Good handicraft shops and notable restaurants
An atmospheric Old Town
The Big Buddha on Khao Nakkerd hill

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Discovering James Bond places

Phuket Town (Muang Phuket) stands distinct from the tailor-made tourist settlements along the beaches as a place of tangible history and culture waiting to be appreciated on an MSC Grand Voyages cruise excursion.
Most visitors hang about just long enough to jump on a beach-bound songthaew, but you may find yourself returning for a welcome dose of real life; there’s plenty to engage you in a stroll through the small but atmospherically restored heart of the Old Town, along with many idiosyncratic cafés and art shops, several notable restaurants and some good handicraft shops.

Some of the Old Town’s most elegant buildings line the western arm of Thanon Thalang, where a dozen signboards highlight the special features worth an upward or sideways glance: pastel-coloured doors and shutters, elaborate stucco mouldings, ornate wooden doors, and the distinctively arched “five-foot walkways” that link them. MSC Grand Voyages cruises also offer excursions to the newly erected Big Buddha of Phuket, a towering 45m statue atop the aptly named Khao Nakkerd hill, which dominates many island vistas, including Kata Yai to the south-west.

Made of concrete but faced with glistening white-marble tiles, the eastward-looking Buddha boasts enormous proportions: he sits on a lotus flower that’s nearly 25m across and even his individual hair curls measure almost 1m each. Views from the base of the statue extend east over Ao Chalong to hilly Ko Lone beyond, while western panoramas take in Kata Noi. For islanders, Chalong is important as the site of Wat Chalong, Phuket’s loveliest and most famous temple, which enshrines the statue of revered monk Luang Pho Saem, who helped resolve a violent rebellion by migrant Chinese tin-miners in 1876.

Elsewhere in the temple compound, the Phra Mahathat chedi (pagoda) is believed to contain a relic of the Buddha.

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    The land of flowers
    The land of flowers

    With millions travelling to Thailand each year, this country is Asia’s primary holiday destination.

    Yet despite this vast influx of visitors, Thailand’s cultural integrity remains largely undamaged – a country that adroitly avoided colonization, it has been able to absorb Western influences while maintaining its own rich heritage. Through all the changes of the last sixty years, the much-revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol, who sits at the pinnacle of an elaborate hierarchical system of deference covering the whole of Thai society, has lent a measure of stability. Furthermore, some 85 per cent of the population are still practising Theravada Buddhists, a unifying faith that colours all aspects of daily life – from the tiered temple rooftops that dominate every skyline, to the omnipresent saffron-robed monks and the packed calendar of festivals.

    During your MSC Grand Voyages cruise to Thailand the clash of tradition and modernity is most obvious in Bangkok. Within its historic core you’ll find resplendent temples, canalside markets and the opulent indulgence of the eighteenth-century Grand Palace, while downtown’s forest of skyscrapers shelters cutting-edge fashion and decor boutiques and some achingly hip bars and clubs. “Deliciousness” is never far away in Thailand, be it fluffy deep-fried catfish with a tangy mango salad, toothsome beef green curry, or mango with sticky rice and coconut.