Official Language: Thai
$1 = 35 THB Thai Baht
Stay: Jan 3rd to 30th 2015
Phuket is located around 800km south of Bangkok. It’s one of Thailand’s biggest islands and the #1 destination for those looking for white sands, turquoise waters and crazy parties. Apart from being known as one of the most popular resort destinations, I believe that everyone remembers the devastating 2004 tsunami and the great damage it caused. Well, now 10 years later you won’t find any trace of it. Phuket was really quick to recover, get back to business and it surely didn’t stop people from coming.
I took a direct flight from South Korea to Phuket by ThaiAirways. It took around 7 hours to get there. I always thought that flying within Asia was really cheap. Especially after flying to HongKong and Malaysia but it seems like Phuket it’s a much more popular destination and I wasn’t really able to find cheap tickets. During high season (Nov – Mar) tickets can go up to $1200. My issue was that that’s the price I would usually pay for travelling to Europe from South Korea so it didn’t make sense to me to pay that much to travel within Asia. Anyways, I actually bought my ticket far ahead of time, in May 2014. It cost me 800,600 KRW ($680) round trip. I would recommend going between March and April. Right after high season ends and before the heavy rain season starts.
Sawadee ka! was the first thing I heard when I landed which means something like hello/ welcome. The airport however was not very nice. Imagine yourself being stuck in a stuffy humid room full of sweaty people waiting in line at immigration for 1 hour. So first impressions…. not so good. But I’ve heard that improvements have been on their way to expand the airport’s terminals since there have been an increasing number of tourists every year. So next time I go I hope to have a better experience there.
I’m not sure if this counts for all nationalities but I was recommended to get a yellow fever vaccine beforehand (usually 10 days before travelling) and of course it’s always good to have travel insurance as well. I got mine from Worldnomads at $120 for 1 month. Also its good to check if you need a visa to enter the country.
I stayed in Phuket for a month doing a bartender course. The 4 week-course was around £1,450 with accommodations included. The food package they offered was $170 for breakfast and lunch from Monday to Friday. I also paid £30 for the airport shuttle which I think was kind of convenient, especially when you are travelling alone and for the first time to a country you know nothing about. In places like this where there are no official taxis nor fees and especially when you don’t know how much it’s the local currency worth it’s easier to get ripped off. After talking to some people once I got to the school I learned that the right price if you are going from the airport to Patong (west coast area 40 minutes) should be around 700 baht. So now you know!
I think that Patong Area is a good place to stay if you want to be close to the beach and nightlife. There is also a ton of hotel choices, restaurants and shopping areas. Another good option is Phuket Town if you are more interested in experiencing the local life and getting the real feel of Thai culture. Both towns are located in the middle part of Phuket which makes it easier if you want to go and explore a little south or a little north.
Transportation was kind of scary though. Traffic was very chaotic and it didn’t feel very safe. People drive really fast and crazy. There are a bunch of scooters all around so be careful when crossing the street. If you want to visit the neighboring towns you can either rent a scooter or take a tuk tuk which are like mini trucks…. but not really. It’s basically the back of a mini truck, no doors, no windows, only a rooftop with bars on the side so remember to hold on tight!
The weather was hot and humid but still somehow bearable and it only rained heavily once during my entire stay. You should be careful with the climate change though. The combination of heat, humidity and high AC can get you sick and you don’t want to be sick in this weather!
The school was well located and there were many shops, restaurants, bars, markets and spas around. Especially the beach was only a 15 minute walk from the school. If you have never been to South East Asia let me tell you, it’s not all food stalls and street markets. You will most probably find all the store brands you have at home at the local shopping center and even have a Starbucks on the way there. So don’t be scared. If the local food doesn’t suit you or if you need to buy something, you will definitively find it at Jungceylon mall.
When at the market you will find fruit salads, juices, grilled fish, fried noodles and all kinds of weird stuff like crunchy insects on a stick. But don’t be scared to try the local food. I always say it’s better to try the local food at markets rather than at the expensive restaurants for tourists because #1 it’s cheaper and #2 it’s the real thing. Although I don’t recommend having “fresh stuff” like fish or fruits during the night since obviously it’s been standing the whole day under the sun. So just try to choose carefully. It’s always better if they cut the fruit or cook the fish in front of you so you know it’s fresh. Some staple dishes, a must try for first timers are:
- Phat Thai: Thin rice noodles fried with usually egg, tofu and shrimp and seasoned with fish sauce, tamarind and chili. Some vendors will add other ingredients or ask you to choose from as they cook it in front of you.
