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Patong Beach

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Like a siren, stunning Patong Beach beckons beach bums, clubbers, foodies, shoppers, and all-around hedonists to Phuket.

Tucked away in a wide bay on the island's western side, Patong has a powder-fine white sand beach, crystal clear water for snorkelling, and it's semi-sheltered location make it one of Phuket's best spots for year-round swimming and water sports.

Patong Beach was once the most perfect stretch of sand to be found on Phuket, if not the whole Andaman coast. The Patong of the past was remote and largely untouched, and the expat old-timers love to reminisce when a visit to this beach meant chartering a long-tail boat and packing a picnic lunch. Obviously, much has changed.

The Patong of today is a seething mass of tourism, squalor and unrestricted development, a mess of hotels, bars, restaurants, travel agents, massage parlours, tailor shops and touts. Call us killjoys, but Patong is everything that tourism in Thailand should not have become. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of people seem to enjoy it each year, making Patong the most popular beach on Phuket by a mile. The beachside strip was badly hit by the 2004 Tsunami, with the hotels taking the brunt of the impact, but the recovery was quick and there are no remaining indicators that there had ever been any damage.

Although you'll have to share it with hordes of other bronzing bodies, the beach remains very attractive. During the day, the beach and the road that runs along it are the hub of Patong's commerce with scads of food vendors, tuk-tuks, masseuses, beach chair rentals and souvenir hawkers all competing for the tourist dollars. Water sports are big business on Patong, and you'll be quickly approached to rent a jet ski or try your hand at para-sailing or wake boarding. As much fun as they are, water sports here carry some degree of risk -- operators are almost never insured and a increasingly common scam is to blackmail tourists for damages to the equipment that was already there. Consider yourself warned.

Thaweewong Road is packed -- this is where you'll find Starbucks, KFC, McDonalds, and no fewer than two Subway restaurants -- just in case the last sandwich you ate wasn't quite filling enough and you're too embarrassed to return to the same one and order another. Every corner has one or more tuk-tuk drivers aggressively offering rides to everyone who passes by, and the numerous sois are lined with shops full of overpriced counterfeit goods whose owners bark at the tourists to come inside and look. Patong has far, far too many tailor shops, and their strategy is to strike up a conversation about your home country before making their sales pitch. The situation is so bad that a popular t-shirt for sale reads "No, I don't want a f*cking tuk-tuk, suit or massage, thank you very much".

It's important to remember that there are some subtle operators mixed in with the obvious sharks. Even if you claim you're from Kyrgyzstan, many touts will insist they know a Kyrgyzstani-run shop just down the street that is sure to give a fellow countryman a huge discount. They will, rest assured, still lead you to one of the ubiquitous Nepali tailor shops. Many people find Patong a good bit of fun, until the point where their patience wears out, and there's certainly lots to do and see (and buy) until that happens. When you find yourself running out of "No thank yous", take it as an indicator that it's time you moved on to a different beach.

Once the sun goes down Patong really comes into its own, creating an ugly tapestry of the surreal, debauched, and truly desperate. The bar upon bar lining the streets flick on their neon signs, streetwalkers wield a menagerie of miserable-looking creatures-- endangered gibbons, exotic birds and large pythons -- to extort money from tourists, and the availability of sex workers becomes glaringly obvious. The dark heart of Patong's nightlife is Bangla Rd where, depending on your predilections, you'll either want to spend all of your time or as little as possible.

The strip is really quite tame in the daylight -- the goblins only come out at night -- and before six in the evening you can drive on it -- one way, heading away from the beach -- but after that it's closed to vehicular traffic. There's well over 100 bars here -- most of them of the sleazy 'girlie bar' variety -- and a few clubs offering more, uhm... err... "intimate" performances. The flamboyantly costumed bar girls (and some, technically, bar boys) aggressively solicit customers from the curious on-lookers and will pose for photos ("You tip me 200B now!").

The further you get away from Bangla Rd, the more things simmer down. The massive Junk Ceylon Shopping Centre on Rat-u-thit Rd. offers tamer, family-friendly entertainment with an arcade, bowling alley, and the brand new SF Cinema City screening the latest English releases (remember to stand for the Thai national anthem played before the movie).

The police in Patong are particularly diligent about fining people who ride motorcycles without a helmet, so don't even think about going without one (this only applies to the driver). Parking can be a huge problem here, especially in the evening, and plans for an underground parking lot were permanently scrapped after the tsunami. If you have your own transportation, it's a good idea to park far away from the centre of Patong and get around on foot.

If staying in Patong isn't your style but your curiosity gets the best of you, a good option is to visit on a day-trip. Remember that after six in the evening there are no more songtheaws and, unless it's the peak season, a tuk-tuk back to your beach will cost as much as a cheap room.

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Text and/or map last updated on 20th February, 2014.

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