The “Phuket Sandbox” was a program to let international visitors back into Thailand after the country had been closed for international travel during the pandemic. Instead of being locked in a hotel room for a week, you could stay on the island of Phuket for a week before being allowed to travel anywhere else in Thailand.
I entered Thailand via the Phuket Sandbox in January 2022. At the time of my visit, the alternative was to spend a week in quarantine in a Bangkok hotel, so a week on an island was a no-brainer.
[Sand, In Phuket. No box though.]
Here is my experience of the quarantine week, my thoughts on Phuket, and some of the places I visited while I was on this quarantine island.
A week in “quarantine”
This week of quarantine wasn’t exactly a hardship post. The Phuket Sandbox required that visitors had to get tested upon arrival at the airport, and then get pre-arranged transport to the hotel.
Once I was at the hotel I had to stay in my room until my test results came through in the morning. I arrived at night so this was not an inconvenient arrangement.
My results came through the next morning, then I was free to travel the island as I please. I had to get a temperature check at reception every morning, and another covid test in the middle of the week.
This enforced stay turned out to be a fortuitous opportunity to get to know Phuket.
Phuket is like avocado (according to my peculiar palate)
I’ve always enjoyed visiting Phuket, even if it’s it’s not a place I choose to visit. I think of Phuket as I think of avocado.
I like avocados, though I don’t get why people are crazy about avocados. Never in my life have I bought an avocado for personal consumption, and it is a rare occasion when I order a dish that is avocado-based. I can eat an avocado no problem. If it’s in a salad that I had no say in preparing I will gladly eat it, and I have eaten kilos of the stuff over my life when it is disguised as guacamole.
That is sort of how I feel about Phuket. I’ve never gone out of my way to go, but when I get there I don’t mind being there. I’ve never looked at a menu and said “ooh yum, chicken and avocado!”, but I would eat it if it was slopped in front of me. Likewise, I have never looked at a map of Thailand and thought “ooh I have to go to Phuket”, but when I end up there I’m happy to be there.
The first time I visited Phuket I was going overland from Bangkok to Singapore, so I visited Phuket to see what the fuss was about. Every other time I’ve visited has been a reason out of my control. Like the times I’ve been given avocados in a meal, I’ve also been served Phuket without really looking for it.
The next time I visited Phuket, I was living in Chiang Mai and went to Surat Thani to be an extra in a film. The casting agency had gone to Phuket to look for foreigners, so after the filming, they bussed everyone back to Phuket. I went back to Phuket with them to get a flight back to Chiang Mai, and I hung around in Phuket before going back.
My next visit to Phuket was when I was promoting an international hotel chain, so of course, that was a great time.
And now here I was spending a week in Phuket in this quasi-quarantine arrangement.
An island that doesn’t always feel like an island
Why do I feel indifferent about what is otherwise an agreeable island? I think part of it is that it doesn’t feel like an island.
Phuket is the largest island in Thailand, and large enough to be a province unto itself. If you look at Phuket on the map it looks more like a peninsula that got stranded from the mainland rather than an island. Phuket is connected to the mainland by a bridge that is 660 metres in length, so there is no gruelling boat trip to get here.
Crossing into Phuket from the mainland you continue on a large highway, and you pass through an urban landscape that could be anywhere in Thailand.
The one thing that takes the joy out of Phuket
More than anything, my ambivalence towards Phuket can probably be traced back to the taxis and tuk-tuks of Phuket. One travel motto I live by is “don’t judge a place by its taxi drivers”, but in Phuket, you don’t have much of a choice.
As Phuket is a provincially-sized island, it is hard to get around by public transport, and impractical to walk beyond where you are staying. You either need a scooter, or you have to use the awful taxi system of the island.
Phuket is (in)famous for its taxi mafia, which has made transport prices 3-5 times more expensive than what you would pay for the same distance in Bangkok.
There have been campaigns over the years to reform the transport industry on the island. There was a taxi mafia crackdown in 2014, but that didn’t last long.
The rise of ride-hailing apps should have fixed the problem, but drivers have been intimidated into raising prices. Another app was supposed to finally fix Phuket’s taxi woes in 2020, and now it is the turn of TikTokers to put Phuket taxi rip-offs in the spotlight.
A few weeks after I was there, Phuket’s reputation was making news.
Phuket Town is the answer to Phuket’s transport woes
Having already been to Phuket, I knew that I wanted to stay in Phuket Town for my quarantine week.
Phuket Town is the capital of Phuket, and it is the place that feels most like a real town. There are walkable streets and regular shops that aren’t catering for tourists.
Phuket Town is the main transport hub of the island, so you can go to more places from here than anywhere else. If you don’t mind not being by the beach, then it is easy to plan day trips to a different beach every day. For places that were harder to get to or need more exploration, I rented a scooter.
