Travel

Phuket: A destination that can just about be anything you want it to be

by Joel Tansey

Staff Writer

It was only after the third run to the bathroom that regret started to set in over my beachside lunch — a veritable smorgasbord that included a green curry chock-full of seafood, tom yum hot-and-sour soup and a smattering of side dishes, all enjoyed in view of the dazzling Andaman Sea.

Such is the nature of dining out in Thailand: Even the meals that ultimately disagree with your stomach still agree with the taste buds.

Besides, food poisoning is practically a rite of passage in this part of the world, right up there with buckets of liquor and tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) rides. Having spent months traveling through Thailand and its neighboring countries in my early 20s without incident, I was due.

No harm done, and no regrets.

Seafood salad is a spicy dish that
Seafood salad is a spicy dish that’s almost impossible to ignore on any visit to Thailand. | ELLIOTT SAMUELS

It was still the food, along with the obvious sun and sand, that drew me back to Thailand for the first time in the better part of a decade and, thanks to intensifying competition from low-cost carriers, getting there is cheaper than ever.

Various discount airlines offer round-trip fares from as low as ¥27,000 to Bangkok from Narita airport. Those with bigger budgets can fly out of Haneda with ANA, JAL or Thai Airways from ¥50,000, or less if you’re okay with a long layover. From Bangkok, the rest of the country is at your disposal, with direct air connections to Thailand’s varied tourism hotspots, sometimes for as little as a few thousand yen.

For this trip, my girlfriend and I chose the beaches of Phuket for a much-needed break from single-digit temperatures.

Malin Plaza in Patong offers an array of street food options.
Malin Plaza in Patong offers an array of street food options. | JOEL TANSEY

Endless possibilities

Phuket is one of those travel destinations that can be just about anything you want it to be. Looking for a place to relax, sip mimosas and dive into a good book? Try the quieter Mai Khao Beach in the north or Kamala Beach along the central western coast. Looking to tan during the day and bar hop at night? Patong and Kata have you covered. Looking for something more adventurous? There’s an ocean playground all around you and myriad hiking routes on the island and nearby islets.

With some apprehension, we begin this trip in Patong, which long ago ditched any notions of tranquility in favor of booze, clubs, massage parlors and wall-to-wall excess.

There are plenty of reasons to avoid Patong, a Thai tourist mecca that’s perhaps only eclipsed by Bangkok’s Khaosan Road. But with a long, sandy beach, accommodations for all budgets and a great food scene (if you do a bit of research), there are also enough reasons to set aside a day or two for a visit.

Phuket International Airport to Patong by pre-arranged taxi with your hotel will set you back about 700 baht (¥2,500) and take roughly an hour. Minibuses are available for much cheaper — from a couple hundred baht — but services are rife with scams and your driver may stop off at shops and push you to purchase overpriced goods. Airport shuttles will take you to the town of Phuket, where you’ll need to transfer to a local bus to get to Patong. After a long day of flying, arranging a transfer directly to your hotel would be the best bet.

Tourists walk down a street in Patong featuring a number of tailoring shops.
Tourists walk down a street in Patong featuring a number of tailoring shops. | JOEL TANSEY

Tourism hub

First impressions of Patong can be rather intimidating: Tuk-tuk drivers shout across the street to prospective customers, music blares from slow moving trucks advertising the next night’s muay thai fight card and groups of masseurs sit outside small shops advertising their (sometimes) risque services. Stay the course, Patong rewards those who dive below its gritty surface.

It won’t take you long to figure out why it has became such a tourist hotspot.

At the heart of the area is a wide, 3-kilometer-long stretch of sand on sheltered Patong Bay. Perfect for swimming much of the year — be careful during the May to October monsoon season — the bay has become a hub of activity for all sorts of water sports, from jet skiing to paragliding. Don’t expect to have the place to yourself, but the beach’s size makes it possible to stake out your own little area as you soak up the sun. Alternatively, rent out a beach lounger for the day for a few hundred baht. There are more serene beaches to be found on the island, but Patong’s beehive-like environment makes this a fun place to spend an afternoon. Watching the paraglider guides battle stiff breezes as they bring their customers in for a soft, sandy landing provides plenty of entertainment in its own right.

An appetizer of noodle-wrapped prawns is served at Euro Thai Restaurant
An appetizer of noodle-wrapped prawns is served at Euro Thai Restaurant’s in Patong, Phuket. | MAI NOGUCHI

Feast for the senses

While beach activities dominate the day, Patong really shines when the sun goes down.