- Tom Yam: A sour herbal broth, with fatty prawns and a lingering tart/spicy flavor. Most Thai dishes are spicy and contain seafood. Don’t let the word “spicy” scare you though. These dishes are not only popular to Thai people but to westerners as well.
- Khao Phat: Fried rice with meat and vegetables. Garnished with chilies, sugar, fish sauce and lime. Probably the best example of the flavors that represent Thai food. A mix of sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy. Nothing you have ever experienced before.
- Green curry with a side of Jasmine rice: A herbal paste with rich coconut milk. Don’t let the color fool you, even though it’s green, it does have some spice in it.
The thing about shopping at the market is that everyone pretty much sells almost the same stuff. So as you can imagine there is more supply than demand. Therefore haggling is a MUST here! Seriously, if you do it right, you can even get an 80% discount. You can expect to find lots of fake goods like makeup, handbags and sunglasses as well as traditional decorations and fabrics. A great place for traditional shopping is Phuket Town Weekend Night Market and Pukhet Walking Street market in Old Phuket Town. Huge markets with unlimited choices of products. Though I must warn you, it can be a little too chaotic.
I didn’t have a big issue with exchanging money since I withdrew from the ATM and it only charged me $5 per withdrawal. I have heard that the best way to get a good exchange rate is by withdrawing from the bank unless your bank charges you a lot to withdraw. Anyways, many of the other students were complaining that the exchange rate in Phuket was not good and actually things were more expensive there than in Bangkok. That’s because there are so many European tourists in Phuket so they tend to raise the prices. I was shocked that most stores had signs in Russian rather than English and that will tell you a lot about who is their main targeted demographic.
Even though there are so many tourists in the region, I would say not many Thai people speak English well. I did find some trouble trying to communicate. Most of them just speak the basic English according to the type of business they run. But Thai people are the friendliest people I have ever encountered. Compared to locals from other touristy countries that are fed up with foreign tourists, Thai people are known for being very friendly, kind and welcoming.
What to do in Phuket? Well, if your thing is not relaxing at the beach or pool all day then there are also plenty of activities for you to do. If you walk around the town you will find lots of tourism booths offering day trips, adventure packs and water sports.
- My favorite thing during my entire stay and also the first thing I did when I got there was to get a message. This is spa heaven. The perfect place to relax and get pampered. Hot weather, the beach, fresh fruits and cheap spas. What else can you wish for?
- 1 hour foot massage 250 baht.
- 1 hour Thai massage 300 baht.
- 1 hour oil massage 400 baht.
- Manicure & Pedicure 600 baht.
- 20 minutes fish spa for 100 baht.
- The school also offered taking us to some activities during the weekends and one of them was this 60 meters high bungee jump at World Bungee Jump for 1500 baht. I usually wouldn’t trust doing these extreme activities in countries like this because obviously security measures are not so tight and they are not really professionals. Anyways, I had wanted to do this for a long time so I decided to just go with it. Luckily nothing bad happened but I did hear that later on there was an accident and they shut the place down so I would recommend checking out the places you are going to before agreeing to go.
- The next weekend I booked a trip to see the elephants and tigers. I booked it on one of those booths in the middle of the street. It does look sketchy and there is no way of actually guaranteeing the quality of the service but I decided to try it out. When I went to ask about the trips they offered, the guy was actually very nice and helpful. The thing is that you had to pay in advance and yeah the guy gave me a receipt but still it didn’t feel very official. He charged me 700 baht for a 45 minute elephant trek at the mountain at Camp Chang Kalim. Actually 700 baht was half of the original price (child price) which I assume he reduced because I look very small ?? Then for Tiger Kingdom I paid at the actual place. There you could choose the size of the tiger you wanted to see and there was a different price according to it. I chose the medium tiger for 800 baht.
So on the day, the guy came with his car/taxi and drove me to the elephant camp first. There I bought a bag of bananas to feed the elephants for 100 baht. He waited there until I was done and then he drove me to Tiger Kingdom. At Tiger Kingdom you are allowed to stay inside for 1 hour and look around the tigers and then go to the cage of the one that you paid for. So after 1 hour the guy came to pick me up and drove me back to the school. The car/taxi was very nice, clean and had AC. What wasn’t very clear was how much I was supposed to pay for the service. He did mention something at first when I did the bookings but it wasn’t very clear and what he mentioned was a suggested price. Anyways he had been very kind, helpful, the trip went very smooth and having transportation back and forth was actually very convenient so I had no issue paying the 200 baht for the service.
