“It’s the beach, it’s the fxxking beach.” The classic line by a drug addled backpacker, somewhere on Khao Sarn Road, from the 1999 celluloid hit “The Beach” immortalized the golden, sandy stretches of Thailand’s coastlines forever. In a curious way it was appropriate that the movie was set in the LOS. After all, the second most popular pursuit for visitors to this exotic realm is hanging out on the beach. The loathing in the tone of the drug addled backpacker’s words only seemed to reinforce the depth of his feelings for “the beach.” As much as he despised the place, the only thing he wanted to do was to get back there as soon as he could. I’m sure that Patong has the same effect on many who gravitate back there year after year. They probably return home vowing to never to return to the mayhem that festoons the 2.3 km stretch of sand but as the months slide away in their cold and often bleak bolt holes of the west, their attitudes soften somewhat and before they know it they’re booking their flights back to Phuket again.
And yet despite the daily chaos and congestion along this most famous strip of Phuket’s golden shores, the Patong beach is probably one of the best in Thailand. If for just one day you could get rid of the jet-skis, speed boats, deck chairs, hawkers and roadside traffic, what you’d be left with is a fairly spectacular stretch of sand. In fact, I would assert that Phuket’s beaches if judged purely in terms of sand and ocean, are amongst the best in Thailand. I know there will probably be quite a few out there who disagree with this statement but if you look at the coastline of Thailand in terms of geography, something soon becomes apparent when compared with the rest of the country; the Island of Phuket is surrounded by deeper ocean. The stretches of coastline to the immediate North and South of the Island are characterized by a shallower, gradual sloping bottom. The gulf of Thailand is much the same with the deepest point between Thailand’s East Coast and Vietnam not much more than 100 meters. Phuket being an island is also blessed by the fact that it has no major freshwater outfalls (rivers) which are a given on the mainland coastal regions. What this basically means is that on the west coast of the island at least, the beaches are free of the low lying tidal areas, and mud flats, that are often encountered along the shallower coastal areas of Thailand. Deeper surrounding oceans also mean stronger currents and a much better cleansing effect on the waters along the beaches. Say what you like but waters along Patong Beach during the high season are still clean and inviting to swim in; the same can’t be said about Jomtien and Pattaya.
As good as the beach still is, nothing can be done about the encroaching urbanization; it’s here to stay unfortunately. And as much as we’d like to go back to an earlier time when things were less developed, the idyllic uncrowded beach scenario of times past is all just a faded memory. The growth surge has been a relatively recent phenomenon and up until around the turn of millennium there were still swamps with roaming buffalo to be seen in the tract of land between Song Roi Pee Road and Soi Nanai. Even the northern end of Beach Road was still relatively undeveloped with lots of scrub covered vacant areas in amongst the low rise dwellings. After six years of residing in Patong I moved to Pattaya in 2000 and after a ten year hiatus it was a bit of a shock to see the extent of the development sprawl upon my return. Since that initial return in 2010, I’ve managed to drop into Patong a couple of times a year and each time I can see that the building program is relentless. The only saving grace is that the beach is still much the same as it was; just a lot more crowded. The following photo is one that I took almost 20 years ago. The one immediately after was taken almost in the same location, just a few days ago.
Then; Patong Beach – June 1993.
And now; Patong Beach – December 2012
15 – 20 years ago the demographics of those visiting Phuket / Patong were quite a bit different to what’s encountered these days. Package groups from Korea and Taiwan were routinely seen but the majority of visitors were a combination of the younger farang backpacker looking for some fun and adventure in the sundrenched seas, and the single western male, party animal / whoremonger looking for a good time along Soi Bangla. There were the beginnings of the Russian invasion but nothing like what’s to be seen today. As I strolled down the beach in the late afternoon sun, the guttural sound of Russian was to be heard emanating from the large groups that occupied what can only be described as deck chair cities. It’s not so much of the situation anymore that “the Russians are coming” but more like they’re already here and have taken over. Whatever misgivings or negative impressions the Thais may have about them there’s one thing that certainly can’t be denied; some of the Russian women, the younger ones at least, are hot. They possess the curves and stature that you’ll very rarely see on the local babes.
Curvaceous and hard bodied Russian babes aplenty on the beach
A late afternoon stroll along the beach is definitely good value and with the sting gone from the sun it makes for great people watching and photo opportunities. The shenanigans of the Russians are good entertainment but the locals also play their part in the daily beachside circus. As the sun heads towards the horizon, the beach is still packed with tourist hordes swimming, playing, getting massages and enjoying a beer or two. The Thai beach boys can be seen winding down from their daily parasailing and Jet Ski routines with a walk up game of beach football or volleyball. Some, like the Rasta guy who’s been there for years, just sit and chill out after a puff on a bit of weed.
