When most people think of Thailand, they picture lush jungles, sandy beaches and tropical islands. If this is what you are seeking, the island of Phuket (pronounced Poo-Ket) should probably be your first stop. Phuket is the largest of Thailand’s islands and while it has many lovely beaches of its own, it is also a jumping off point to get to most of the smaller tropical islands. The most famous of these is arguably Maya Beach on Koh Phi-Phi. This is the location where Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach was filmed. Unfortunately, the popularity it gained because of the movie turned the island from a serene, exotic location to a crowded tourist destination. So much damage was being caused by tourism, the Thailand government recently banned travel to the island temporarily in order to help repair the damaged ecosystem. Never fear, there are still many lesser known islands still waiting in line to be damaged by hordes of tourists.
One of the first things you may notice when arriving to Phuket is much of the signage is in the Cyrillic alphabet. It is a top destination for Russians to vacation with their families. Although, during my recent visit, I noticed just as many signs in Chinese.
When you arrive at the airport, the first thing you’ll need to do is find ground transportation. In Phuket, this is not cheap. All along the coastline of the Andaman Sea, there are many popular beaches and small towns. The most well-known is Patong. The trip to Patong via taxi will run you approximately 700 baht ($22). You will want to make sure the taxi is one that advertises “meter plus 100 baht”. This is the quickest and most efficient way to get to your hotel. The further south you travel, the more it costs, as the airport is located at the northern end of the island. It takes approximately an hour (depending on traffic) to get to Patong.
While Patong is the most popular destination city in Phuket, I tend to avoid it. Patong can be crowded, traffic is congested, the beach is packed, and if you are looking for a tropical island experience, this isn’t it. If you are looking for a place to shop, eat in a variety of restaurants, and party with beautiful Thai women, then this is it. Patong is famous for an entertainment area called Bangla Road. This where you’ll find bar after bar with young women dancing on poles in bikinis, enticing travelers into their establishments for cold drinks and warm company. There are highly entertaining lady boy cabaret shows, and street hawkers constantly harassing you to buy whatever they happen to be selling that day. It is definitely a spectacle worth seeing, but I prefer things to be a little quieter … “Get off my lawn!”
When I stay in Phuket, I go straight to Kata Beach. This small town is about 15 minutes south of Patong, without all the hoopla. It’s easy to find an affordable hotel, there are plenty of restaurants, and a decent nightlife (although much more subdued than Patong). There are three beautiful, sandy beaches within walking distance, and this is where I chose to live the first four months after I arrived in Thailand.
I came to Kata Beach because my friend Iggy called and said she was having a birthday party and asked if I would like to come. I booked a roundtrip flight and hotel room for less than $200 for four days and off I went. Iggy owns a bar, and the birthday party was a typical Thai “balloon party”. Balloon parties are held in Thai bars and the staff and their friends create a big potluck buffet for anyone who wants to attend. The parties are easy to identify because they hang clusters of balloons around the bars. Unfortunately, there are some “Cheap Charlies” who take advantage of this and search for balloons, buy one drink, and stuff their faces for free.
The person celebrating the birthday normally has a “money necklace” around their neck. Attendees staple baht notes to it and the necklace gets bigger and bigger throughout the night. The money can really add up. My friend Iggy said she was given close to 15,000 baht ($450) the night of her party, although I believe it’s usually about half that. Being a bar owner, she has many friends and ample opportunity to invite people to come.
I went to the party, bought a few drinks, stapled some money to Iggy’s necklace, had something to eat and went to another friend’s bar. Iggy’s place was too crowded, and considering one of her friends (another bar owner) lined up 10 Jagermeister shots for Iggy to drink (this is a common practice) it wasn’t long before she wouldn’t remember if I was there all night or not!
At my other friend’s bar, I met a lovely young lady named Apple and spent the majority of the next four days hanging with her. While many Thai people have English nicknames, Apple told me her mother actually named her the English word apple because she craved apples during her pregnancy and thought the word would make a pretty name. I guess Gwyneth Paltrow wasn’t that original after all.
It turns out, Apple is also a bar owner in Kata Beach and was visiting my friend when I met her. So, as you can imagine, the four days I spent in Phuket consisted mostly of going from one friend’s bar to another. I went to the beach once while I was there, and it was windy and the waves were crashing hard. I’m not much of a beach guy anyway, so I enjoyed spending time with old friends, making new ones, and drinking probably much more than I should have. I made my flight home, connected with Apple on Line (the Thai version of Messenger) and now I’m home recuperating with fond memories, and wondering when the next time will be when I just say “Phuket”.