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The Art of the Water Warrior : Standup Paddle in Phuket

Meditative. Soothing. Sublime. These are some of the words that a group trying out standup paddling for the first time on Phuket used to describe the experience. Standup paddling, or SUP as it’s often called, is a water sport that’s being keenly taken up by more paddlers across the world, Phuket included.

  Phuket City

May 2013
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On this particular outing off Bangtao Beach, during the golden late-afternoon hours, our novice SUP group was given some brief instruction before carrying our large boards out to the calm sea, just deep enough to avoid the small waves breaking close to shore. Balancing the boards beside us, we hopped on, or rather flopped on, and tried to crawl up onto our feet. Some of us promptly fell off with a splash.

We were told the key to keeping balance was to look ahead, not look down at the board, once we were relatively steady on our feet. This advice certainly helped, and after a few more attempts we found our balance. It also helped when we started to imagine ourselves as a Maori warrior, setting off for battle on some distant isle.

There's no evidence that the Maori, the indigenous people of the Pacific islands now known as New Zealand, did anything resembling standup paddling in their history, but standing atop the sturdy board, stabbing at the water with our paddles as we glided over the sea made us feel rather warrior-like. In any case, this warrior fantasy helped keep us high and dry in making our shaky start as SUP aficionados.

It's believed that the ancient people of another Pacific island group, Hawaii, did some form of standup paddling, and it's on Hawaii where the modern version of the sport gained popularity in recent years. Some of Hawaii's big wave surfers began doing it as a way to stay in shape and find some on-the-water adventures when the ocean wasn't kicking up giant waves. These hardy surfers, of course, found ways to take SUP to new daring heights.

Videos of famed big wave surfer Laird Hamilton, for example, with his movie-star good looks and warrior-ready ripped body, shooting across the sea on his SUP board as powerful waves break behind him have inspired many to take up the sport, as well as showing that SUP boarding can every bit as challenging and adventurous as surfing.

Given its abundance of bays and beaches, it's only natural that Phuket has caught the worldwide SUP wave, too, and now there are a number of places around the island offering board rental and sales, and SUP lessons and excursions. In addition to Bangtao, we've seen SUP paddlers off Kata, Kamala, Layan and Ao Yon beaches, and it seems likely that more Phuket beaches will offer SUP board rental in the coming seasons.

It's a highly versatile sport that can be done in all water conditions, and in Phuket, which sees little wave action from November through April, it's a good water-sports alternative to surfing. Children and beginners can easily learn to paddle in a shallow, sheltered bay. And much like kayaking, SUP offers a way to explore Phuket's coastal areas and reach places that are inaccessible to boats.

SUP is also a fantastic way to keep fit. Even on glassy-calm water, balancing on the board boosts agility and keeps the legs busy, while the paddling action builds strength in the arms and the body's core. Certainly, as beginner SUP paddlers we were feeling most every part of our body from shoulder to calf by the end of our wobbly one-hour session!

For our first SUP outing at Bangtao Beach, we arranged the lesson and board rental from Skyla's Surf & SUP Club, who have set up a surfer's shack beside Bliss Beach Club. Rental is 300 baht an hour, while a two-hour guided lesson is 1,000 baht. Skyla's also keeps boards in stock at its beachfront restaurant on the north end of Kamala Beach. For a true balance challenge, there are SUP yoga sessions available at both Kamala and Bangtao. A private session is 1,600 baht or a group session for four is 900 baht per person.

Our SUP instructor, Tim Campbell from Australia, has also set up a separate operation called Stand Up Projects, which takes more experienced paddlers out on a four-day adventure covering 150 kilometres around Phuket - a real test of skill that includes cliff jumping and camping on the beach.

Tim, an avid surfer who, like the Hawaiian big-wavers, discovered SUP as a way to keep fit when the waves were small, describes one of his most memorable standup paddle moments: "One afternoon after work I paddled out into the middle of Kamala bay and sat in the middle of the ocean and watched the sunset. One side of the sky was an epic mix of oranges and purples while the other half of the sky had a fierce electrical storm. I sat there mesmerised by this spectacle, feeling a great sense of peace and excitement."

As a healthy, clean sport that offers a peaceful, eco-friendly way to explore the island's stunning coastal environment, SUP seems an ideal addition to Phuket, which is sadly looking more city-like and less beachy, with each passing year. Will there be more standup water warriors paddling Phuket's shores in the future? We hope so.

Contact details
Skyla’s Surf and SUP Club Kamala Beach & Bangtao Beach
+66 82 5193282
www.skylaphuket.com
Stand Up Projects
+66 89 01640746
www.standupprojects.com

  Photo gallery : The Art of the Water Warrior : Standup Paddle in Phuket

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