On! On!) and the excellent marking as well as the army of Police it seems like it would be impossible to get lost on this course.
Race morning invariably dawns warm (hot) and sunny. It is an on-beach start and the swim is a typical triathlon mass-start affair. Consensus among athletes was the swim course may have been long this year or fought an unusual current or tide since swim times were pretty slow. Two days before the race I did the first (Andaman Sea) section of the swim course in 29:33 but on race day I stopped my watch at over 34:00 when I hit the beach and at 44:16 when I exited the Lagoon and crossed the timing mats. By contrast I did the 1.5 mile Alcatraz swim with a full wetsuit (with a strong current behind me) on absolutely no swim training in under 34:00 two years ago.
I had great form going into Phuket and 11 weeks of strong training. I got a bit of a chest cold the week before leaving then managed to screw my back up on race day. From a performance perspective I would say Phuket was either my worst or second worst performance ever. For a complete insight into my race day go here. Realistically though, it is impossible to have bad day in Phuket. I had a lot of fun during the race and used it as familiarization for next year.
This year's course featured a one-mile beach run that I thought was the highlight of the run course. The beach was utterly secluded except for a topless girl who looked like Anna Kournikova and her boyfriend who looked like Fabio (no shit). I was feeling like a pale, ugly guy from Michigan. I caught up with one of our customers, Laura Earley, and ran with her for a while. We vowed to finish in less than 4 hours, which we both did easily. Laura is a teacher along with her husband living in China.
The finish venue is at the Banyan Tree and is beautiful and enormous. The entire race is on the same caliber as the biggest Ironman events. You get a unique finishers medal and all the typical race finisher stuff along with a nice lunch and, typical of Laguna Phuket, a free shuttle to your hotel and back to the transition area. All in all an incredible event- one of the top five in the world for triathlon.
Why more people don’t do this race is beyond me. It is a tough event, something to aspire to, and in a setting that can’t be matched anywhere on earth. There is so much to do in and around Phuket- from elephant riding to kayaking to horseback rides on the beach and snorkeling and SCUBA expeditions for whale shark and manta ray and day excursions to James Bond Island and Phi Phi Island (where they filmed The Beach), hikes to exquisite jungle waterfalls and the night life at Patong as well as the incredible food and more. In every way, it exceeded my expectations. I will back next year. My only regret is that it is a year away.
Notes and resources on Laguna Phuket Triathlon, Thailand and this article:
Premium Plus Sports, the travel agent I used for Laguna Phuket and am using for Ironman New Zealand, can be reached at:
Information on the Laguna Phuket Triathlon is available on: www.lagunaphuket.com/triathlon/
Entry for the 2004 Laguna Phuket Triathlon will be available on Active.com. Search under the event name.
Photos for this article were shot using the new digital Canon EOS 10D and Canon Image stabilized, “L” series lenses from Adray Appliance and Camera in Dearborn, Michigan. No film was shot in Thailand. Visit www.adray.com for more information or phone them at (313) 274-9500.
Over 800 photos were shot for the roughly 50 you see here, all stored on a 1GB High Speed, digital Compact Flash card. Photos were processed using Adobe PhotoShop and Canon’s new Zoom Browser EX and File Viewer Utility software on a Panasonic Toughbook ruggedized laptop computer as well as our own home made desktop built by Mike Aderhold of Bikesport, Inc. Web layout and design is always by Kim Ross of Intuitive Business Solutions, (313) 359-7000. All text and images are property of Bikesport, Inc. and Tom Demerly and may not be reproduced without permission.
Take the photo tour by clicking on the photos below.
Take the photo tour by clicking on the photos above.