Phuket 2017 – Final Notes and Such

Our last post covering our December 2017 trip to Phuket. As is our practice in our family vacations, aside from an overall itinerary commentary, we normally also finish off with final notes and travel advice.

Phuket has certainly changed quite a bit when Ling and I last visited in 2008. To start of, the island today seems to offer more children-friendly activities. Ok – this might of course be that neither Hannah or Peter had joined our family before our last trip and so we weren’t paying special attention to child-friendly places to visit and things to do. But in 2017 at least, there are lots of things for young kids. Aside from the usual beaches, there are several fairly new and very large shopping malls now – Jungceylon especially impressed us with its sheer size – indoor playgrounds, and the Splash Water Jungle Park of course.

Oddly too, I found the Thais to be much less hospitable on the overall than our last visit. Specifically, there were fewer smiles and much less warmth all round, and this is my sixth visit to Thailand already. The Sino House reception was friendly enough, but Cassia Phuket was matter-of-fact. Maybe the sheer volume of tourists to the island has also won the locals’ patience thin?

Big signs informing fines for jaywalking do absolutely nothing at Bangla Street @ Patong.

Phuket has also become more expensive in several places and areas. The price difference when it comes to dining in different parts of the island is astonishing. Street restaurants has inched up somewhat but were still normally about SGD6 to SGD8 per person for average eats, but in the more swanky parts of the island – e.g. the Laguna area where we stayed in at Cassia Phuket – and Patong Beach, you could easily pay twice that for essentially exactly the same thing in the same class of restaurants. The best value for money meals we had were in the outskirts of Phuket Old Town where Sino House was located.

The admission prices need a mention too: they’ve gone up significantly as well, and admissions to tourist spots like the Splash Water Jungle Park, UpsideDown House and TrickEye Museum, are now pretty much in-line with admission prices in Singapore, if not even more expensive.

Ticket stub into the Trickeye Museum.

Compounding this too was also that some restaurants charged VAT (value-added tax), while others didn’t – but you couldn’t always say for certain looking at the menu. Several restaurants and places of interest too also charged the additional 3% for credit cards, while others didn’t. Something I also appreciate too from our two recent holidays in Australia – that what constitutes a child enjoying discounted admission is somewhat consistent between places. Not so in Thailand: some places went with height (e.g. TrickEye Museum), others went with a specific age.

Sunblock is a must. While there was a persistent cold breeze about most parts of the island, the unrelenting sun – sans clouds for most days – meant the kids received more than their usual blast of UV rays. Note too: if you’re a believer that higher than SPF50 means better protection (be warned though: experts say there are gimmicks about), bring sufficient quantities from home. The pharmacies we checked out carried sunblock of up to SPF50 and not higher.

Of the areas, Phuket Old Town was relatively free of tourist masses, so dining was also the most decently-priced. The area remains generally busy though with lots of locals about with their daily business. Patong was outright chaotic, and prices racked up to match the tourists’ willingness to pay. Laguna was the most peaceful of the areas we were at as it’s the most upmarket of the places we ran about in. There are tourists, yes – just not many.

It’s pretty easy to get around the island if you’re engaging private drivers, either by contacting one of the numerous private car/cab companies around the island (email us for a reliable contact that we used for several days), or GrabCar – which we used exclusively for the second half of our trip. The general cost of travel using these two options though is not cheap. In fact, we spent almost as much on transportation getting from place to place as dining! I had the distinct impression that there was some kind of cab cartel operation on the entire island pegging minimum prices for private hired cars.

An example of costs below, all one-way:

Phuket International Airport to Cassia Phuket, 20km: 800THB/SGD32, private driver. 1km: 40THB

Cassia Phuket to Splash Water Jungle Park, 22km: 800THB/SGD32, private driver. 1km: 36THB.

Sino House to Jungceylon/Patong, 15km: 450THB/SGD18, GrabCar. 1km: 30THB.

Sino House to Phuket International Airport, 32km: 670THB/SGD27, GrabCar. 1km: 21THB.

From the km to THB ratios above, GrabCar seems cheaper indeed, but there’s also context to it. Sino House is a little more centrally located than Cassia Phuket, and there were fewer GrabCars for hire in Laguna area than Phuket Town.

