Thailand - Patong
My Relationship With Patong
I first visited Phuket in 1992 and loved it. What a wonderful place it was then - even Patong. Patong at that time looked nothing like it does today. All of the shops and accommodation were on the main beach road or along a few small sois that ran back away from the beach.
As a tourist resort it was still in its infancy. There were very few tourists, and the tourists that were there were mainly independent travellers and backpackers. However, the raunchy nightlife was already in place and it was around that time that a lot of girls from Pattaya had started moving to Phuket.
In 1987 I had a great time in Pattaya and went again briefly in 1992 to see how it had changed. It seemed like a totally different place compared to my first visit and all the fun had gone. I heard many times that everyone had moved to Phuket. Phuket had really started to establish itself and for the first time I started to hear it mentioned in the UK. People were mildly amused, thinking it was pronounced, "Fukkit." It's not, and the standard transliteration isn't good either. It is pronounced Poo-get.
I went back again in 1996 and in the space of four years (coinciding with an economic boom time in Thailand) Phuket had gone crazy. Patong had already turned into the kind of place I wasn't interested in so I based myself at Kata which was a lot more to my liking. I had obtained my scuba diving certification by then so did a fair amount of diving.
The next time I visited was during the winter of 2001/2002. On that trip I started off in Singapore, spent some time in Australia, and then I travelled overland through Malaysia into Thailand.
Nothing about the trip up to that point was particularly remarkable but as soon as I got into Thailand I felt immediately at home. I stayed in Bangkok before going up to Chiang Mai and although I had a plane ticket to Phuket, my gut instinct was that I wouldn't enjoy it. I ended up staying in Khaolak instead, where I went to directly from Phuket airport.
I liked the quietness and tranquility of Khaolak but it was a tad boring at times so I took the bus down to Phuket on a couple of occasions. One reason was to alleviate my boredom but I was also interested to see what had become of Phuket. Unfortunately what had happened wasn't pretty.
I visited some Greek islands in the 1970's and then went back later, only to find they had been ruined by mass tourism. Greece got busier and went further downhill throughout the 80's (it doesn't take long for idyllic destinations to become completely ruined). In the 90's the package tourists started going to Florida where they were seduced by the 'American Dream' and Disneyworld. After that, the same fate befell Thailand.
Thailand has always been a special place for me. However, it was always inevitable that things would change. Many Thais have an unquenchable thirst for money, and many foreigners with more money than taste have the means to visit exotic places for their vacations. In the mid-90's development took off and even today it is still accelerating.
It is still possible to visit beaches in Thailand that were like Patong when I first went there, but Patong will never be the same again.
By the following winter (2002/2003) I had quit my job and I spent three months in Southeast Asia, spending most of that time in Khaolak. I made a number of day trips to Phuket again during that time.
At the end of 2003 I came to live in Thailand. Since that time I have never voluntarily gone to Phuket but I have been there quite a few times to meet friends and family. Whenever family or friends turn up in Thailand they normally head straight to Phuket so that is where I have to go to meet them.
On this page I will give some personal impressions from two trips. The first was in September 2005 and the second in March 2006.
I dislike Patong but I have a strange fascination with it. To live in a 'normal' part of provincial Thailand and then to go to Patong is almost surreal. Some tourists apparently think that Patong is representative of Thailand, and that Thais in Patong are representative of all Thais. That's a frightening thought.
It's just a Thai beach resort. The only difference is that it is incredibly seedy in parts; there is a huge population of prostitutes and ladyboys; it is populated by some of the greediest Thais I have ever encountered; and everything costs stupid prices.
My fascination normally only lasts for about 24 hours. Typically, when I first arrive I wander around hardly believing what I am seeing but by day two I am ready to go back to real Thailand.
Yes, there is a beach - that's how it all got started - and it is actually a lot better than I had given it credit for previously. One of the problems with Patong is that there are so many sunbeds and people on the beach that it is difficult to see. However, a few early morning walks made me realise how good it actually is.
