THE TRUTH ABOUT PHUKET TOURISM - We all like to think that our holidays will be full of warm sunshine, friendly locals, beautiful pristine beaches and a good amount of fun thrown in for good measure. Phuket, Thailand was once a favorite destination of many European, with its balmy warm tropical climate, stunning landscape and of course all the other elements described above that one would hope to find. So why, despite the insistence of the Thai Government that tourist figures are rising, has the European and other Western markets have been drying up as a source of tourism for Thailand?
On a recent trip, after hearing a number of horror stories, I set out to find out why Thailand and its tourist destinations, such as Phuket, are seeing a continuous decline in western tourists.
I am an extremely lucky individual, my work allows me to travel around the globe and experience new cultures, new ways of thinking and to sample the many delights each country has to offer. On my recent trip to Phuket, Thailand I was due to stay for 10 days but after just 3 days I caught a flight out to Singapore where I remained for the duration of my vacation. So what lead me to leave and why are so many people now avoiding Thailand as a holiday destination?
Phuket International Airport
I finally arrived after a flight from the UK, via Singapore, in Phuket, Thailand after 18 hours of non-stop traveling. I was tired and the only thing I really wanted was a hot shower, food, maybe a little wine and then to slumber.
As I walked, suitcase in hand, through the arrivals area I was greeted with a myriad of people all vying for my business, in order to transport me to the hotel. I assumed that the prices would vary from one operator to the next however I quickly discovered that was pretty much a cartel and that the cost of my journey would be the same regardless of who I chose. What I was not aware of, as I found out later, was the fact that the cost of the journey could have been cut by half if I had taken a ‘Metered Taxi’. However, as I discovered the Metered Taxi rank is pushed to the side of the airport building so that tourists cannot see that a cheaper alternative is open to them. It transpired that the hordes of taxis vying for my business were in fact illegal and controlled by a single mafia group which pays off the authorities in order to maintain their stronghold.
Being unaware of this fact I climbed into one of the taxis and told him the name of my hotel. I was promptly told that he didn’t know the hotel, the Hilton, but he could find me suitable accommodation. I refused and said that I would find another taxi and proceeded to alight. At this point the driver became extremely aggressive calling me all sorts of unpleasant names and demanding I pay him for messing him around. He wanted 1,000 Thai Baht which is equivalent to approximately US$30.00. I of course refused and it wasn’t long before I was surrounded by a number of very irate taxi drivers with the threat of violence against me if I didn’t pay. I could, during this event, clearly see a number of Airport Police but it was apparent that they were not going to get involved. For my own safety I paid the 1,000 Thai Baht.
As my luggage was thrown out of the trunk of the car I then noticed the Metered Taxi stand and with the glare of the other taxi driver upon me I proceed to the stand and asked the first driver if he knew where the Hilton Hotel was. He did and then he proceeded to load my luggage and take me to my hotel.
The Drive to My Phuket Hotel
From the photographs I had seen online I was expecting to see a lush and green island with an ample about of scenery. Unfortunately what greeted me was a filthy concrete jungle with unappealing power lines hanging all over the place. I was at this point already contemplating leaving as the island bore no resemblance to the glossy brochures I had been given.
The actual journey was, at times, more than a little frightening as there appeared to be just one rule of driving and that’s to drive as fast as you can. I was amazed I didn’t witness a dozen or more accidents during the 45 kilometer journey.
The Phuket Hotel
I have to be honest and say that with all my traveling, I find very few hotels anything more than a place to lay my head and the Hilton in Phuket is certainly nothing remarkable. It was clean enough, the service mediocre at best and the amenities adequate – like I said; nothing to write home about but comfortable enough.
The Phuket Beach – Karon Beach
In the morning, after breakfast I decided to check out Karon Beach which is directly opposite the hotel. I am one of these people that really enjoy a good swim and the sky was crystal blue and the water looked so inviting. Before my dip I thought it might be an excellent idea to have a walk along the beach and give my breakfast time to digest before my swim. Karon Beach, according to the Tourist Guides I had read, was a little over 4 km long and so I thought this would be plentiful exercise. During my walk, from one end to the other, I was stopped a total of 27 times, all by vendors trying to sell me everything from a fake Rolex Watch to Silk Blankets. While I am not adverse to this type of thing I could certainly understand why it would irk many tourists, especially when relaxing on a beach only to be disturbed every 10 minutes by a vendor.