A note on the quality of service too: the prearranged drivers were always timely – if not early even – and got us to where we needed to go with minimum hassle. The GrabCar drivers were a bit more of a mixed bag. On a few occasions, we waited for well more than the suggested app waiting time (e.g. 2 minutes away turns out to be 15 minutes waiting). At Jungceylon, we had to cancel two times because both drivers kept going to the wrong pick-up location – literally the other side of the mall – and did not seem to want/could not come to the correct pick-up point. Granted, Jungecylon is huge place, but I couldn’t quite figure out why the two drivers just didn’t want to drive to the correct point near Bangla Road. We eventually gave up and walked to where the first two drivers had arrived to and got a correct Grab Car pick-up on the third try.

Cutting through a crowded mall that spans about 300m across on its longest edge with two kids is not fun.

Speaking about traffic: do budget sufficient time to get from point to point. For the first half of the trip, we largely traveled eastwards or northwards. Traffic between Cassia Phuket and PES/Splash Water Jungle Park and Ao Po pier were fairly light and we got to and back in good time. The second half of the trip was totally reversed where we traveled from east to west: traffic slowed to a crawl between Sino House between Patong, and back too.

Likewise too, watch out for motorbikes in the built-up areas. This is even the more important for (normally) traffic rule-abiding Singaporeans like us, because the motorcyclists seem to think that traffic lights do not apply to them. H and I almost got ran over a few times by motorbikes just outside our hotel even when lights were in our favor.

I’ve already blogged about elephant rides. It’s a shockingly cruel activity to take part in, and only encourages an animal tourism industry that needs to die, quickly. On the last few days of our visit, there was an elephant-riding incident involving Chinese nationals and someone died as a result. I’m aware of the practicalities of these native elephants in Thailand  – as in, with the huge loss of natural wild land for these giants to inhabit, where else would they go and how would they be fed. So, at the risk of oversimplifying a terrifically complex industry, staying away from elephant parks altogether isn’t a good solution either. But there is really no reason to ride these animals who are by nature not meant to be ridden. So, visit the ethical sanctuaries instead and support their conservation and protection efforts.

Phuket was crowded in several places, and also much more expensive than expected – largely from transportation, admissions, and dining around the Laguna area. But we were blessed with wonderfully sunny weather, and an incident and illness-free trip. There are still fairly quiet spots on the island, and things to do which do not involve hordes of tourists. The island isn’t particularly pram-friendly though especially if you intend to do a lot of exploration and walking around – something to keep in mind if you have kids that want to be in prams.

For sure, the tourist-y spots were crowded with visitors especially from China. Rather than yet write my opinion again about what I think of them as tourists, I’ll write just two things I personally observed in two separate occasions over our visit:

Day 2: There was a three-generation Chinese national family on our sea kayaking trip. In the mid-afternoon, the mother – in full view of the guests on the boat – whipped out her boob to feed her boy, startling guests on the boat.

Day 6: A middle-aged Chinese national lady accompanied by what seemed to be her daughter let drop a huge blob of saliva straight from mouth to floor – on the bright, clean titles in Jungceylon shopping mall – in front of me – then strode away.

Our expenses outlay was, ballpark, like this:

Flight (Jetstar): SGD1038

Accommodation @ Cassia Phuket: 18,800THB/SGD771

Accommodation @ Sino House: 11,000THB/SGD453

Full day trip: John Gray’s Hong by Starlight: 9,800THB/SGD404

Half-day trip: Phuket Elephant Sanctuary: 9,270THB/SGD380

Dining: 8,200THB/SGD336

Admissions: 8,800THB/SGD361

Transportation: 7,150THB/SGD293

This was still a good trip on the overall – certainly way more so than the disappointing 7 days we spent in Ko Phangan. I reckon 8 days is a nicely leisurely length of stay if you have young kids, and you can lengthen or shorten it depending on whether you want to do the additional side-trips like island visiting.

So – our next trip in June? We’re thinking of either an idyllic island with clear waters stay (Redang, Rawa maybe?), a Hokkaido trip, or maybe back to Australia and Sydney this time to enjoy winter. More on that at some point next year.:)

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