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 is a powder-fine white sand beach, with crystal clear water for snorkelling, and its semi-sheltered location makes it one of Phuket’s best spots for year-round swimming and water sports.
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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 about when a visit to this beach meant chartering a longtail boat and packing a picnic lunch. Obviously, much has changed.
The Patong of today is a seething mess of all the worst parts of mass tourism. Hotels, bars, restaurants, travel agents, massage parlours, tailor shops and touts all jostle for position and business. Take a short walk along any of the main roads and you’re sure to be hustled and hassled at every turn. 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". Call us killjoys, but
Patong is everything that tourism in Thailand should not have become. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of people still 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 Asian tsunami, with the hotels taking the brunt of the impact, but recovery was quick and it’s impossible to tell without knowing that there had ever been any damage. Ten years on, the resort town reportedly has nearly 47,000 rooms in 750 licensed hotels to choose from, plus thousands more “unregistered” rooms, with development showing no signs of slowing down.
In July 2014, the newly installed military government ordered the Thai army to clear the beach of all sun loungers and commercial structures, as part of a beach encroachment crackdown operation across Phuket. Following dramatic scenes of beach bars being bulldozed and armed soldiers patrolling the sands while thousands of sun loungers were stacked up and whisked away, Patong’s famous white sands were in full view again. Confusion reigned in the months that followed as local officials tried to work out what would be allowed on the beach.
A year later, commercial activity has been allowed back in zoned areas, with a limited number of rental umbrellas and mats available (sun loungers are still officially banned), a few food and drink vendors, and, controversially, parasailing and jetski hire. Yes, the jetski boys are still there in full force, and local officials continue to assert that the “damaged jetski” extortion scams no longer happen. Big signs posted along the beach illustrate all the new rules, but neither beach-goers nor vendors seem to pay much attention to them.
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 slow lorises, 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 Road 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 and before 18:00 you can drive on it -- one way, heading away from the beach -- but after that it’s closed to vehicular traffic. There are 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 bar boys) aggressively solicit custom from the curious onlookers and will pose for photos ("You tip me 200 baht now!")
But it’s not all about sex and sleaze here, as, oddly enough, Patong is developing into a more family-friendly destination. The massive Jungceylon Shopping Centre on Rat-U-Thit Road offers entertainment for all ages with an arcade, bowling alley and SF Cinema City screening the latest English releases (remember to stand for the Thai national anthem played before the movie). And, incredibly, a large indoor playground and toddler party venue called the Kids Club has opened up – right on Bangla Road, of all places.
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 songthaews stop at 18:00 so, unless it’s peak season, a tuk tuk back to your beach will cost as much as a cheap room in Patong itself.
Three main roads lead into Patong: one from the north from Kamala beach, one over the steep hill from Phuket Town and one from Karon beach to the south. Each of these have treacherous hills and curves to navigate, and can get very busy through the peak season months, so do take extreme care if you’re on your own bike or rental car. By far the cheapest way into Patong is by songthaew bus from Phuket Town, a service that runs in daylight hours only.
As you’ll soon discover upon arrival to Patong, its streets are lined with numerous tuk tuks and taxis, an expensive service sometimes aggressively touted to passersby. For short trips around Patong, motorbike taxis are also available for hire. If you have your own transport, do check if your hotel has parking spots for guests since there’s a serious lack of public parking available. 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.
If you’re in need of a tourist visa extension, there’s a small immigration office on the beach road just north of Bangla Road offering limited services; open week days, about 10:00-15:00. The full service immigration office is located in Phuket Town.
Patong’s hospital is located at 57 Sainamyen Road [T: (076) 342 633)], but since it is perpetually understaffed there, we recommend visiting one of the many medical clinics around Patong or the international hospitals in Phuket Town if it’s not an emergency.
WiFi is freely available at most hotels, hostels and cafes, and SIM cards are available at numerous mobile phone shops in the streets and shopping centres. Banks and ATMs are found everywhere you look.
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