My first introduction to Thailand was Bangkok. We were met at the airport, whisked into a van and checked into an expensive hotel in Bangkok’s Siam Square, where we stayed for the next two days. I knew what I was going to do and who I was going to do it to.
Phuket was a completely different experience. I arrived in Phuket with half an itinerary, a missing Kindle and absolutely no idea where anything was: all I knew was that I had an island to explore and and, well, other things to do.
- Get away from the action
Most travellers’ first introduction to Phuket is Patong Beach. And perhaps, if you’re not tired, the infamous Soi Bangla. Both of these are fine locations, for reasons we’ll get into later, but if you want to find a good place to stay, this is the not the place to be. Instead, navigate to the Jungceylon Mall and the Eating market, then follow the road that leads directly away from the sea.
It’s fairly laid-back, you’ll be able to find much cheaper hotels there; decent double bedrooms start at 600 Baht a night. Food is also super cheap, because there’s a street market barely a hundred meters from any hotel you take; there’s also the mall for clothes and eating out.
- Make a trip to other beaches, especially the three K’s – the Kata, Karon and Kamala stretch. Then get to the islands.
The three K’s are Patong minus some of the noise and the bustle; almost the perfect place to sip a beer, read a book, and take a dip without being run over by a jetski or an indignant American.
On the way, you’ll also be able to explore some towns, a temple or two, and indulge yourself in some surprises on the road – be it fine dining to the colorful bar-truck combinations that peddle these streets.
Nobody comes to Phuket without wanting to go to the islands that orbit it, so make sure that you have an island tour planned.
- Don’t take tuk-tuks. Invest in a scooter. And in a good pair of Crocs
There’s a reason everyone drives a scooter in Phuket. For just 200 Baht a day (and petrol is dirt cheap), you suddenly gain access to the entire island. There’s an excellent road network and nothing gets you from A to B like a two wheeler. It’ll vastly expand your travelling range, unlock parts of Phuket you’d take too long to get to otherwise, and save you thousands on tuk tuks, which are the only other viable option – this place has no public transport to speak of.
You’ll also need Crocs. Cheap, indestructible, comfortable and totally weatherpoof; these sandals are something of a cult in Thailand. Avoid the legitimate Crocs in the mall and go for the 200 Baht pairs sold in practically every other shop. It makes absolutely no difference.
- Become friends with your hotel receptionist.
In Phuket, hotels often have some game going on – especially when it comes to island tours. The best deals invariably come not from Tripadvisor but from the receptionist who has ‘a friend’ who does tours. We snagged an epic 1,800 baht-per-person deal for an island tour package generally pitched at 2,500 baht and higher online, and the organization was such that a very sharp driver picked us up, ferried us to the place, and we spent an entire day snorkeling and being ferried from one island to the other.
- Stay away from espresso, beer and western food. Go local.
All these things cost unreasonable amounts (compared to food prices as a whole here). If you want to get drunk, get local hard liquor; if you want coffee, be aware that most places make cheap and overpriced coffees that just aren’t worth it. You’re better off finding a fast-food franchise and buying a cuppa there. If you want to save on food, always opt for Pad Thai or similar local stuff. It’s totally worth it.
- Invest in oil and foot massage from old ladies
I know this sounds strange, but here’s the deal: look for old women and massage shops with “no sex” on the front doors. A proper oil or foot massage is heaven on earth and can bring you back to a hundred and thirty percent even after an excruciating day of activity. Most massage parlors with pretty women tend to be front shops for sex and handjobs; it’s the old women that you can trust to do a proper job.
- Don’t buy anything from tourist streets
There’s nothing the average Thai likes more than a gullible tourist. A general rule of thumb is that anything sold in a place frequented by white people is guaranteed to be prices about 3 times higher than it actually should be. Instead of blowing your money at street shacks, look for night markets frequented by the Thai. There the deals are better, and if you’ve got the hang of bargaining, you can make some excellent purchases.
When eating, look for streets lined with food shops: these generally offer better deals. This is where that scooter comes in really handy, by the way.
- Learn to love 7-11s
A 7-11 is a sacred institution: these shops will not only sell you anything you need at any time of the day: their 35-baht burgers and megalithic 20-baht coffees are something special. Especially if you’re tight for cash. They also stock Uncle Tom’s, which is the beverage of choice if you’re looking to have an epic night out or you’re looking to be completely fucked up. Be warned that your sinuses will protest mightily and the resultant hangover may take some time to vanish.
- Keep your money in the hotel room
If you’re going out, never carry all your cash with you: that’s a sure-fire way to lose it all. Keep around 3000 baht on you-that’ll allow you to do pretty much anything (or anyone) you want. If you’re spending more than that in one night, you’ve just lost the right to call yourself a budget traveler. Or you’ve had too much Uncle Tom.
Unless it’s food, drink, sold in a mall, or a taxi meter, never accept the first price. Bargain. It’s best if you take a friend with you: one of you act interested and all googly-eyed, the other can scoff and say it’s overpriced and demand a better price. It works, trust me. In most instances we’ve been managed to knock off at least 50% off the first sale price, and in some cases we’ve managed to get a whopping 70% off the sale price.
Remember to never buy anything until you’ve explored the vicinity and made sure you’re getting the best price. Also remember that there’s strength in numbers: you’re much more likely to get better deals for services (say, parasailing or jetskiing) if you’re buying as a group.
- Hit Soi Bangla early in the evening late at night.
Soi Bangla is best explored between 8 PM and 1 AM. Strip clubs, contrary to popular belief, are an excellent place to sit and chill from the noise outside; draft beer is 60 Baht. Soi Freedom, a little off-shoot from Bangla, is ringed with open bars and a stage in which bands perform sometime; highly recommended, especially since you can buy vodka-redbull mixtures by the bucket (and I mean plastic buckets).
At various times, people will also distribute get-in-free tickets to various clubs. Collect them. They come in handy when you want to go party and suddenly the bouncers decide to extort you for money.
- Stay away from Hong Thong
I don’t know what the hell is in it, and neither does Google. All I know is that it tastes like fungus and makes excellent tile cleaner. Avoid, for the sake of your liver.
All good? Here’s a map of Phuket. Keep in mind that different maps of Phuket show different things, and that outside of Phuket town and Patong, Google Maps is woefully inaccurate. It’s always best to keep the maps that you get with brochures. Two to three of these on hand will generally give you the best picture of the island you’re on.