Travel Insurance

Another precautionary travel insurance tale appeared in in the Phuket Gazette this week. And there will be more. I would advise anyone travelling anywhere, not just Thailand, to take out insurance. It isn’t expensive and can save you so much hassle.

The Thai Government has recently considered making travel insurance compulsory for visitors to Thailand. And why not; Thai hospitals have lost money by providing free treatment to uninsured foreigners and the internet has been full of appeals from relatives of tourists stranded in Thai hospitals unable to pay their bills or who require repatriation.

Lloyd's Insurance

Of course, insurance companies have a notoriety for declining claims. In my experience, the majority of genuine claimants are indemnified without too many problems. But what about those who have coverage declined? And how do you prevent insurers from denying liability?

It’s easy to say “read your policy”. It’s also common sense. But how many of us actually do?

What I’ll do is highlight some of the common exclusions, terms and conditions that may affect travellers to Thailand.

Let’s start with the most important section: medical expenses. If you are sick or have an accident you should inform your insurance company as soon as possible if you are able. They will then suggest a hospital for you. They don’t always give the best advice, unfortunately, as I’ve experienced with one claimant being sent to a totally inappropriate hospital by the insurance company. Ask a local to help; maybe a hotel receptionist or guesthouse owner, as they will know more than the insurers but if the company tells you to go somewhere, at that moment in time, you have little alternative.

If you go straight to a hospital then you can check whether they have an agreement with your company. Remember, travel insurers use local administrators so even an obscure Albanian insurance company could by default have an agreement with Bangkok Hospital. This is always better as they settle directly with the hospital. Otherwise you pay and are reimbursed. If this is the way your insurer operates, make sure you collect every bill, medical certificate, police report, which may be necessary in the event of an accident, any paperwork you can and try to get it in English. The big hospitals should be able to do this. Submit everything with your claim. You might need translations.

Now, what problems might you run into? Pre-existing conditions are generally excluded, certainly recent ones, so if you have a heart condition and you have a heart attack on holiday, the likelihood is your travel insurance won’t pay. Most policies will exclude accidents whilst under the influence of alcohol. This can be interpreted in different ways. I’d suggest anything above the legal drink-drive limit and you could fall foul of the exclusion, whether you believe you are sober or not. The same with drugs: if you have touched anything then you can say goodbye to any insurance payout.

Exclusions, terms and conditions for motorcycle riding vary from policy to policy. See the motorcycle rental post for more information. You may even have coverage declined if you are in a car or taxi if you’re not wearing a seatbelt. And check the wording if you are likely to do any dangerous sports such as scuba diving, bungee jumping or rock-climbing.

The other commonly used section of a travel insurance policy is for loss or damage to personal items. You will need a police report to make a claim under this section, this will also need to be translated. Bear the cost of this in mind. Most policies have an individual item limit and some specifically limit the amount payable for loss, damage or theft of a mobile phone, tablet or notebook, usually much less than the actual value.

Don’t forget there are often sections of the policy you may not know about that might benefit you, such as luggage delay, flight delay and hospitalisation cash payments.

I shouldn’t need to add that submitting a fraudulent claim is a criminal offence. Insurers do investigate claims so I’d strongly advise against trying this.

Travel Insurance

I reiterate, pleasebuy insurance before travelling and at least read the relevant parts of the policy. I hope you won’t need to claim but it’s better to have peace of mind and, believe me, genuine claims within the terms and conditions of the policy are generally paid with no problems, despite popular opinion.

No Smoking On The Beaches

The Thai authorities are well known for making rash decisions based on reports by so-called experts and this week’s example is up there with the best, or should I say worst, of them. Smoking is to be prohibited on every beach in Phuket plus many more throughout Thailand!

And the punishment? Up to a 100,000 baht fine and/or one year’s imprisonment! Let’s put that into perspective: the usual fine for smoking in a prohibited area such as an air-conditioned restaurant or a public park is 2,000 baht. A typical fine for causing someone actual bodily harm is 500 baht!