It is huge, the sand is good, and there aren't rocks everywhere. As far as beaches are concerned it is very attractive, and its sheer size makes it an ideal location for a major tourist resort: which is exactly what Patong is.
The Thais are fully aware what a major asset this is so a small army of cleaners are employed to clean it every morning. They are all women and arrive every day to take away the debris from the previous day to leave the beach looking spotlessly clean again.
This was in stark contrast to the beach at Khanom in Nakhon Sri Thammarat province which I had been to a couple of weeks before visiting Patong in March 2006. The beach at Khanom gets hardly any tourists so the Thais aren't fussed about keeping it clean, apart from directly in front of each hotel. It's a bit of a mess but I know where I would rather spend time ... and it isn't Patong.
On my March 2006 visit the sea at Patong looked pretty good as well. In the past there have been pollution problems. In typical Thai fashion the development steamed ahead with any forward thinking about improving the infrastructure.
Patong started to suffer from environmental problems such as pollution and water shortages. However, it looks as if the local authorities have started to get to grips with these problems now.
The sea on the Andaman coast is generally very attractive. It tends to be blue and transparent, and not grey and murky like the Gulf of Thailand. The sea around Phuket isn't anywhere near as gorgeous as that around Phi Phi and the Similan Islands but it's not bad.
If you want peace and quiet I wouldn't suggest Patong. Every morning you see a procession of jet skis being taken down to the beach on trailers to be rented out. These things are banned in civilised places because they are so noisy and dangerous ... but not in Patong.
A big jetski race had been organised, and on the beach was a huge stand for spectators and commentators whose commentary was blasted out over a powerful PA system. It was reminiscent of the Radio 1 roadshow from Blackpool, not a beach holiday in exotic Thailand. But this is unfortunately what Patong has turned into.
This starts immediately on arrival in Phuket. One of my failings (apart from being incredibly careful with my money) is knowing how much things should cost in Thailand. Most tourists don't know, and the Thais exploit this ignorance to the full.
I normally arrive at the bus station where a pack of tuk-tuk drivers wait for the buses to pull into the bus station. They run alongside the bus and wait as the passengers get off, trying to get business.
What they are after are Bt300 (or more) fares to the beaches. Local buses and sawng-thaews go to the beaches for Bt25. If you ask at the bus station they tell you there are no buses to the beach. There aren't any from the bus station, but there are plenty that go from the fresh market opposite the Thai Airways office.
It is about a 15 minute walk from the bus station to the fresh market and sometimes I walk, but at other times I get a motorbike taxi. The motorbike taxi fare is Bt20 but they try to get more out of foreigners. Tuk-tuk drivers will quote Bt100. I just keep asking until one gives me the local price, and I speak in Thai which helps. It is better to walk out to the road rather than to talk to the guys inside the bus station.
In Phuket the minimum tuk-tuk fare appears to be Bt100 and to go any distance it is Bt300. It's no wonder that Thais from elsewhere in the country flock to Phuket to find work because in Phuket the streets really are paved with gold.
Phuket's tuk-tuks operate a cartel system. If tourists don't like the price they can't go elsewhere because all the prices are the same. This system is strongly enforced. It's a monopoly and it is totally wrong but what can you do?
I have tried arguing but they know that with so many ignorant foreigners around there will always be tourists who are prepared to pay the high prices so they aren't bothered by a few stroppy individuals like me. I find myself doing quite a lot of walking in Phuket to get to the main roads in order to use local transport. The motorbike taxis are OK as well. They try it on but stop playing games if you speak to them in Thai.
I happened to meet my parents on one trip and we wandered around Thanon Bangla one evening. A couple of ladyboys homed in on my parents - who are both in their 70's - suggesting they take photos. Had it been me I would have shoo'ed them away but my parents don't know Thailand and are quite gullible. My folks took two photos and the ladyboys then started aggressively demanding money.
I went to give one of them Bt20 but he wouldn't take it, insisting that he and his friend wanted Bt100 each. Now, to put this into perspective, if you go to the provinces you will find that many people earn Bt6,000 a month or less. That is Bt200 a day. They work long hours every day of the week.