Don’t hesitate to dive right into the island’s rich food offerings. Wander around the bustling streets, ignoring the tourist traps with aggressive touts out front, and find something that meets your fancy.

The friendly staff at Euro Thai Restaurant will be more than happy to show you why Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles. Those with bigger appetites will want to start their meal off with an appetizer of noodle-wrapped prawns or spring rolls before digging into a spicy pad thai or delectable green curry. Pair that with a Singha beer and you’ll already be satisfied with your trip.

Alternatively, stop in at The Sweet Restaurant, down the road from Patong Tower, for a good mix of Thai favorites and coconut milkshakes — a nice way to cool off as you get acclimatized to the 30-degree heat.

A green curry is served at Euro Thai Restaurant in patong, Phuket.
A green curry is served at Euro Thai Restaurant in patong, Phuket. | MAI NOGUCHI

After you’ve come down from that green curry-induced high, stroll over to the traffic-choked Thaweewong Road and find a seat at Restaurant Laimai, next to a Burger King. Drinks will run you a few extra baht compared to many of the nearby watering holes, but its attractive courtyard and live music will more than make up for that added charge.

For a different night out altogether, head over to Malin Plaza and discover why Thailand is famous for its street food scene. Be sure to make two or three laps around the rows of stalls before you even think about narrowing down your choices. Let sight and smell guide you in making your decision.

Tables can be hard to come by in the general seating area, but the bars toward the back of the market will let you eat there as long as you order a drink.

Banana pancakes, ever-popular among tourists in Southeast Asia, are a nice choice for dessert.

Rows of stalls offering overpriced souvenirs can be found behind the food area. If you bring your haggling A-game, you could score a deal.

Thai dishes on offer in Phuket include mantis shrimp, a local delicacy.
Thai dishes on offer in Phuket include mantis shrimp, a local delicacy. | ELLIOTT SAMUELS

Enough is enough

Like Vegas, a night or two in pulsating Patong is plenty, and you’ll have no shortage of choices for your next destination if, like me, you’re easily overstimulated.

Peace, serenity and miles of soft sand can be found on-island at any of Nai Thon, Nai Yang or Mai Khao beaches in the north. Accommodation to fit any budget is available and ranges from beachside bungalows to high-end resorts. Restaurants dot the seaside in Sirinat National Park or you could opt to rub shoulders with locals and stock up on fresh produce at Nai Yang Market, just outside the park, and cook something at home.

For something in between bustling Patong and the less-developed northern beaches, try out Karon or Kata beaches. The nice part about these two areas, in addition to the blissful tom yum at Thai Thai Restaurant near Kata Beach, is that they are convenient jumping-off points for surrounding islands due to their close proximity to Chalong Pier.

The sun sets on Karon Beach on Phuket Island.
The sun sets on Karon Beach on Phuket Island. | ELLIOTT SAMUELS

Day tripping

You could spend weeks exploring Thailand’s largest island, but don’t hesitate to get out on the water too. Finding the right tour can be an overwhelming experience — Phuket is overrun with offices offering a range of day trips and overnight packages to meet any tourist’s desire. They typically run anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 baht, with most including lunch, a round-trip transfer to the pier from your hotel and snorkelling gear rentals.

Some common jaunts include tours of Khao Phing Kan, also known as “James Bond Island” for its role in “The Man with the Golden Gun,” the Phi Phi Islands and the Similan Islands. Trips to the Phi Phi Islands are a bit restricted at the moment, as the government has decided to let world-renowned Maya Beach on Phi Phi Ley Island, a filming location for “The Beach,” recover from years of overtourism. Still, picturesque Bamboo Island, often included in Phi Phi tours, is a gem in its own right and well worth a look. The Similans, a diver’s paradise, are further afield and will require a lengthy bus and boat combination to get there. As a result, tours tend to be a bit pricier.

Hot stuff: No visit to Thailand
Hot stuff: No visit to Thailand’s Phuket Island can be complete without a plate of spicy green papaya salad (som tam). | ELLIOTT SAMUELS

Another fine option is to take a trip to Racha Island, which, despite being part of a tour that led to my fateful encounter with food poisoning, left a good impression thanks to its postcard-ready beach and crystal-clear turquoise water. Some on-island accommodations are also available and overnighters are sure to be rewarded with quiet evenings on the beach as the daytrippers clear out.

Getting there: Various discount airlines offer round-trip fares from as low as ¥27,000 to Bangkok from Narita airport. Connecting flights to Phuket can be found for as little as ¥3,700 or so.