One of the great things about Singapore is how easy it is to visit other parts of Southeast Asia; essentially any time you get on a plane it’s to another country. Only a few days after arriving in Singapore, my dad was scheduled to attend a business conference in Phuket (pronounced poo-ket), Thailand, which gave me the opportunity to tag along. Serene beaches and turquoise waters seemed like the perfect getaway, and only an hour and a half plane ride away. However, I was not aware that June is Phuket’s rainy/low season (whereas December is peak season for tourists), and when we arrived it was pouring. The turquoise water I had hoped for was brown due to the rain and our hotel was completely isolated from most activity on the island and filled with honeymooners and families with young kids. After about two days of rain and nothing to do, I was pretty bummed; this was not the vacation I had been hoping for. The only saving grace was the baby elephant kept onsite that gave me a kiss on the cheek. My mom and I decide to transfer to a hotel at the other end of Phuket near Patong Beach, a major tourist hub a couple hours away by car. At least if the weather is dreary, there’s more to do.
We arrive in Patong Beach to find that it is the complete opposite of where we were. If our first hotel near Khao Lak is a secluded resort for newlyweds, then this is where the bachelor party was the night before. Hundreds of motorbikes fill the narrow, winding streets, lined with colorful souvenir shops, massage parlors and street vendors that go on for miles (or kilometers I should say). Restaurants and hotels clutter the beachfront as tourists enjoy the intermittent sunshine.
After settling in at our hotel — which had a pool practically the size of Rhode Island — the first thing I wanted to do was explore. We got dropped off in town at a large central shopping center with the usual Starbucks and McDonalds, along with the rather unusual Baskin Robbins and two or three Dairy Queens. Across the street we wandered through an outdoor food market, which is one of my favorite ways to experience a culture. The local vendors cutting up meat, the aromas, the atmosphere is incredibly vibrant, and you get amazing food for ridiculously cheap. Eventually, we made our way to the other side of the shopping center, where the main row of bars is. Now let me preface this by saying that before I came, I heard Patong Beach described as “Amsterdam on steroids,” since the place is well known for its nightlife. I expected a wild scene, but since it was just after dark on a Monday night, how crazy could it really be?
“Ping-pong show, Miss ping-pong show?” Men and women approach me with brochures of naked women as I start to walk down Bangla Road. The sides of the road are packed with neon signs and bars, filled with tourists people-watching the madness. Vendors extend their displays of light-up toys and jewelry, while crossdressers in extravagant costumes pose for pictures with foreigners. Men with large iguanas and wide-eyed monkeys push the animals against me, trying to get me to take a picture with them for money. Thai women (or men or transgenders) in tight dresses loiter on the side of the road, touching the arms of middle-aged white men as they pass by, trying to solicit whoever is willing. We pass by a large club venue with hundreds of stripper poles visible from the street, and one bar even has a sign that says “Husband Day Care,” where they claim to take care of your husband while you shop. This place is not just Amsterdam on steroids; this is the love child of Bourbon Street, Cancun and Amsterdam.
It’s an overwhelming scene, and since tourism is Phuket’s main source of income, tourists are the primary targets for anyone trying to make a buck on Bangla Road. During the island’s busiest months, I can envision throngs of sunburnt tourists flocking here after a long day at the beach.
But I’m curious to see what else there is. With unpredictable weather, planning a side trip to a neighboring island — including James Bond island — is not the best option. Instead we visit the Big Buddha, which overlooks the city and its beaches; an elephant camp, though we don’t ride them anywhere, it’s fun to interact with them; Buddhist temples and a pearl farm, to name a few things. One of my favorite things was wandering along the streets of old Phuket town and stumbling into what appeared to be a small shop with handmade Thai goods. It ended up being a massive place with beautiful Thai silks and souvenirs. Finding a unique shop among the hundreds of look-a-likes is one of the best things about exploring a new place, especially in Thailand, where everything is so cheap. (A dinner for two including drinks and appetizers at a local restaurant can be less than $20).
Beautiful beaches, cheap cuisine, and a vibrant culture — Phuket is absolute paradise.