The Russian invasion of Patong Beach; beers and a game of cards in the late afternoon
The Patong Beach boys in a late afternoon walk up volleyball game
Just chillin’ man
The end of another day on the beach for the Jet Ski boys
If you’ve lived here for a while or had a long association with Phuket, one thing that’s never too far from one’s thoughts while wandering sedately along the beach is the devastation that occurred on Boxing Day, 2004. I wasn’t in Patong at the time but the videos and photos of that day of nature’s fury are something that most aficionados of the area won’t forget. There’s nothing to be seen now of that destructive event as the new and rebuilt hotels sit shoulder to shoulder along the beach. Life goes on unabated with very little that’s visible – save for the odd Tsunami warning sign – to remind us of that day of tragedy. Speaking of the new construction that’s taken place along the beachfront; some of what’s arisen from the devastation wrought by the Tsunami has the feel of a quick grab for cash by dodgy developers. Prior to the Tsunami a lot of the thatched roof restaurants which nestled in amongst the tree line had a bohemian feel about them as one sat there enjoying a quiet beer in the late afternoons. They were no doubt instantly obliterated when the wave struck on that fateful day and were probably past their use by dates anyway. However I can’t help thinking that even though the new buildings have a more permanent look about them, the quality when compared to Bangkok or Pattaya is decidedly second rate.
One the few visible reminders of that tragic day almost eight years ago
Less than impressive new constructions for sale along Patong Beach; starting price = 6 million THB
As the sun dips towards the horizon I continue on to the southern end of the beach. The crowds of beachgoers are significantly less due to the fact that Patong’s small river empties into this end of the bay. The bottom is shallower for much further out and the water has a slight murky tinge to it. It also tends to be an area where there is much more of a Thai presence. Along the skirting road there is a line-up of hawkers carts selling the barbecued snacks the locals like to munch on in the early evening. When the tide is in there are usually a number of Thai males, fishing rods in hand, trying to catch their dinner. Out in the middle of the bay one of the many cruise ships that traverses the Andaman Sea in the high season can be seen at anchor; the happy revelers onboard no doubt will avail themselves to all the shopping, eating and partying they can indulge in during their three day stopover.
A spot of fishing at the southern end of the beach
Another high season and another cruise ship anchored in Patong Bay
The setting sun over the bay welcomes the night time activity along the beach
With the setting sun I turn and work my way back along Beach Road towards Soi Bangla. Daylight gives way to darkness and as it does so the neon takes over as Patong’s night time activities begin to kick into gear. I stick to the beach side of the road and note that the local authorities have done their best to provide a properly constructed, paved walkway which in the normal Thai way has been inundated with evening hawkers stalls. The crowds gather to check out the trinkets and snacks on offer as I weave my way through the masses on the footpath. Out on the road the traffic is as heavy as it always is for this time of the year at least, and probably isn’t too much different to the levels of congestion one would encounter along Beach Road in Pattaya. Some time ago a decision was made to turn Soi Bangla into Patong’s own version of Walking Street. This was probably one of the best ideas to come out of the place as from 6 PM each day the barricades go up at each end of the soi and the night time revelers are free to wander about unhindered by vehicle movement. As I amble along the soi there’s a bit of a carnival atmosphere about the place with the bars beginning to fill up and local street vendors working the crowds in the early evening warmth. In the past 20 years there have been a lot of changes to the soi but some of the long established watering holes are still much the same as when I was residing in Phuket.
Daylight gives way to darkness and the neon takes over along Beach Road
Street vendors working the crowd in the early evening on Soi Bangla
One of the most popular watering holes along Soi Bangla for the past 20 years
For those such as me needing their daily caffeine fix, Starbucks and Au Bon pain are a welcome recent addition to the soi. For those needing a nightly or daily ingestion of the amber fluid, there’s no shortage of establishments to choose from. One of the most popular 20 years ago and still to this day seems to be the “Kangaroo Bar.” Its appearance hasn’t changed much since I first landed here in the early 90s, but it still fills up with punters on a daily basis, even in the depths of the slowest times of the year. With its continual mix of Australian rock music belting out and the NRL and AFL on the TV screens, the “Roo Bar” packs them in night after night. The bars immediately adjacent seem to do well from the overflow and are run on a similar theme. Directly across the road an enterprising Aussie, no doubt, has upped the ante by building a much bigger Aussie themed bar to cater for the swell in Australian visitors who have come to prefer Phuket over Bali as the place to party. As I stand there adjusting my camera settings, the girls do their best to entice me in for a drink with a “hello hansum man.” I laugh inwardly; if only they knew I’d first had a drink there when they were still at primary school.
For those that are interested, my escapades in Phuket during the 90s are in my book “The LOS Diaries – Part One.” The following are direct links to it at Bangkok Books and Amazon.