Both of these places offered a “professional” photo deal for quite a high price but actually you don’t need to pay for it. I didn’t and in both places the employees offered to take my pictures and they came out pretty good. Of course a tip was expected at the end.
I didn’t know this before but after my trip to these places I decided to do some research and found out that there is quite a debate about these animal camps. Whether the animals are being treated well, if they are being exploited, etc. It is natural for foreigners not to know about these things, especially when these trips are being offered so openly and promoted widely. What I did notice was that when I was at both places the employees would make a lot of effort to explain how what they were doing was normal and that the measures they took were understandable. The elephant trainers use metal spikes to control the elephants and they said that the elephants are not hurt since their skin is so thick. At Tiger Kingdom they said that the tigers are not drugged but that the reason why they are so calm or sleeping during the day is because it’s very hot.
All in all, it did make a great part of my trip experience to be able to be in so close proximity with these animals but after looking at their environment and reading about it I would definitively recommend going to an elephant sanctuary instead where you can know for sure that the elephants are not being exploited all day and don’t have to carry chairs on their backs.
- There are also many trips to the nearby islands. On Phuket’s side you have Ko Phi Phi which takes around 3 hours to reach for 1200 baht round trip on a ferry. *For reference this is where “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio was filmed. On the opposite side you have Ko Samui (7 hours 1300 baht), Ko Pha Ngan (7 hours and a half 1400 baht) and Ko Tao (8 hours 1500 baht, this is THE scuba diving hub). The one I visited was Coral island. It was 30 minutes by bus and then 30 minutes by boat. The school charged us 800 baht for transportation per person which I guess was the group price. The water was so clear and perfect for snorkeling. That’s what I would call paradise.
- There is a street near Patong Beach known as Bangla Road and at night it becomes the craziest party scene you could ever imagine. Extremely crowded and streets filled with clubs after clubs after clubs, loud music and ladyboys dressed in shiny outfits. That’s THE main party scene. Even though it looked chaotic, it was considerably safe. Except when drunken people start fighting which was not uncommon there. Other attractions that were widely advertised left and right were Muay Thai Kickboxing shows, Pingpong shows and the Las-Vegas-style FantaSea show. If partying is your thing then the full moon party is something you won’t want to miss when in Thailand.
- Thailand is mostly a Buddhist country so temples are not strange here. A popular one is on top of Nakkerd Hills with a huge white Buddha and you can ask a monk to pray for you and get a bracelet for good luck. I also assume some kind of donation is expected. Wat Chalong is another main temple you can find in Phuket.
If you are looking for some souvenirs or a way to remember you experience in Thailand there are a couple of things you can get.
- For some reason in this tropical country people get tailored suits. Whenever you are walking around the market people will approach you offering to get you a tailored suit. I guess it’s because fabric is so cheap here, especially silk is very famous.
- What can be more symbolic of Thailand than a Buddha figurine, right? Well, think again. There are some restrictions regarding the export of Buddha’s as they are considered religious items. So better get a wood carved elephant instead or anything themed elephant it’s also a good representation of Thailand.
- But if you would rather have a more permanent memento then a bamboo tattoo is your thing. Tattoos in general seemed very popular in Thailand but at those low prices it really makes you wonder how hygienic they are. These bamboo tattoos inked by monks at the temple are considered a blessing. They are called Sak Yant tattoos and people think of them as protection or good luck charms. Angelina Jolie is probably the most famous person that has had one done.
Some things to keep in mind while in Thailand:
- The head is considered the most sacred part of the body and the feet the most dirtiest ones so do not touch people’s head and don’t point at people with you feet or put your feet up a chair or table. Also, take your shoes off when entering temples.
- A way to show respect to people is with a “wai” (placing your palms together in front of your chest and bowing your head). Often accompanied by the word Kapunka which means thank you.
- Do not disrespect in any way to Buddha or the Royal Family because Thai people will take this very seriously.
Even though I didn’t really have that much time to explore around as I had classes for 6 hours from Monday to Friday and tests every day, I did manage to have some awesome experiences and small adventures. Going by myself for the first time, I was very scared and didn’t really know what to expect. Luckily I didn’t encounter any problems. At plain sight it does look a bit unsafe and chaotic but eventually I got used to the rhythm of the town and ventured to the many things it had to offer. Travelling by yourself is not always easy since you have to make decisions all by yourself and figure out everything on your own. It also helped that Thai people were so kind and welcoming. All in all, it was challenging at first but I’m happy with what I accomplished and I feel that every situation is always a new learning experience. Safe Travels!