The reasoning appears nothing to do with public health but it’s more of an environmental issue. Yes, those pesky cigarette butts are of more concern that the plastic bottles, used condoms, styrofoam containers and plastic bags that litter beaches throughout the Kingdom, not to mention raw sewage.

How will this be enforced? It appears that teams of police will be patrolling the beaches on the lookout for those lighting up. That would seem to be a means of topping up their monthly salaries; “You pay me 5,000 baht now and you won’t have to come to the police station!”.

What about e-cigarettes? They don’t produce butts. Maybe not, but they are illegal in Thailand and a potential double-whammy might hit anybody vaping on the beach!

People go to the beach to relax. They might want a beer and a cigarette before going for a swim, and why should this be a problem. I’m a non-smoker and you’d think as such that I welcome the idea but no, I don’t. I advocate the freedom of tourists to act as they would, at least within the law, on any beaches around the world. They’ve courted the Chinese market here for some time and China is in the top ten countries in the world of smokers as a percentage of the population.

Perhaps, though, Thailand isn’t quite as draconian as the Spanish beach resort of San Pedro del Pinatar, where ball-games and pissing in the ocean has been banned. I just hope some Thai expert doesn’t discover this gem! But it does show that stupid laws are not the exclusive domain of Thailand.

If the new edict is enforced as rigorously as the smoking laws in Bangkok’s bars then there will be nothing to worry about but if the police do see this as a nice little earner then it might be problematical for a while, before dying a death like so many Thailand crackdowns.

But let’s wait for the International press to react if and when the first Western tourist is fined 100,000 baht. That should do wonders for the Thai tourist industry. Though perhaps those clever folk at the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) might just turn it to their advantage. Next market to tap into: non-smokers.

October 2017

This is likely to be a very sombre month featuring both the first anniversary of the death of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibo Adulyadej on October 13th, followed by his cremation on the 26th.

What does this mean for the tourist? Well, it’s still not really clear.

The funeral ceremony will take place over a five day period. It was originally thought the the whole week would be a public holiday as Monday 23rd is already a holiday (Chulalongkorn Day) and the cremation is on a Thursday but this isn’t the case with only the 26th specifically designated such.

You’ll see that colours on Thai TV have been toned down to a greyscale tone, many websites have acted similarly while many have reverted to black and white as a mark of respect. Many Thais have changed their Facebook profiles back and white with a black ribbon on the frame. Phuket entertainment venues have been asked to tone down their activities, though I’ve not seen or heard reports of any changes just yet, The Pattaya Police Chief has also made an announcement.

It would not be a surprise if alcohol sales are banned on the 13th and possibly for the 5 day period commencing 23rd October, with the 26th a certainty. Unfortunately the Thai way is to leave such announcements until the last minute. Will Thailand come to a complete halt on the 26th? It’s quite likely, as most Thais will be glued to their TV sets, such was the esteem in which the King was held.

I’m pretty sure we’ll see a return to the dress-code evidenced after the King’s death with Thais mostly wearing black on the anniversary of the death and as the cremation date nears.

But it’s all speculation. Most Thai people have never experienced the funeral of a monarch and there’s certainly been nothing on a similar scale in the TV age, let alone the digital age.

How will this affect tourists, other than potential bar closures? I’d suggest that travel around Bangkok may prove difficult during the lead up to the cremation and on the day itself. Beach resorts will mostly be business as usual but tourists will be expected to act with respect and dignity during this important time for the Thai people. It’s probably not a good idea to hold raucous parties, or dress in outrageously colourful outfits during the period of the funeral but at the same time, tourists are on holiday and won’t be expected to stop enjoying themselves and won’t be expected to wear black, though it might just be appreciated if some do. Just keep an eye on what’s happening and act accordingly. We’re all pretty much in the dark.

Follow @PhuketPains on Twitter to keep up to date with the latest information.

