The sprawling island of Phuket is home to a surprising array of vastly different environments. It’s got dense untamed forests, isolated sandy beaches, small Thai fishing villages, and concrete urban jungles. But undeniably the island’s biggest draw, the place that attracts more visitors than any other, is its resort city of Patong.
This is where Herb and I spent the majority of our stay on the island, and I have to say, despite its “big city” status it couldn’t be more different from Bangkok.
Patong is one of those cities that seems to exist solely for the sake of tourism. Yet unlike Ko Phangan, a tourist haven that caters to young, party-oriented backpackers, Patong targets an entirely different clientele.
In Patong, everything is expensive – from its multimillion dollar oceanfront villas right down to the local street food. And not just a little expensive, either – it’s really expensive, at least by Thai standards.
Example: as a foreigner, you’ll never find a taxi willing to go by meter – nor will you negotiate a fare of under 200 baht. All the drivers know what to charge, so none of them will budge. Compare that to Bangkok where you can easily cab across town for 60 or less. The same is true for lodging, where, after leaving the villa to spend a few remaining days in town, Herb and I found ourselves paying twice as much as in Bangkok – for a shared room rather than two private ones!
In fact, so many tourist dollars flow through Patong that many Thais from less affluent provinces come just during the high season, to earn a few extra baht and provide for families back home.
The result of all this is a high-paced, twenty-four hour, neon-lit frenzy – where every menu is in English and every business has a street hustler trying desperately to coax you inside.
Nowhere is this more true than on Bangla Road, Patong’s glowing epicenter of activity and nightlife.
Bangla is an interesting place. It’s sort of a combination of the Las Vegas Strip, Brazilian Carnaval, Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, and Amsterdam’s Red Light District. On the one hand it’s got wall-to-wall bars, clubs, and restaurants, many of them quite posh.
…But on the other, it’s got sleaze – and lots of it.
Although the Thai sex industry is significantly more in-your-face than anywhere I’ve ever been, few places make it as prominent as Bangla Road. Prostitutes patrol the crowds day and night, as strip clubs leave their doors wide-open in plain view of the public.
In fact, about the closest thing you can find to a “proper” bar seems to be one where the pole dancers wear tops – and even there the bartenders will sometimes give a quick flash, hoping to draw you in for a drink.
With all this sleaze bombarding you from all sides, it doesn’t take long to develop the sense that nobody on Bangla is quite what they seem. And while that maybe a slight exaggeration, you’d probably be surprised just how close to the truth it is. Even those who appear to be locals just out for fun…often turn out to be something entirely different.
Think that girl in the club is just out to dance with her friends? Think the couple playing pool are just here for fun? Think the 19-year-old in braces really just wants to practice her English? Think again. Time and time and time again, the unfortunate truth would eventually come out: they’ve come to Patong from afar for one thing and one thing alone. Employment, of the seediest nature.
It’s really quite sad when you think about it. To me one of the most rewarding aspects of travel is the opportunity to meet, socialize, and party with locals – people from all walks of life. But in a place like this, you’ve really got to be on your toes…because you never can be sure if you’re just having a friendly chat, or if you’re being sized up by a group of prostitutes scheming to coax you away.
Anyway, I’m ranting – and I really don’t want to leave you with too negative an impression of Patong. Because to be honest, we really did have a fantastic time. The nightlife is world-class, the beaches are great, the food is delicious, and just like Thailand’s capital, it’s got all the conveniences of home.
It’s just that after a week or so there, it became abundantly clear that Patong is a place to visit – not to live.
Bangkok. Now that’s the city for me 😉
(As one more aside, I might as well mention that, even beyond the sex trade, rules in general do seem to go straight out the window on Bangla. Even the big companies like 7-11 don’t follow the laws – dishing out whiskey 24 hours a day – while pharmacies sell Valium right over the counter. And of course, none of the clubs close before sunrise…)