Travel Destinations

Monday, September 16, 2013

What I Hated About Phuket (And Why You Should Still Go)

Ya Nui Beach, Rawai, Phuket, Thailand
The view above Phuket's Ya Nui Beach.
I have written a lot about our travels to Thailand and our unforgettable experiences in Phuket, including rock climbing Ko Panyi, kayaking Phang Nga Bay’s karsts and hongs, and snorkeling around the Ko Phi Phi islands.  I loved our time in Phuket and we have memories from there that will last us a lifetime.  When I’m old and wrinkly and can barely walk I will be telling anyone who will listen (and anyone who won’t) all about how brave I was rock climbing.  However, I would not be telling the truth if I said I loved every part of our time in Phuket.  There were things about Phuket that I disliked.  Likes and dislikes are varied and unique to different travelers, so I will relay the rest of our experiences and let you decide.

When we travel, we like to experience the culture of a location.  I do not want to sound pretentious when I say this, because you will see me at every tourist site in existence.  Also, tourism is the lifeblood for some destinations and therefore concessions sometimes need to be made.  But I do like to eat the local food and see how the local people live, rather than visiting a place that seems to be completely catering to tourists at the risk of losing its own identity. 

When planning our time in Phuket, I had a difficult time deciding in what area we should stay.  Phuket town seemed like the most authentic option, but it was inland and away from the beach, and getting to the beach would be difficult without a rental car.  Knowing what I know now, Phuket town would have been a good option.  Patong sounded like my worst nightmare, listed as Phuket’s main tourist center with clubbing and prostitution and catcalling touts.  Based on my research, Kata and Karon seemed like the best options.  A possibility barely explored in my guidebooks was Rawai, which I also believe would have been a better choice for us.

We stayed at the Andaman Seaview Hotel in Karon Beach.  While we usually prefer to stay at smaller hotels, I thought Phuket was the place to stay in a resort.  Plus I was able to get a room that would normally cost hundreds of dollars for a very reasonable price through Olotels.  See, I told you not to think me pretentious; I was already selling out for luxury comforts!  The hotel is very pretty with nice people and right across the street from the beach.  However, to give you a sense of my overall problem with the more touristy towns of Phuket, the buffet breakfast consisted of eggs, bacon, fruit, mashed potatoes, soups, pasta, and ice cream.  This was one of the first indications that Karon felt the need to cater to tourist palates, rather than hoping tourist palates wanted to experience Thai tastes.

Andaman Seaview Hotel - A beautiful hotel, but not my favorite in Thailand, and certainly not my favorite breakfast.
On our first day in Phuket, we arrived in the late morning.  I had again arranged an airport transfer with Oriental Escape, which I recommend.  We had a friendly driver with whom we directly arranged our return to the airport at a slightly cheaper price.  Something I learned in Thailand is to arrange some things ahead of time, such as arriving airport transfers and some tours, but also leave your itinerary somewhat open for returning airport transfers and additional tours with your guides that might be obtained for a lesser price.  After checking into our hotel, we were picked up by Tuk of Oriental Escape for our private Phuket City with Promthep Cape Sunset tour. 

Phuket town is very colorful with interesting Sino-Portuguese architecture.  If you visit Phuket, be sure to visit Phuket town.  I would guess many visitors never step foot in the town.  In addition to the beautiful architecture, we visited a fascinating apothecary shop, which I believe was also featured in The Amazing Race.  We visited Wat Chalong, the most important of the Buddhist temples in Phuket.  We also visited a Chinese temple, which was a little different from the many Thai Buddhist temples we had visited during our trip.

Sino-Portuguese Architecture Phuket Thailand
Sino-Portuguese architecture of Phuket town.
Apothecary Shop Phuket Thailand
Apothecary shop in Phuket town.
Kiew Tien Keng Shrine Phuket Thailand
Kiew Tien Keng Shrine
My favorite experience of our tour was visiting the P.P. Bird’s Nest museum.  I will try almost anything, and our tour guides were always excited when they learned I would be open to trying something new.  The museum has exhibits about the harvesting of swiftlet nests for shipment to China.  We later were able to see a harvesting cave during our snorkeling trip.  Did you know the guards of bird’s nest caves have the right to shoot anyone who approaches too closely?  In addition to the museum, there is a shop where birds’ nests can be purchased for making soup as well as a cafeteria where a bowl of the soup can be purchased and sampled.  There are three kinds of nests.  The brown is the least expensive, the white more expensive, and the red the most expensive.  The nests are supposed to be rich in nutrients with multiple health benefits, including aiding digestion, improving skin appearance, and, of course, raising libido.  If you want to sample this delicacy, I suggest doing so in Phuket, as they harvest the nests locally and seem to sell them at a lower cost than can be found in China or elsewhere.  I sampled the white nest.  It was not entirely unpleasant.  The soup had a bit of a lemon flavor.  However, I don’t feel the need to try it again. 