The vendors were in fact not the problem I had. When I reached the top of the beach I was prevented from the foulest stench which emanated from a rather unsightly large blue waste pipe. It was obvious, and plain to see, that what was being pumped out was nothing less than all the row of businesses and hotels foul waste, everything from the kitchen to the toilets and this was being pumped directly into the very water I was intending to swim in. Hadn’t these people ever heard about water-borne diseases such as Coliform? From that point on I was not ever going to venture into the water. I walked back to my hotel and asked a member of staff if she was aware that raw human sewage was being pumped into the sea. I got stonewalled with the pretense of not understanding English and left to my own thoughts.
The Phuket Bars
During the early evening I decided to take a walk in to Kata to see the offerings of the nightlife. As I stepped out of the hotel I was approached by a Thai Tuk Tuk Driver who asked me where I was going. I told him and he said that for the cheap price of 300 Thai Baht (US$10.00) he could take me. The distance was no more than a good 15 minute walk and I thought the price outrageous so I declined only to hear him openly call me a cheap bastard. I thought to myself at this point where was the famous Thai Smile that the Thais so openly boasted in the travel brochure.
After arriving in Kata I was presented with literally hundreds of bars each of which had dozens of young girls shouting for my attention with phrases such as; “Hi you sexy man.” or “Welcome handsome man.” These are all referred to as ‘Girly Bars’ and for the princely sum of 1,000 Thai Baht and a Bar Fine of 300 Baht you can take a lady home.
Now I am no prude but for a lady to stand there and tell me I’m handsome or sexy immediately tells me her judgment needs to be reassessed. I am a 53 year old guy with a pot belly and little hair on my head – I have no delusions of being either handsome or sexy. I did stop at one bar to quench my thirst, but I found the whole scene to be more than a little sad – so many young girls willing to sell themselves to old, bald and fat westerners.
I hung around having a few beers and it was shortly after midnight when I felt a tug on my shirt. Turning around I was presented with a girl of no more than six years old trying to sell flowers. That for me was the final straw. I didn’t buy any flowers, I paid my bar bill and headed back to the hotel. I really couldn’t understand what type of parent would subject such a young child to witness such blatant prostitution, and I can tell you some of the entertainment in the bars involving other customers and the bar girls is not something you should let a child see.
Again, I am no prude, I have traveled the world and this is not the first time I have seen this type of child abuse. However, regardless to how many times I have seen this, it still appalls me and so it should. Once you become complacent about this type of activity, or worse fuel it by buying their goods, then you lose all of your humanity.
I decided to take a Tuk Tuk back to my hotel. It was late and considering the increasing number of muggings that occur on Phuket I deemed it safer. It was, after all, not that long ago that Michelle Smith was stabbed to death by two Thais in a bag snatch incident, and all for 300 Thai Baht – that’s less than US$10.00.
The only transportation available was the Tuk Tuk’s as I failed to see, and found out later, that the Mafia Taxi Groups on Phuket, refuse to allow the introduction of a cheap and affordable public transportation system. The fare, for the very short trip, was by all accounts little more than extortion, but this is the reality of life when the rule of law can be side-stepped with the right payment to the right types of officials. It is no secret that corruption starts at the very top in Thailand and goes all the way down to the bottom; a fact enforced by statistics showing Thailand has one of the world’s highest rates of corruption – it also has the highest level of violent gun crime, even higher that the United States or Bogota, Columbia.
Phuket Tourist Attractions
During the next day I decided it was time to try and step out of the sleazy side of Phuket and find some of its more natural attractions and so I ordered a taxi and set off for Bang Tao Waterfall.
It was the usual affair of sitting in the back and praying that you will actually arrive at your destination. The Thais have a particularly nasty habit of driving at break-neck speeds, tailgating and changing lanes without thought of other road users.
Upon arriving I was at last delighted to see a piece of Phuket that had not been subjected to the concrete mixer – it was green, lush and very tropical, which was the purpose of my visit, to see a tropical island.
When I approached the ticket desk to pay for my admission to the waterfall I noticed a few different figures, one reading 20 and the other 200. The lady at the desk promptly greeted me and said the price was 200 Baht. Now I know what one of the figures represents, but what about the other – was this some type of cheaper tour? I asked about the 20 and the short sharp response was; “Cannot – you Farang, you pay 200″. I won’t go into the entire conversation but the off-shot of it was that because I was a foreigner (Thais refer to all foreigners as Farang as apparently they are not educated enough to understand or determine the difference between different nationalities) I would have to pay 10 times the amount a Thai would have to pay.