There are thousands of labourers in Thailand doing honest work, toiling in the midday sun for Bt150 to Bt250 a day. If they come from neighbouring countries, which many labourers in Thailand do, they will be earning even less.
These ladyboys wanted the average daily wage for the majority of honest Thais for allowing someone to take a photo of them, and they spend all evening and night doing this. Tourists like my parents, who are old and naive, just hand the money over and because of this the cycle of greed is allowed to continue.
Elsewhere in Thailand, an honest waitress who serves a table of people will be happy with the Bt20 tip that most Thais normally leave - if they leave a tip at all - but these ladyboys considered the Bt20 I offered them an insult.
There are 'normal' Thai prices in Phuket but because of the huge amount of tourists there is always a big idiot tax. All tourists ever do is compare prices with what they are used to back home but Thailand isn't 'back home'. You hear them keep saying, "This is cheap," but for Thailand it isn't cheap at all.
This is one of my major gripes with Phuket. I know I am getting ripped off but in certain situations I am powerless to do anything about it. You can't really blame the Thais. It is the fault of the naive tourists and it is their total ignorance of Thailand that has caused this.
Thailand used to be referred to in the tourist industry as a 'frontier destination'. In those days only the more adventurous travellers went to places like Thailand. However, a two-week package deal to Thailand these days is no different to two weeks in Benidorm, and consequently the type of tourist arriving in Thailand has changed.
Strolling around early one morning, I saw groups of young foreign men whose obvious objective it had been to stay up drinking all night until sunrise. They certainly know how to set their priorities in life.
The ones I saw had achieved their objective. I also saw a few who had collapsed after their all night drinking sessions.
This guy was lying completely unconscious on the beach, exposed to the fierce Thai sun and forcing people to walk around him. Pathetic.
Days and Nights in Patong
Mornings in Patong aren't too unpleasant. It is strangely surreal though if you are used to living in normal Thailand. Mornings in the rest of Thailand are busy affairs; in fact, they are quite frenetic. Life is centred around the markets and these open early - very early.
In Patong there is hardly anything happening in the morning. The beach is quite busy as it is being cleaned - and a million sunbeds are being set up - but around the shops and restaurants there is very little activity. The bar areas are cleaned up and they really need it. In the light of day it is plain to see how filthy they are, and the stench of beer and cigarettes from the night before is overwhelming.
Night time in Patong is completely different and it is a zoo. The centre of the action is around Thanon Bangla which gets closed off to traffic at night. On the street are ladyboys all dressed up trying to extort money out of tourists for taking their photos.
On one side of the street are small individual bars and on the other are large bar areas containing lots of beer and Go-Go bars. One bar was actually having some construction work done but was still open.
As the builders mixed up cement on one side, about five or six bar girls sat on their stools on the other side waiting for business. What a weird sight. In between the bars are shops, many of which sell fake goods.
Thais in Patong
Again, there are all sorts. Many of the locals (quite a few of whom are Muslim) still carry on with life as they have always done using the sea as a source of income. You can see them fishing and then selling their freshly caught fish on the roadside.
What I have started to realise since I have become more familiar with the Thai language is that many Thais working in Patong are very respectable people. On my September 2005 trip staying at the Salathai Resort I spent a lot of time talking to the staff who were all southern Thais from places like Trang, Krabi and Nakhon Sri Thammarat.
Salaries are relatively high in Phuket and it is also a good place for educated Thais to get lots of practical experience speaking English. Some very well-educated Thais I have met have spent time in Patong for this very reason.
Opposite the hotel where I stayed were a few bars with bar girls and in the evening they would call across and wave at the single males. The hotel staff never said a word. They treat all guests with respect but if you can speak enough Thai to gain their confidence and elicit a few opinions you will find there is a lot of hidden disapproval. Don't be fooled by outward appearances.
The majority (but not all) of the bar girls working in Phuket are from Isaan but I was also surprised at how many Isaan males there were too. Many motorcycle taxi drivers were from Isaan. The north-easterners are a hard working bunch of people, and they do whatever it takes to earn money.
