Phoking Around Phuket

Today’s guest post is by Kirk Shackleton. Kirk was reared in Australia’s Outback before travelling extensively across the globe, eventually settling in London.  He is passionate about food, travel and any sport that isn’t cricket!

Gap years are in vogue.  Whether taken before or after university, as a break in the middle of your career or during retirement, people of all ages are grasping the opportunity to travel ever further, more frequently, and for greater lengths of time.  On the cusp of this wave sits Thailand, a country which has experienced an explosion in popularity during the backpacking boom, and is now synonymous with unwashed vagabonds searching for themselves rather than a job.  If Bangkok’s Khao San Road is the effervescent heart of this craze, Phuket is the face, the paradise which lures travellers in their millions. And you can easily book a hotel room in Phuket that fits all of your desires, location preferences, budget, or number of stars.

The first thing which should be noted is the pronunciation of Phuket; it is Poo-ket, not Fook-it, a subtle yet vital distinction, and the first mistake I made upon landing in Bangkok sounding like an angry Northern Englishman.  Beyond that, there isn’t a huge amount which can go wrong when making your way from Thailand’s capital city to its largest island, so abundant is transportation across the country.

Many opt for the ease of travelling on a tourist bus, which takes about 12 hours (usually overnight) and costs roughly 1,000 baht (£20/$32).  If you’re anything like me, however, the idea of arriving in an exciting foreign land and hopping straight onto a bus with the same people who share your daily commute is somewhat underwhelming, which is why I used a local bus; it may take a little longer, and be marginally less comfortable, but you’ll save yourself a few baht (journey costs around 500 baht/£10/$16) and have a far more interesting story to tell everyone when you get home.

Phuket itself was not quite what I had imagined.  For a start, it is joined to the mainland by three bridges which are less than a kilometre in length, rather undermining my vision of a Thai island being totally remote and secluded.  The island’s infrastructure is modern and well-established, thriving upon an idyllic land of picturesque beaches, tropical forests and surmountable hillsides.  Each stretch of sand bears legions of semi-reclined beach chairs awaiting foreign posteriors, set against a constant hum of activity which grows into the night.  In short, it was more developed and more popular than I had thought.

There is plenty of accommodation in Phuket, but not the isolated bamboo huts containing little more than a mattress and cold water tap that you might expect.  Instead, luxury villas and five-star resorts compete with tired hostels to provide tourists on all budgets with accommodation, from which I sought solitude in the Pineapple Guesthouse, situated in the southwest of the island.  For 200 baht a night (£4/$6.5), I shared a simple, clean room with 9 other travellers.  The lack of air conditioning was a novelty which quickly grew tiresome, unlike the owners, Steve and Lek, who were fantastically hospitable and helpful.

Before long I realised that the paradisiacal Thai island portrayed in The Beach does not exist, at least not here.  Ironically, it is probably because of The Beach that tourism has swept into Phuket and obliterated its tranquillity.  Yet it would be unfair to totally disregard the whole island because of a few tourists, not least because I was just another guilty addition to the throng.

Thailand is a fantastically cheap place to go once you’ve paid for the flight, and opportunities to spend your baht are copious.  Market stalls flog everything from Coke can baseball caps to Chang Beer t-shirts (an essential item for any traveller), but you must, MUST always remember to barter.  I could literally write a book on this.  You should treat the process as a friendly sport, wearing at all times a smile, without ever losing perspective by arguing vehemently over pennies (a rule I break constantly).  I managed to haggle two fake Ralph Lauren polo shirts from 400 baht (£8/$13) to 150 (£3/$5) at Phuket City’s New Weekend market, and finished the day with arms full of chop sticks, fabrics and clothes.

Excluding beaches and brides, Thailand’s main draw is food.  The hawker stalls along Phuket’s Patong Beach are a must for anyone wishing to salivate more than they previously thought possible, but be warned, the difference between ‘Thai spice’ and ‘tourist spice’ is extreme.  If asked which you would prefer, do not misinterpret the question as a challenge.  I lived on delicious street food while in Phuket, with the satisfaction of every bite enhanced by the price; a Pad Thai made on a portable wok station will set you back 25 baht (£0.50/$0.80), which you can mop up with a spring roll before tucking into a banana and chocolate pancake or custard Salapo (Chinese steamed dumpling) for 5 baht (£0.10/$0.16).  Amazing!

Without halcyon preconceptions of solitude and tranquillity, a farang (Westerner) visiting Phuket is unlikely to be disappointed.  Once they peel away the veneer of tourism, they will find a beautiful island which can be appreciated upon its own merits, as a well-deserved escape from city life, a stepping stone to smaller islands, or simply as a place to meet people and party.  Indeed, people rave about Bangkok, with its hawker stalls, tuk-tuks and seven-elevens on every corner, so why should the same attributes be used as a criticism against Phuket?  Don’t go expecting to be shipwrecked for a week, and you will leave feeling just as besotted with Thailand as most people who are lucky enough to see it.

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One Response to “Phoking Around Phuket”

  1. I like this: “people rave about Bangkok, with its hawker stalls, tuk-tuks and seven-elevens on every corner, so why should the same attributes be used as a criticism against Phuket? ”

    Yes, Phuket is very developed, one might even say “modern”. Just because its an island does not mean we all live in grass huts! I have lived here more than 10 years and really appreciate the combination of modernity with a more laid back local way of life, but tourists may have to get off the beach to see it!

    Cheers
    Jamie

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