The cerulean waters of Phang Nga Bay mask the dark secrets lurking on the shores of Thailand’s most popular island. Traveler’s be wary — Phuket tourism isn’t all beaches.
I pictured Phuket as the vision of a postcard Southeast Asian paradise. Lush tropical foliage, powdery sand, crystal blue waters, and heaping plates of spicy curries.
Before our trip, I browsed images of green limestone cliffs jutting up from the sea, straight out of a James Bond movie, and smiling couples cruising around on colorful scooters. What I didn’t see in any of the online guides was a warning about the seedy underbelly of the place — the human trafficking and the Russian mob influence. But, it was impossible to ignore upon arrival.
We discovered firsthand the unfortunate state of the once-idyllic beach utopia. It was not at all what I envisioned, but you can still see the beauty beneath the oppressive influence of foreign tourists and criminals — making it all the more painful to witness the dirty beaches, overcrowded streets, and aggressive scams.
I’m sure you can still find lovely experiences on some parts of the island — I’ll even provide a few pros below — but you’re better off traveling to Krabi or a more remote area to avoid the pitfalls of Phuket tourism. Here’s a summary of the highs and (very low) lows that we uncovered.
- Stunning luxury resorts and spas
- Nice mid-range hotels at reasonable prices
- Top-notch customer service at most hospitality operations
- A great jumping-off point for other parts of Southeast Asia like Cambodia and Singapore (or other parts of Thailand) if you find a flight deal
- Warm weather
- Beautiful views and sunsets
(Some extremely serious, some to be expected in over-touristed destinations)
- Palpable Russian mob presence
- A major hub of human trafficking, including sex trafficking of children
- Issues with pollution and litter
- Civil unrest and the potential for terrorism
- “Sanctuaries” where elephants are abused and forced to cart around tourists
- To rent a scooter, you have to hand over your passport or a huge sum of money for the shop to hold onto. And it’s not cheap to begin with — the best deal we found was $30 USD per day.
- Tons of tourist traps and scams. Many activities are overpriced and unsafe. In fact, dozens of people died during our trip when a boat full of tourists went out to sea despite a severe weather warning and capsized. The operator likely did not want to provide refunds, so they ignored the warning.
- Inauthentic food with little spice to accommodate foreign palates. Try as we might, we could not find a decent meal of traditional Thai food in Phuket.
- Overcrowded beaches and roads.
- Intense monsoons that can ruin a trip if you visit during the wrong week
- Not walkable at all. You have to drive or get a scooter.
Final words on Phuket
It’s impossible for me to recommend travel to Phuket in its current state. I mourn for the gorgeous island it once was and hope that the local government cleans up the devastating issues it faces. The sex trafficking of children alone is unspeakably horrendous — while we didn’t see it happening with our actual eyes, of course, we learned of it from reliable sources both in and outside of the island. Once you know it’s there, just hiding in the shadows, you can’t think of anything else.
These problems are not exclusive to Phuket tourism. They exist in many other parts of Thailand (and the world). The idea isn’t to avoid a place because bad things happen there — bad things happen everywhere. It’s to go in with open eyes and avoid any inadvertent involvement or contact with sinister forces. Better yet, we can even identify nonprofits and other groups working to counteract issues and lend them support.