P.P. Bird's Nest Phuket Thailand
Bird's Nest Soup
Our last stop of the day was Laem Phromthep, a popular spot for watching the sun set over the Andaman Sea.

Sunset from Laem Phromthep Phuket Thailand
Sunset at Laem Phromthep
Our days were filled with activities, but at night in Phuket I started to see why I was not going to be a big fan of the area in which we were staying.  When we left our hotel in search of dinner, we encountered a number of restaurants featuring pizza, lasagna, and chicken cordon bleu.  Where was all the delicious, flavorful, and spicy Thai food to which I had become accustomed?  After much desperate searching, we found a restaurant that seemed like a good prospect.  It had fresh seafood displayed out front and, in addition to the European entrees, a number of Thai dishes as well. 

On another night, while in search of a place for dinner, we tried to take a shortcut through an alley.  We found a number of small outdoor bars the size of a living room.  Most of them had a bar and one pool table.  What they all had in common were prostitutes.  I was a bit fascinated, and the ladies were all friendly, even to me (I’m assuming they didn’t think I would be sending any business their way).  However it really depressed me that this was what a large number of travelers to the area were looking for.

While walking around at night, we both noticed we would get raging headaches.  The headaches were caused by the pollution and fumes from all the tuk-tuks and cars.  You would think the pollution in Bangkok would have bothered me, but it never did.  But every single night in Phuket I had a pounding headache.

We also walked by a baby elephant one night which was being used for begging.  The elephant was in obvious distress, rocking back and forth.  After our day at Elephant Nature Park, which is dedicated to saving elephants such as this, I found this incredibly disturbing.  Luckily elephant begging has been eliminated from the streets of Bangkok.  But these efforts have not yet been completely successful in Phuket.

Something else very different in Phuket from other parts of Thailand is the tuk-tuks.  Many of the tuk-tuks we saw had had blinking lights and loud music, more for a party than for transportation  Also, Phuket has a tuk-tuk mafia that controls transportation in Phuket, which means tourists get ripped off and private tour operators are blocked from picking up travelers from their hotels.  Tuk-tuk and taxi drivers pay the mafia to be allowed to pick up passengers at certain locations.  There are stories of non-member drivers being intimidated and beaten.  The government is working on eradicating this issue.

I am so glad we met Aon on what may be one of my favorite travel days ever.  After our day of rock climbing, we had become friends, and he asked us if he could take us to breakfast on our last day in Phuket (as we weren’t leaving until after midnight).  By this time I knew I wouldn’t be as happy as I thought I would be hanging out on the beach and walking around the town.  Aon picked us up in the morning and took us to a wonderful restaurant that served traditional rice porridge for breakfast.  He then took us to see the Big Buddha, which has been in the process of being built for some time now.  We also visited Laem Phromthep and toured the lighthouse. 

Big Buddha Phuket Thailand
Big Buddha Phuket as seen up close and from the distance.
We headed down the hill to the beautiful Ya Nui Beach, which had chairs and umbrellas and a little bar and food huts, but felt more remote than the beach near our hotel.  Ya Nui Beach is in the area of Rawai, which seemed like a much better area to stay.  In fact, Rawai is recommended by Sam and Pete of the Travelling King blog.  They enjoy Serenity Resort, which we could see from the beach. It looks like a great option if you want to stay in a resort but in a quieter area.  There are also bungalows that are inexpensive, such as Yanui Seaview and Naiya Beach Bungalow. 

Ya Nui Beach, Phuket, Thailand
Ya Nui Beach - Free Beer Tomorrow
After spending some time at the beach and drinking coconut water out of a coconut (I had so many of these in Thailand, and they make me very, very happy), we headed up the hill for a beautiful view of the beach where we had just been relaxing. 

We then headed to lunch for one of the best meals I had in Phuket, including a crispy pork dish which was divine and which I have not yet been able to replicate at home.  I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the pest control truck outside of the restaurant.  I promise he was there to eat lunch, not to eradicate pests.  I also loved the friendly dog who had obviously just come back from the groomer where she also had her eyebrows done.

Phuket Food
Really good, authentic Thai food is available in Phuket, it's just a little harder to find.
I think Phuket was a little difficult for me after having fallen in love with Bangkok.  Even with all of Bangkok’s tourist sites, the city itself is real, and as a visitor, you are involved in a city where real people live and work and play.  Karon in Phuket felt like a place only for tourists, and I imagine Patong and some of the other beachside resort towns are the same.  Luckily we did get to see some of the real Phuket, thanks to Tuk and Aon, and we found the local people are as friendly as anywhere else in Thailand.  But I fear that in some areas Phuket is losing its beauty and Thai identity to attract partying tourists.  I would absolutely return to Phuket, but I would stay somewhere else.

I used Lonely Planet Discover Thailand to plan our Thailand trip.

Have you every stayed in Phuket?  Were your experiences similar, or vastly different?  Do you have any suggestions for seeing the best of Phuket?

Travel the World: Things to do on the island of Phuket in Thailand.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.