Travel in Thailand Phuket
It was beautiful Phuket that first lured me to Thailand. A friend had visited Thailand the previous Christmas and raved about Thailand, especially Phuket. We had been friends for a long time and he knew the sort of things I liked and said Phuket would be the ideal holiday destination for me. At that time in my life, I used to love just sitting around in the sun all day doing little to nothing. When I finally made it to the paradise island, I fell in love with Phuket which holds a special place in my heart. In fact when I first moved to Thailand my plan was to go to Phuket and secure a job teaching English down there but for whatever reason, it never happened and I ended up in Bangkok.
Phuket is one of the world's premier beach holiday destinations and ranks alongside the French Riviera, the Mediterranean and Hawaii as places where people will happily endure up to 24 hours discomfort on a plane for the promise of the quintessential beach holiday. But is Phuket the quintessential Thai beach holiday? With Phuket now firmly ranking up there as one of the world's premier beach destinations, the secluded beach charm that this island once laid claim to has well and truly gone and we now have a tourism industry centered around the noisy, rowdy and highly touristed Patpong Beach. Patong Beach is NOT Thailand – it feels more like a slice of Europe to me, quite frankly.
Phuket is an island connected to the Thai mainland by a bridge, and is located about 1,000 km from Bangkok. While most people choose to reach the island by plane, you can also drive the distance, something I did in 2006 in a very brisk 10 hours. Buses all depart Bangkok for Phuket but the train doesn't make it that far. If you wanted to travel by train, you would have to get off at Surat Thani in the south and make your ay to Phuket from there by bus.
There are many beaches around the island province of Phuket but by far and away the most developed is Patong Beach. Patong Beach is tourist central where all of the nations of the world come together. I have always felt that Patong Beach was like a far flung satellite of continental Europe. Europeans holidaying read European newspapers, eat European style food and demand all of the things that they expect at home. Here you will find far, far, far more Indian and Italian restaurants than you will Thai restaurants, proving just how touristed Patong place has become. One tip with such ethnic restaurants is to check where the chef comes from. An Italian restaurant with an Italian chef likely has better food than an Italian restaurant with a Thai chef.
Patong is the nightlife capital of the island and over the last 15 years has grown into something of a sex tourism destination, not that much different to Pattaya, only smaller. Soi after soi can be found with naughty bars full of naughty women. Bangla Road on Patpong Beach comes alive at night as garish neon signs and almost equally as garish women actively seek out the company of foreign men for the night, for a price of course. The naughty bars can also be found elsewhere in the island, in fact wherever you find Western bars, you find girly bars. There is a smaller number at Karon and even fewer over at Kata. For Phuket nightlife, Patong is the centre.
The beach itself at Patong gets very busy and you may find yourself fighting for space on the beach with folks from every country you have ever heard of and a few that you haven't heard of. Jet skis roar past disturbing the peace and tranquility and touts race around the beach, trying to convince you of the merits of paragliding. Patong Beach remains the most popular spot on Phuket but in my mind it is not the nicest of the Phuket beaches. Venture around a little and you can find some lovely spots.
South of Patpong Beach is Karon Beach, my favourite of Phuket's beaches. 3 km of soft white sand lead gently down to the beautiful Andaman Sea. Karon Beach doesn't have nearly as many hotels as Patpong so there aren't nearly as many people on Karon which makes it that much more relaxing. You also don't have the same number of pests coming to sell their junk which is a relief. If you want hustle and bustle, a great range of restaurants and plenty of nightlife, then Karon may not be for you. But if you want a gorgeous beach with less razzmatazz, a place where you CAN actually kick back, and relax, then Karon is an ideal location.
While accommodation prices have moved in a similar manner to those at Patong, the prices at Karon are more attractive than Patong.
Perhaps the one downside about Karon Beach is that the beach is not considered safe for swimming in the monsoon season, which in Phuket is from the end of May until the start of November. A number of Western tourists drown on Phuket every year, many simply do not heed the advice clearly stated on signs saying that one should not swim at these times.
South of Karon Beach is Kata Beach, a somewhat smaller beach that is NOT a private beach for Club Med as some people believe. This, like Karon, is another really lovely beach and a great place to wile away the days and baste yourself under the hot Thai sun. Accommodation and restaurants are a little cheaper there than the other beaches. It is certainly much quieter and less hustle and bustle than Patong.
Throughout the tourism high season from December right through to the Songkran holidays in April, Phuket is over run with Europeans, trying to escape their cold, politically correct homelands. Phuket provides them with a tropical island paradise, but also with the promise of all of the comforts of home. Indeed, Phuket is so developed now that it rivals the aforementioned Hawaii and French Riviera for Western facilities. Ask anyone to name just one Thai beach destination and odds are that Phuket is the one that will roll off their lips first, such is the proliferation of tourism in this slice of paradise.
A decade ago Phuket was affordable to all, but when the Thai currency crashed in the middle of 1997, Phuket hotels adjusted their rates accordingly and Phuket accommodation can now be quite expensive during the high season – fuelled by ever increasing demand. Hotels in Phuket are generally considered the most expensive in all of Thailand, even more expensive than what you find in Bangkok.
Another reason why Phuket has boomed in recent years is the turbulence in Indonesia with the Bali bombings which saw thousands of people cancelling their holidays to Bali and switching to Phuket instead. A lot of these people that previously went to Bali have now found that Phuket offers so much more and Phuket is one big winner…
One of the downsides of Phuket is getting around the island. If you are daring, motorbikes can be hired from as little as 150 baht per day, but I personally am simply not game to get on the back of one of these and zoom around on the island's dangerous roads. Every year, hundreds of foreigners are involved in motorbike crashes on Phuket and many accidents are fatal.