There are some things, in my book that are completely wrong, and racial discrimination is one of them. There are firm International Laws to prevent this but Thailand, and its Government, is prepared to ignore these laws and openly discriminate in order to fleece the tourist for as much money as possible. Yes, the Waterfall is a national park and operated by the Thai Government.
I know 200 Baht is not a lot to pay but I refuse to provide cash to a regime that is openly discriminatory against the colour of my skin and so I left without paying or entering the park. It was quite frankly the second wasted day of my holiday in Phuket.
After arriving back at my hotel I decided on a good book and a few cocktails by the hotel pool. I certainly wasn’t going to the beach to swim in human feces and I had zero interest in the prostitutes at the local bars. In fact when I sat down to think about it, that’s all that Phuket really had to offer – sun, sea (well a sewage facility) and sex – sex being the largest tourist attraction in Phuket.
To say I was disappointed was an understatement. I expected more from what I had seen in the glossy brochures. Yes there are other tourist attractions such as Big Buddha, Fantasea and many others but it just appeared that whatever you wanted to do it was not about showing the tourist a good time but rather the opportunity to fleece the tourist at every possible opportunity.
The Phuket Hell Hole
I spoke to a number of staff, some spoke reasonable English, but nothing up to the standard you would expect from a holiday destination, regarding things to see. It appeared that Bangla in Patong is the place I need to visit, where, as the staff put it, I can see all manner of entertainment and the night lights of Phuket.
Once again I took a Tuk Tuk. It was approximately 8pm and the streets of Patong where buzzing. I then entered the famous Sio Bangla. I have to say it… As I have stated I have traveled the world and seen many things, but I have never seen anything like Sio Bangla. The only way to describe Sio Bangla is a Toilet. The stench is unbearable – there are open sewers running along the Soi (Street) and you can do nothing but hold your breath for as long as you can until you reach the other end.
Bangla has to be one of the foulest places I have ever visited on earth. It is basically hell on earth with its foul stench and what can only be described as a Whore House. There really is no entertainment value other than drinking alcohol and picking one of the thousands of young prostitutes on offer. The bars, as I walked through, are mainly filled with old balding men, similar to my own appearance, looking for sex.
On top of that you had the Touts stopping you every few feet trying to persuade you to enter one of the girl or ladyboy shows – some of which have open sex shows – I won’t go into details. On the other side of the coin are the Touts trying to get you to take a photograph with all manner of reptiles and endangered species such as the Slow Loris - these poor creatures look terrified and they are supposed to be protected under Thai Law but as the local policing patrolling the Sio simply walked by without a second glance, it was obvious that money was far more important than the welfare of these unfortunate animals.
I caught another Tuk Tuk back to my hotel and announced to the reception staff that I would be checking out tomorrow morning. I immediately got on my laptop and booked the earliest flight out of Thailand to Singapore.
Thailand is quite frankly not worthy of having tourists. They openly flout their own laws and international laws in order to extort money from tourists. There are children on the streets selling flowers and toys at 2am and the authorities do nothing about the situation. The transportation system is rife with corruption and controlled by the mafia taxi cartels. The authorities and the police appear to do little for the people, but are rather more concerned with filling their pockets with the dirty cash they obtain with the corrupt dealings.
I for one will not be going back to Thailand until I read reports that things have changed, which considering numerous articles that I have read, this is not going to happen in my lifetime. Quite frankly, unless you want cheap sex and to get wasted in a bar, then Phuket offers very little else in the way of holiday entertainment in my view. It is simply a brewery inside a whore house run by those who are corrupt to the core.
I know that many people may ask how I can judge a place in such a short period of time and they would be right, my trip was extremely short, but due to choice. They say first impressions count and this is very true and all I got was the impression I was there to be fleeced and to support prostitution and child abuse – these are not things that I find redeeming in a so called family holiday destination. Remember if you want to influence change then do it with your feet and money, by avoiding a place like Phuket, as the Europeans are now doing, then once the money runs out the people will do something to effect a turn-around and hopefully this will mean restoring the island back to its natural state and removing its persona of a glorified whore house.