WHY do Australians love Phuket so much? The beautiful beaches? The bargain shopping? The luxurious resorts? The pulsating night-life? I suspect it could be all of these things, but for me, it's all about the seafood.
In Phuket you can feast on lobsters, crab, whole fish, oysters, mussels and king prawns in a gluttonous manner only imagined at home.
Make your way along the beachfront in Patong and check out the displays of fresh seafood on ice in cute wooden boats in front of almost every restaurant.
It's an enticing scene but, if you can resist, take a walk down Bangla Road from the beach to the top, where the true fish bargains await.
Try not to stop off at any of Bangla Road's funky bars, even though a never-ending procession of gorgeous girls will beckon you in.
Don't be tempted to have your photograph taken with any one of the gaudy lady boys either (they'll charge you for the privilege), and keep walking until you come to the garish Tiger Bar with its fibreglass dinosaurs.
Turn left at the bar into a narrow lane and continue, making a mental note (if you're adventurous enough) to come back later for the free lady boy show advertised outside an unpretentious bar.
Keep going and you'll suddenly find yourself inside an undercover space as big as a football field.
Here, at hundreds of plastic tables, sit the locals, along with the smart tourists, who know that away from the beachfront in this chaotic space are the real seafood bargains.
Confusions reigns: the babble, the people, the bewildering seafood choices. But this is not just one big seafood “restaurant”; it's very many of them, and, for easy identification, they're all numbered.
Encouragement assails you.
“Come to No. 1,” a friendly young woman cries and tugs your arm.
“Number 2 has best seafood; very cheap prices,” another urges, pulling you her way.
“Number 4 is better; come, come,” a young man beckons and herds you towards his brother's place.
Every one of these outlets has its scout ready to leap and entice you into his or her family-run eatery, quickly escorting you away from the opposition.
This no-frills eating place is hot and loud – more like a noisy fish market than a series of restaurants – but the fresh seafood and the cheap prices are irresistible.
We allow ourselves to be seduced by Number 1, mostly because it's almost impossible to get past the young man espousing its charms and, before we realise it, he has us sitting at plastic chairs and is flapping attention on us, promising a seafood extravaganza like no other.
As if by magic, the table is suddenly filled with crispy spring rolls, spicy little fish cakes, pieces of juicy fried fish, and a whole fish staring glassily at us beneath a little rainforest of shredded chilli.
There is cold Singha beer and, something that delights the ladies in our group, wine.
It wasn't so long ago that wine was not so available in Thailand or, if it was, was prohibitively priced.
Now there is a plastic bottle of something unidentifiable before us, but it's white and cold and being poured into paper cups and, the more we eat, the better the mysterious wine tastes.
We spend around $30 a couple for this fabulous fishy feast, including the wine, and love it so much we go back again the next night.
The same chaos greets us.
“Tonight you try Number 7, the best.”
“No, Number 9, my family restaurant, cheapest prices. Come with me.”
“Number 3, very good for you, I make you special discount.”
We allow ourselves be steered to plastic chairs at Number 4; we like the young man herding us.
He says his mother and father are in the “kitchen” and so are his aunty and uncle and brother and sister.
We look at the tiny hot space where his family toils and wonder how they could possibly send out such a delicious food: lobster with coriander, shrimp cakes, steamed tamarind fish ... and plenty of wine in plastic bottles.
While we love the hedonism of Phuket, it's the cheap seafood that will get us back every time.
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