I think that just about sums up the situation. In Patong you get constantly hassled by taxi drivers and Indian tailors. I'm normally quite patient and polite at first, but after the 10th Indian tailor tries to shake my hand and get me into his shop, my patience runs out.
Some tourists seem to think that Indian tailor shops are a normal part of Thailand but you only ever see them in the big farang tourist resorts. They are non-existent elsewhere in Thailand.
Patong and its upmarket aspirations
I have heard a lot in recent years about Patong trying to lose its sleazy image and go more upmarket. I don't think this is purely about morality and image. The driving force in Thailand is money, and upmarket establishments catering to rich foreigners can demand upmarket prices.
It is definitely happening and is most noticeable at either end of Patong beach. In March 2006 I stayed at the Kalim Bay Residence in Kalim Bay (at the northern end of Patong), and there are quite a few very fancy places in that area. The southern end of the beach also has apartments and hotels built to European quality ... with European prices.
The central section is still a mess but I guess that eventually it will change. I have mixed feelings about the sex scene in Patong. Some aspects are really sad and sordid but it also creates a bit of a carnival atmosphere.
Every night there are ladyboys dressed up like showgirls strutting their stuff and lots of activity on the street. Cleaning it up too much would run the risk of creating a very sterile atmosphere which, in turn, wouldn't be much fun.
Development just never stops in Phuket and it is hardly surprising. Thailand is a country where 80% of the population earn less than Bt10,000 a month and a significant proportion of that 80% earn significantly less than Bt10,000 a month.
The majority of Thais don't get the opportunities in life to make the same money that foreigners get. If they decide to open a business serving Thais, their customers won't have a lot of money to spend and Thais have very firm ideas about what things should cost in Thailand.
A tuk-tuk driver elsewhere in Thailand trying to charge passengers Bt300 per trip wouldn't be in business very long, and neither would a small restaurant owner who tried to sell fried rice for Bt200. Thais in Thailand would think it lunacy to try to charge such high prices because there wouldn't be any customers.
But in Phuket it is different. Millions of farangs arrive each year who don't have a clue and hand over whatever they are asked for. They pay three or four times what something should cost, do a quick calculation in their heads to see what the cost is in their own currency, and then say it is cheap!
To rural Thais, Phuket is just like Dick Whittington's London where the streets are paved with gold. They flock their in their droves for a slice of the pie, and developers continue to build as if it was going out of fashion.
With the emphasis on attracting rich foreigners, everything is built to cater for them but what is happening is that the 'Thainess' of Phuket is disappearing. Some of the hotels and apartment buildings are very pleasant, and I was extremely impressed with the new Central Festival department store (pictured above) from an architectural standpoint, but these buildings could be anywhere in the world. There is nothing Thai about Central Festival.
In March 2006 a proper pavement was being constructed along the beach and I expect it will be very attractive when it is finished but during my visit it was still a mess. Walking back to my room one night after some heavy rain was a disaster as everything was just mud.
Good things about Patong
Pizza restaurants know how to make pizza, and breakfast places know what bread, sausages and bacon should taste like.
There are other benefits and one of them is good bookshops. In the Thai provinces there isn't much of an English language book selection, but this isn't so in Bangkok or Phuket. The bookshop I liked in Patong is actually in Thanon Bangla - home of a thousand bar girls every evening. It is located at the beach end of the road and has some excellent titles.
Patong isn't Phuket
For a long time I made the mistake of talking about Patong in particular but referring to Phuket in general. Phuket island is huge, very attractive overall, and much of it is untouched by tourism.
Phuket main town is a great place. There are some fantastic examples of colonial architecture and five-foot ways; and a lot of the old buildings have been sympathetically restored. It's a real working town and it is a fascinating place to wander around.
If you drive around the island you will see how gorgeous it is; and a lot of the quieter beach areas are superb. There's a lookout point further around the coast from you can get a good view of Patong.
As you look down on Patong, you realise that actually it is quite a small place. It's an ugly blot on the landscape, but fortunately the ugly blot is relatively small.
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