The carnival atmosphere of Soi Eric is good for a laugh
The crowd is beginning to gather and as the night advances on, half way up Bangla there’s a large group of tourists with their cameras out taking in the action. Soi Eric, aka Soi Crocodile, is the designated entertainment area for the Katoey contingent. Soi Crocodile on most nights is the most crowded area along Bangla as the girls (boys?), all dolled up in their feathers and sequins do their best to put on a show for the sightseers. After taking in the action for a few minutes I decided it was time for dinner. With the amount of walking I’d done I was beginning to feel a bit famished and I knew just the spot to fill up on some fresh ahaan talay; Chengrai Seafood at the top end of Bangla. The seafood restaurant area is tucked in behind the soi and positioned where the old Muay Thai stadium used to be. Every time I drop in to Patong I make a point of eating there at least once on each visit. The prices are about the same as Pattaya but the variation in selection is much better with ocean caught produce as opposed to farm bred stuff being readily available. The selection on offer was great and after being given a table, a young expat guy currently employed there helped me with an order of oysters, tiger prawns and coral trout. I made sure that everything I picked was ocean caught and when it all finally landed on the table in front of me, the taste confirmed as much; it didn’t have that muddy farm bred taste to it. Expensive at 1300 THB to be sure, but well worth it for a one off, enjoyable seafood dinner.
The helpful, English speaking expat staff at Chengrai Seafood in Patong
Bon Appetite at Chengrai Seafood
With the stomach full and the energy levels recharged, it was time to get back out onto Soi Bangla for some serious people watching and a couple of relaxing cold bevvies. I already had a place in mind; the beer bar/go-go right next to Rock Hard A Gogo. There were a few girls shuffling about chrome just before I’d made a beeline for the seafood restaurants and I knew from a previous trip here with Stick that the venue was photographer friendly. There were already a couple of tourists out front banging off shots of the girls as I walked in and took a seat. As a common courtesy I asked the mamasan if it was okay to get a few photos and she replied in the affirmative “no problem, you buy one drink.” On closer inspection, most of the girls were either ageing or hefferish. One, however, was a real cutie so I offered to buy her a lady drink in return for getting a few nice shots. A couple of minutes later I had what I needed and sat back to savour my Singha and enjoy the circus. It has to be said this particular intersection of Bangla and Song Roi Pee is probably the noisiest spot in Patong; if not Phuket. With the bar directly across the road playing live rock music and another nearby – next to Taipan Discotheque – playing exactly the same, but even louder, the noise is horrendous. When you combine all of that with the constant sound of the vehicles coming down Song Roi Pee it’s one hell of a din.
A photo for a lady drink; the cutie at the beer bar/ago-go next to Rock Hard
As soon as I’d finished my beer I paid the check-bin and made my way up the stairs of Rock Hard A Gogo for some air-conditioned respite from the noise and heat out on the street. Upon entering I spotted a familiar face; Nid, the Buriram girl I’d mentioned in one of my earlier subs. Two years on she was still there but instead of the innocent fresh off the farm girl, she was now the hardened professional. The dreams of doing her accountancy degree had long been forgotten as she’d earned her stripes in being the consummate man eater. I bought her a drink and we had a bit of a chat. She currently had two sponsors. One, a Belgian chap, had recently purchased her a brand new four door Hilux. To verify this I barfined her the following night and she drove me back to my hotel in the said vehicle. It’s been said many times before that “sponsorship doesn’t work.” Believe me, it doesn’t. As a side note I should mention something about drink prices: lady drinks at Rock Hard and Roxy A Gogo were a bit over 200 THB at each venue. A punter's drink at Rock Hard was 170 THB; at Roxy a punter's drink was 200 THB. The beer I had out on the street was 100 THB; the lady drink was 200 THB.
Normally I try and stay out of Patong when I’m down in Phuket simply to avoid the noise and associated mayhem. The thing is though that you eventually end up there anyway even if it’s just for the restaurants and shopping, and not the bars. If you’re staying at one of the other beach areas, this will normally mean an additional cost for a motorbike rental each day. A work colleague of mine owns a small hotel in a quieter area of Patong so I took him up on a reasonable rate for an apartment style room; 1500 THB a night. If anyone’s interested, it’s Joy’s Café, Patong Beach : email@example.com.
All in all it was an enjoyable 5 days / 4 nights in Patong. Instead of rushing about the island I just stayed there and chilled out with lots of walking, morning beach swims, afternoon massages, and a few beers at night before retiring at a reasonable hour. I may be back, I may not. Patong is like an old pair of shoes; there’s a certain degree of comfortable familiarity but you know, sooner or later, it’ll be time for a change.
Between the eyes of love I call your name
Behind the guarded walls I used to go
Upon a summer wind there's a certain melody
Takes me back to the place that I know
Down on the beach
Very nice report. It sure looks crowded these days…