The highlight of Phuket Town is the Sino-Portuguese buildings of the old town. The old shophouses here are Straits Eclectic style, so if you have been to Singapore, Melaka, or Penang, the shophouses here will feel familiar.
[Penang or Phuket?]
When I visited Phuket Town in 2006 this area was run down and looking sad. Instagram was still four years away from being launched, and there were no colourful murals to be found then. The murals and street art of Phuket are now worth a visit in itself.
The renewed interest in the old town has saved many of the old shophouses that might otherwise have been lost.
And there are still some old buildings that have seemingly been forgotten about, providing bonus finds when urban exploring.
Phuket Town has a Sunday night market, which felt like the Sunday market in Chiang Mai.
Like Chiang Mai, the crowd is manageable before 6 pm, then it gets too busy for my taste.
Cafes of Phuket Town
I prefer to stay in Phuket Town because there are more cafes to choose from than anywhere else on the island. One of the things that sold me on this “quarantine” was spending a week in a place with nice cafes so I could catch up on work. And Phuket Town delivered.
In no particular order, I enjoyed Campus Coffee Roasters.
Patong and Karon
Patong is the most popular beach in Phuket, to the point that it became associated with overtourism in pre-pandemic times.
I have been there before and I already know it is not for me. I don’t drink or lie on the beach for relaxation, so such a place has little appeal. Despite that, I was curious to see what Patong looked like in this strange era we were living in. Thailand had only been reopened for a few months so tourist numbers were a long way from the 2019 highs.
Patong was the busiest place I saw during my week in Phuket, so recovery was starting here while filtering through to the other beach areas.
Things were still not quite right though. There were lots of shops that were still closed, with no indication if they were permanent closures.
South of Patong beach is Karon and Kata Beach in Karon Municipality. I had to go here to get a covid test because there were no testing spots available in Phuket Town. I had not been here before, so this was a good excuse to spend half a day there looking around before getting my second test.
Kata has a stunning stretch of beach, and I can see its appeal for the Northern Europeans who were there to thaw out from their homeland winter.
Continuing north from Kata, there is a small hill that separates it from Karon Beach. This is a longer beach, but I couldn’t pick a winner between these two.
Karon doesn’t have the bars and nightclub scene of Patong, so it is marketed as being family-friendly. It was still a shadow of its former self as well, with many places closed down.
[Hard time in Thailand when a 7-Eleven closes down.]
Rawai – an emerging digital nomad hub
Another new place I hadn’t been to was Rawai. This place has been turning up in my news feed as an emerging digital nomad hotspot, so of course, I had to investigate.
Rawai is a sub-district at the southern end of Phuket island. There wasn’t a convenient bus there, and the places I had marked on a map were too spread out to walk, so I rode a scooter there.
I went to Rawei Beach first, and the main feature of the beach is the fish market and seafood restaurants around the fishing pier.
The beach is also a launching point for excursion boats to the outlying islands to the south. There are many ropes stretched across the beach to anchor the boats, so it is not a pleasant leisure beach.
I rode inland and up a hill, and there are some cafes and restaurants along the main road. I went to Coffee Tribe Cafe, which I had heard was a digital nomad hangout.
I went inside and felt like I was among my people. They have good coffee here, and it was a relaxing place to get some work done.
I then went to Nai Han Beach, which is the proper beach of Rawei. Much better!
Near Nai Han Beach is a bonus body of water in the form of a lake. Nai Han Lake is ringed by a footpath, solving the issue of not having anywhere to run.
I read an article that described Rawai as a mini Canggu (the digital nomad hotspot in Bali). I was a bit sceptical before going, but the comparison is reasonable. Like Canguu, There is definitely a scene emerging here that has the nomad beach vibes. Rawai also reminded me of Canggu because there is no town centre and everything is strung out on a long road. The same urban design mistakes are being made here as in Canggu.
Phuket – it’s fine I suppose
Even though there are many more new places I want to visit in Thailand, the odds are good that I will end up in Phuket again.
I will probably end up in Phuket again in the future en route to my quest to visit every inhabitable island in Thailand. There are a few islands that are easy to reach from Phuket.
Phuket is also a handy international flight hub, so for travel in Southern Thailand, it can be more convenient to start there.
I might even end up there for the upcoming travel blog conference, though I’m not sure that the Tourism Authority of Thailand wants to hear “it’s fine I suppose” as a marketing catchphrase for Phuket.
And who knows, maybe my life path leads me to retirement on an island in Thailand. I ask friends in Bangkok where they would live if they decided to leave Bangkok, and Phuket is a common answer.
An expat who has already spent a decade or two in Thailand has a more pragmatic view of what is an ideal place to live. There isn’t one place that has everything right, so you pick what is right for you. a place that has beautiful beaches and access to island adventures, plus modern shopping centres and a big international airport to go with it.
I was grateful to spend an easy quarantine week in Phuket, and I would be happy if I somehow end up in Phuket despite myself.
My next island after Phuket was Ko Phi Phi Don.