Story and Photos By Laura Rog
It’s not hard to see why Thailand is a common vacation destination for many JETs. With friendly people, incredibly cheap travel costs, and deliciously spicy food, it’s a great place to spend an extended national holiday week. Phuket in particular provides an oasis from the heat and humidity in Thailand and is a welcome destination after exploring the steamy streets of Bangkok or Chiang Mai. My friends and I visited the island for five days over Golden Week this year and loved every minute of it. For those considering going, here are my Top Ten tips on traveling to Phuket.
1.) Don’t worry so much about reserving domestic plane tickets in advance.
An island located off the southwestern end of Thailand, Phuket is easily accessible by plane from either Bangkok or Chiang Mai. We only booked round trip travel from Osaka to Bangkok and then reserved our inter-country flights the day we wanted to change regions – a surprisingly easy and cheap option. We ended up paying about 5,400 baht, roughly 15,000 yen, for the flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket. A little pricier than we had planned – and we’re pretty sure we were swindled a bit by the hotel staff in Chiang Mai who made our reservations for us – but still a deal in the grand scheme of traveling between the northern and southernmost ends of the country. You can arrange flights through many hotels, go to travel agencies that are everywhere in the major cities, or even just show up to the airport as there is likely to be an open flight within a few hours.
2.) Check out Kata Beach!
There are dozens of areas to stay in Phuket depending upon your preferences – we opted for Kata Beach because it features beautiful beaches and resorts but is out of the thick of the 24-hour excitement of the entertainment area. Kata is a slightly expensive taxi ride away from the larger shopping areas, but also has its own small strip of shopping areas and restaurants to keep you busy and well fed with plenty of Thai and Western options. Additionally, it features resorts large and small with a lot of beachfront property.
3.) Do your homework before booking a hotel.
If you think you have found a hotel you like in Phuket, go to at least two or three travel websites and read the comments for the place left by previous travelers (agoda.com and tripadvisor.com are two that I found most helpful). Also consider what you really want out of the vacation and the level of comfort you are expecting – you can find a lot of great places within just about any budget, but what you pay often reflects the types of service you will receive (Internet, beach front location, quality of air conditioning, bugs in the room, etc.).
4.) Check what facilities are available where you want to stay.
Our hotel was right on the beach and had two pools, and while the pool chairs were free and open for use, you had to pay an independent vendor if you wanted a chair and umbrella down on the beach. (Lying on a towel was free, though!) Additionally, the hotel charged for Internet, about 100 baht (280 yen) for a half hour, a real downside in a country where Internet is plentiful and free in many cafes. All in all, though, not big sacrifices to make for a cheap and gorgeous room with access to two pools and a beach!
5.) Take a peek at the travel agency brochures.
I will be honest; I didn’t explore many of the activities around the area because I loved just relaxing at the pool and beach all day. We did look over brochures at a couple travel agencies on the shopping strip, though, and there are plenty of activities to choose from. From island tours to paragliding to SCUBA diving, you won’t be disappointed if you are looking for adventure. You can book these day trips at many of the numerous travel agencies all over the island, and hotels tend to also have deals through specific companies.
6.) Go snorkeling!
The one thing that did pull us away from the beach for a day was snorkeling on Phi Phi Island, which I highly recommend. The island was featured in the movie “The Beach” and in one of the James Bond movies, and is simply stunning. We paid 3,000 baht (about 8,500 yen) for our day trip, which included lunch, and it was the best money I spent during our 10 days in Thailand. You are picked up and dropped off at your hotel, stop by a couple islands for beach time during the day, and of course are taken to various coral reefs for snorkeling. Diving into the ocean is amazing – crystal clear water and a huge number of colorful fish surround you, making for an unforgettable experience.
7.) If you’ve ever wanted to learn to SCUBA dive, do it!
For those of you who are more adventurous and want to swim below the surface, Phuket offers world class SCUBA diving. There are plenty of places to get SCUBA certified in Phuket, and it’s much cheaper than doing it in Japan.
8.) Buy your souvenirs before getting to Phuket.
We noticed almost immediately that Phuket is not like Chiang Mai when it comes to bargaining for goods. The initial quotes were much higher than the vendors in the north, and the sellers were much less willing to drop prices to make a sale. (And they wouldn’t come after you with a rock bottom price if you walked away!) If you are looking for souvenirs and will be in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, it is probably better to get them in those cities if possible. The goods available between cities were basically the same, but the prices were close to double in Phuket.
9.) Resist aggressive sales tactics.
One thing to be aware of is the pushy nature of salespeople in Phuket and Thailand in general. For example, our taxi driver from the airport to Kata Beach had to stop by his agency to “sign some papers” before he could finish the trip – i.e. he walked into the office and a travel agent came out to ask if we had booked our adventures on the island. Additionally, people would sometimes come up to us on the beach with traditional crafts, snacks, and a variety of goods for sale. The people were generally polite, but often did not take no for an answer right away. It wasn’t constant or something to worry about, but it’s good to be prepared for it. Be firm when saying no and go back to reading or shopping. With overly persistent travel agents I found the best route was to just say we had everything booked already through our hotel.
10.) Don’t feel obligated to tip.
Finally, tipping. This really only comes up with those from North America and our home culture guilt for not doing it! Tipping is optional in Thailand – a few restaurants will add a tip to the bill automatically, but most don’t. We sometimes tipped and sometimes didn’t, and when we did it was usually when someone at a hotel went above and beyond for us, or a driver that took us a long distance (more than 30 minutes). But if you feel the need to tip, please do. Workers everywhere in Thailand are earning incredibly low wages, so even a small tip makes a big difference.
I highly recommend a visit to Thailand while on JET, and especially encourage including Phuket in your travels. If you take the time to look around you can find some incredible deals and fantastic adventures… or relaxing getaways, if that is more your style.