The next option on Phuket becomes Phuket's public transport, the small red songtaews that the drivers often refer to as tuktuks, which they clearly are not. The drivers of these vehicles ask for and get silly money for what really are short journeys. A typical journey would be the hill road from Patong over to Karon Beach, or vice versa. In 1997, you could easily get this for 50 baht which was fair as it is probably about a 6 – 7 km journey but in 1998, prices had shot up to 150 baht and getting it for any less than that proved quite difficult. Nowadays, the cost is more like 200 – 300 baht. This is a CRAZY price and proves that a false economy exists – there is no way a Thai would pay that price but Western tourists, especially Europeans who may think in terms of the prices in Euros don't even think twice about it. I wonder if there is a huge list of people wanting to become tuktuk drivers on Phuket because with these sorts of fares, they could become rich overnight. Travelling across the island to Phuket Town will cost even more and I guess hiring one of these little vehicles to get you over there would be in the region of 500 baht.
Phuket Town, the provincial capital, is located on the east of the island, 20+ km from the popular beaches where much of the tourism industry is centered. It is a funny sort of a place and almost seems out of place on what can mistakenly seem like a farang dominated island. Sure, there are far more Thai nationals living on Phuket than farangs and other foreigners but it is the foreigners that you notice as you do your rounds on the west coast beaches. Phuket Town is just like any other small non-descript provincial Thai town – with nothing in particular going for it. There is a Robinson's Department Store which makes for a nice place to go and escape the heat. In that particular shopping centre there are a few other shops but really, there is nothing that really warrants making the journey over there. You could go up the hill and get a decent view over Phuket Town or go down and see the port with all of the fishing boats, that is if you are really bored.
A few years back a large Central Shopping Centre opened in the centre of the island, between the beaches on the west coast and Phuket Town. This is the island's largest shopping centre and hope to a modern cinema multiplex.
The Thais realise that tourists attracted to Phuket are a relatively well off crowd and it seems to me that everything is expensive, right across the board. Sure, you can get a plate of fried rice for 25 baht on the street if you really hunt hard for it but I don't notice many foreigners eating from such vendors in Phuket. Besides, restaurants selling Thai style food at these prices are well away from the areas where most of the farangs venture. Restaurants are dear as stated already but most everything on the beach is dear too. Deck chairs used to go for 50 baht a chair as opposed to 10 – 20 in other parts of Thailand, but then I have heard they have now gone up to 100 baht – can anyone confirm that? The fellows walking along selling ice creams often sell them at three times the standard price. The paragliding and jet ski prices are about 50% dearer than other beaches in Thailand.
Phuket is a magnificent place for a holiday but if you are on a budget, you may want to consider that a cheaper time can be had elsewhere. Sadly, it doesn't look as though things will change too quickly as tourists continue to visit Phuket in record numbers.
And just to top the expensive pricing off, if you decide to go to Phuket by air, the airport is a bit of a hike from the main beach areas and it will cost you in excess of 500 baht to get a taxi to reach one of the West coast beaches. You can grab a seat in a minivan for 150 baht.
The west coast beaches of Phuket, namely Patong, Karon and Kata beaches are almost entirely tourism based economies and the local Thais are fully aware that it is the farang that lays the golden egg. While scams and overcharging may occur, these beaches are generally safe and crimes of violence or theft against tourists are not common. The locals are very conscious of the need to make sure the foreigners keep returning – and keep spending money.
There are many day trip options available from Phuket. Two of these in particular are well worthwhile. The first recommended day trip is the one that takes you to Phanga Bay and the so called James Bond Island. Phanga Bay is the province immediately north of Phuket and is famous for its limestone cliffs and rock structures that jut out of the water. A lot of the day trips to Phanga will incorporate a visit to the James Bond Island, so named because it was used in the filming of the movie, "Man With The Golden Gun". There is usually a visit to one of the island based Muslim villages where lunch is served, and which are interesting to explore and get a feel of village life. There's usually also a stop at one of the small offshore islands where you get a chance to sit in the sun for an hour or so, soak up the sun's rays and go for a swim in the crystal clear, warm tropical waters. A lot of the time is spent cruising around the scenic bay. The day trip I took in that neck of the woods was probably the best day trip I have taken in Thailand. While you could do it yourself by hiring long tail boats etc, I found that by doing it in a small group on a bigger boat was a lot of fun.
The second day trip that is well worthwhile is over to the small paradise like island, Phi Phi. This is the island where every Thai girl's heart-throb Leo Di Caprio filmed the movie, "The Beach". This island is stunningly beautiful and I reckon that 20 years ago, it would have been one of the most idyllic places on the planet. Sadly, this is no longer the case and tourism has all but ruined it. Don't get me wrong, you can go there and thoroughly enjoy it but with it being heavily touristed, one day is enough. Thousands of daytrippers and package tourists go there every day. You can stay overnight or for a number of nights, but accommodation prices can be steep.
I am not a diver but there are a lot of diving operations operating off Phuket and I am told that the diving in the area is really excellent.
Phuket has totally recovered from the tsunami which hit a few years back.
Beautiful, diverse island with a little something for most people. Some beautiful beaches. Some SUPERB day trips available including Phi Phi Island and Phanga Bay.
Phuket isn't cheap. A lot of very jaded Thais work the Phuket tourist scene. Local transport is far too expensive. Food prices, especially some of the restaurants in big hotels targeting Westerners, are expensive.
The Bottom Line
If you want a comfortable beach holiday with Western comforts, Phuket is the place for you.