There are a few destinations in the world that immediately spell party. These include: Bali, Ibiza, Miami and Porto Heli (Greece). The list also needs to include the small southern Thai island of Phuket which is invaded by 14 million tourists every year. They come to get massaged, swim, snorkel, eat, drink and dance. Many do not know why they go to Phuket, just lured by its reputation as a fun place.
I first came to Phuket just after the 2004 Tsunami had ripped through. It did not capture my heart! I came back this week to see if I liked it better. The first step is to know how to say Phuket as saying it the wrong way can cause some embarrassment:
Phuket is Thailand’s biggest island at 576 km2 (222 sq miles), roughly the size of Guam or the Isle of Man and slightly smaller than Singapore. It sits in the Andaman sea, 863 kilometres (536 miles) south of Bangkok. Seventy percent of Phuket’s area is covered with series of dramatic mountains running North to South.
I divide the Island into five parts:
- The Western Coast with a series of beaches (some gorgeous and some ruined) with some very ugly architecture, poorly planned developments and pollution. It includes the “party town” Patong as the key centre.
- The beautiful interior which is less explored by tourists including The Phra Taew National Park
- Southeastern Phuket including Chalong Bay and Rawai Beach which seem to be more popular for Thais to visit
- Phuket Town/City- Fewer visitors ever step foot in this town full of beautiful architecture reminiscent of Malaysia’s Penang
- The gorgeous smaller Islands off the coast of Phuket ncluding Phi Phi and Similan National Park.
Its well worth planning a visit to each of these regions while you are in Phuket.
When I visit a place, I am interested in not just visiting that city but what it would be liked to live there. In July 2005, Phuket was voted one of the world’s top five retirement destinations by Fortune Magazine and number one according to a HSBC survey of 4127 expats from more than 100 countries. The Mercer Quality of Living Ranking is less kind to Thailand giving Bangkok only 117th place out of 230 cities. Phuket may rank a little higher than the more crowded capital.
The biggest attraction is the lower cost of living. This article gives an interesting perspective on how much you need to live on in Phuket. Average prices are listed here. Four star hotels start at $US29. For $US40 to $US50, you can get a really nice place. Allow for an average $US5 for breakfast and lunch and $US10 for dinner and you will do really well.
Another feature of liveability is climate. Phuket features a tropical monsoon climate with little temperature variation.The average temperature is above 30°C (86°F) for ten months a year! Top annual temperature averages 32 °C (90 °F) and the lowest is 25 °C (77 °F). Dry season runs from December through March and wet season is the rest of the year resulting in 2,200 millimetres (87 in) of rain a year. Too hot and sticky for me.
Residents also have to contend with pollution, corruption plus complicated visa and property ownership rules.
Phuket’s estimated half a million population is a melting pot of:
- Sea Gypsies, the Island’s oldest inhabitants who are still practicing animism,
- indigenous Thais and Thai-Chinese who are mostly Buddhist
- rural ethnic Malays who are Muslim
- foreign workers from Cambodia, Myanmar and the Philippines
- plus tens of thousands of retired Western expatriates and
- the aforementioned 14 million tourists a year.
It seems to me that these melding has resulted in four dominant cultures co-existing on the Island. As a visitor, you may choose one or all of these to experience:
1. The Tourist Bubble. For many tourists, Phuket allows them to go somewhere “foreign” but in actuality never leave home. This is represented by the McDonalds, Burger Kings and Hooters outlets jostling cheek for jowl for the prime spots across the island next to Pizza, pasta and steak houses. Restaurants, stores, tours and hotels all offer services in English, Russian, Swedish or Arabic or whatever your native tongue is, minimising the need to leave a tourist bubble. What you will find hard to locate is delicious, flavoursome Thai food. The stuff I found in large parts of Patong is a dull imitation of what is one of my favourite cuisines.
2. The sex trade. Centred around Patong’s Bangla Road, the Mecca for so many tourists, are the bars “stocked” with young Thai, Burmese and Russian women looking for “customers”. Phuket is full of older men strolling around hand in hand with much younger Thai girls. Some of the men remember to take their wedding rings off- others don’t!
3. Thai traditional lifestyle. I suspect few visitors will see or experience this slice of Thailand which is mostly found in the interior. Well worth more than a cursory glance.
4. Contemporary Thai culture. My advice is to follow Thai people around for a more authentic Thai experience! They seem to know the best places to eat and shop on the island!
Phuket is brilliant for water themed sports: ski-ing, snorkelling swimming and scuba diving as well as sun worshipping. Bar live is prolific. The shopping I would leave to Bangkok.
You will find relaxing massages on every street corner- most are “legitimate” massages. Tattoo parlours occupy every other corner and many farangs (foreigners) seem to consider a tattoo a vital rite of passage whilst in Phuket by the number I have seen.
Unfortunately Phuket appears to attract a range of unhelpful elements resulting in a crime rate that is higher than some other parts of Thailand. There are a lot of “rip offs” of tourists including taxi and tuktuk fares that are outrageous, poor quality tailor scams, pickpocketing and bag snatching.
In addition, many tourists seem to believe that the laws of Thailand do not apply to them resulting in arrests for drunk driving and drug use. Since the 2014 coup, there appears to have been a concerted effort on making Phuket safer.
Sadly, the biggest cause of foreign deaths are in fact drownings. Follow the warning flags on the beaches.
I smiled as my Mini Van travelling from the airport to my Patong beach hotel pulled up outside a small “travel agency” on the side of the road. All of the passengers were “ordered” out and escorted into a room where we each individually faced an agent. Discovering that I speak some Thai, have been to Phuket before and have Thai family meant I was out of there in less than 50 seconds. Others were less lucky as the agents tried to persuade them by varying means to change hotels or book tours, dinners or cruises. We left 15 minutes later. This is one example of the notoriety transport in Phuket has earned. Controlled by a small group, taxis, mini vans and tuk tuks resist anyone trying to break into their high priced monopoly.
Local buses also link parts of the island to Phuket Town between 6am and 6pm. Fares cost less than a dollar per ride. They are a cheap and slow way to see the island. There are few links between resorts. There was an airport bus to Patong but that seems to have gone by the wayside.
If you are looking for a party town where things seem safe but different to home with beautiful beaches, then Phuket is for you. If you are looking for a more authentic Thai experience, go somewhere else. Me? I fear that Phuket is losing its beauty and Thai identity to an avalanche of partying tourists. I was disturbed nine years ago and remain so today.
66% – I rank Phuket 126th out of the 182 places/cities with a population of 100,000 or more that I have visited in the world.
Look out for:
- Phuket Town -the beautiful historic city
- Sunset over the Andaman sea
- Phang Nga Bay (including James Bond Island)
- Big Buddha, Wat Chalong and Phuket Temples
- Phi Phi Island