When people ask how I found Phuket, I always say I loved the food. The truth is, the food is just about the only thing that I liked about Phuket. Which is not to say that it’s a terrible place. It’s just not the kind of place for me.
For purposes of this article, when I say “Phuket” I mean Patong Beach and its vicinity. Phuket is an island but we didn’t see all of it. Our target was Patong Beach because that’s the place that everyone raves about so that was where we went. All the reviews I’ve read mentioned the beautiful beach, the fantastic shopping and the incomparable food. So we decided to skip the elephant adventure and the island hopping.
My first impression of Patong Beach was grand. The cruise ship was tendered and we boarded a boat to get to the beach.
The view from the boat was magnificent, offering a panoramic perspective of the crescent shaped shore that is Patong Beach. The sand appeared to be shimmering under the noonday sun and the sea was a beautiful expanse of green.
Beyond the beach rose the majestic hills peppered with villas of the super rich. It was a dream world, all right.
Almost as soon as our feet touched the sand, the trouble began. Obviously, we were tourists. We just came from the boat and the boat came from the cruise ship, didn’t it? The “entrepreneurs” were all over us, crowding us, competing for our attention. Most were offering a tour of the island, others were recommending massage parlors.
No, thank you, I told them all, I just came for a swim. My two friends, Ike and Osang, wanted a massage but we had been told that they could get cheap Thai massage right on the beach – on makeshift beds and with a full view of the sea.
Perhaps, for people coming from countries where there are no good beaches, Phuket would be nothing short of heavenly. But I grew up in the Philippines where beaches with finer sands and clearer waters abound. It was simply hard to be impressed with Patong Beach with the not-too-clear waters and the oppressive humidity.
If you think it’s humid in the Philippines, try Phuket. Of course, it’s possible that I was in Phuket at the wrong time of the year. Perhaps, in the summer, the water is clearer. I decided to set aside my ruined expectations. I was at Patong Beach which has been in every travel magazine’s top 20 beach destinations for the past so many years, and I was going to enjoy myself. I went for a swim while my friends had their massage. Half an hour later, we were enjoying grilled chicken, fried spring rolls and fresh coconut.
The real trouble began after we left the shore. We were looking for a particular restaurant and I wanted to do some shopping. Everyone said that, much like Bangkok, Phuket is a bargain shopper’s paradise.
We asked for directions to the restaurant we wanted to go to but no one seemed to know where it was. Strange, really, since it was supposed to be just nearby.
What was even more strange was that all those bystanders whom we asked for directions all recommended some other establishment. And some were a bit pushy with their recommendations. And I got the feeling that these were “agents” of some sort who received commissions for luring tourists to a restaurant or massage parlor or bar. Never mind, we said, if we couldn’t find the restaurant, let’s do some shopping.
One of my companions, Ike, a member of the ship’s crew who had been to Phuket countless times, suggested we could get good food too in the eateries inside the flea market called Patong Otap Shopping Paradise. We walked a few hundred meters to the Patong Otop where the setup was very much similar to Boracay’s D’Mall. Except for one thing. I noticed right away the circular outdoor bars with central platforms where skimpily clad girls stood. I remarked that it was not ever 4.00 p.m. and the bar girls were already out – and outdoors too!
But, never mind, we didn’t go there to watch girly shows, did we? On to the food hunt and the shopping. The problem was that almost everything on sale there can be found in Dapitan Market in Manila and at the Greenhills Shopping center. Same home decorative items, same clothes, same tablecloths, same everything! Now, why on earth would I buy a set of beautiful wooden candle holders and suffer the pain of paying for excess luggage when I could get them right in Manila?
The shopping was disappointing but the food made up for all of it. Glorious Thai food! Feeling full, we started to walk back to the ship. More than twice, Ike was approached by some characters in super colorful shirts. I didn’t catch the conversation and asked Ike what they wanted. Pimps, he said, asking if he wanted to, you know, jig-jig as the Chinese calls it.
We were back on the ship by 5.30 p.m. but there was a long queue, with dozens of male passengers and crew members, to the boat that would make another trip to Phuket. Obviously, for adult males, the real attraction of Phuket is not the beach but the night life. And from what I’ve seen, bar girls already out even before the sun was down, it must be a naughty night life indeed.
Phuket’s Patong Beach is much like Olongapo. Bars and bar girls. Pimps. Prostitution is illegal in Thailand just as it is in the Philippines but there are no pimps unless there are prostitutes. Phuket might be some people’s idea of fun but it isn’t mine. Or, maybe, I should have taken the island-hopping excursion offered by the cruise ship. That might have given me a much better impression of Phuket.