Jetskis, parasailing and other beach sports

Much has been written about the perils of renting a jetski in Phuket and, indeed, other parts of Thailand. We all know the main scam: return the jetski only for some mysterious damage to be found. It wasn’t there before so the renter must be responsible, hence must pay. Police, possibly on the payroll, are called to help in negotiations but the loser is always the renter. Things can get ugly, as can be seen from this video of the TV series Big Trouble in Tourist Thailand.

It’s equally difficult if someone does have an accident and causes actual damage. The same routine is played out with the police helping in negotiations and the unsuspecting tourist always pays well over the top.

If you are unfamiliar with these scams, simply google Thailand jet ski scam and you’ll be amazed at the number of hits. I don’t need to say any more; it’s all over the internet.

But it’s not just the scams that are the problems. These are powerful machines, they travel quickly and they can be dangerous. A girl was killed at Kata Beach this year when a machine driven by her boyfriend collided with hers. I personally know someone who suffered serious brain damage when hit on the head by an out of control jetski. In Thailand they rent them off the beach and swimmers are in peril whenever someone is riding too fast too close to the shoreline.

Recently, however, the parasailers have had more publicity than their counterparts. A horrible incident took place at Kata Beach this year when an Australian tourist plummeted from his jetski into shallow water and was killed. The footage may be upsetting to some. This prompted an overdue safety check, but after a few days it was business as usual, just in time for a Patong parasailer to make headlines when it allowed a two-year old boy to participate! Again, this is here on video. The kid’s father is probably more at fault than the operator in this instance but it does make you wonder where in the queue these guys were when commonsense was handed out.

But why are jetskis and parasailers allowed to operate on Phuket’s beaches anyway? In 2014 commerce was effectively banned from the beaches, with an initial ban on sunbeds, umbrellas, massages and all vendors. So how were the operators of noisy, polluting machines exempted from this? As long ago as 2004 a statement was issued that jetskis would be phased out and would disappear completely from Phuket’s beaches by 2011. The opposite happened and now there are more than ever. The current law states that they are not supposed to park on the beaches and any trailers used for towing the jetskis must be immediately vacate the sand. So in Kata the public car park at the north end is filled with such trailers!

Parasailers have never had an ultimatum imposed as far as I know but the numbers seem to grow year on year. They operate differently in Thailand to anywhere else I’ve seen. The beach itself is a take-off landing area and a jockey, or monkey as I prefer to call him, takes to the air with the parasailer in order to help with the controls. Now, I’ve done this in Penang, controlling it myself. It’s not difficult so why they need to do this here I don’t know. It’s also not uncommon in other places for the parasailers to take off either from the boat or from a raft moored a couple of hundred metres offshore, causing minimal or no interference to beach users. In Phuket a stretch of beach is commandeered by the operators an tourists will be told in no uncertain terms that they may not park their bags, towels or bodies in this spot.

Both these operations are entirely at odds with the way the Phuket authorities want to control and manage the beaches. One can only assume that money talks. A recent article in The Phuket Gazette describes how much money the parasailers potentially earn on a daily basis. Multiply that several times and add the jetski income. Any percentage paid over to allow them to operate becomes a “nice little earner” for someone!

I understand you can get bored on the beach. Swimming is fine but after a while you want to try some other activity. Well, it doesn’t have to be motorised and polluting.

Surfing is becoming increasingly popular at many Phuket West Coast beaches, in particular Kata. A full day’s board rental is less than half the price of five minute’s parasailing, or you can just rent by the hour. I

t’s no Waikiki or Kuta and don’t bother turning up with your surfboard between November and June as there won’t be much action. In reality September and October are the main surfing months. There’s more information here

Karon’s the place for beach volleyball, though, unfortunately, the ladies professional tournament that was held there for many years has moved elsewhere. There are a number of courts at the back of the beach close to the Moevenpick Hotel..

For kitesurfing try Chalong, sea kayaking is available at Yanui Beach and a couple of spots on the East Coast, snorkelling is possible near the rocks at Karon and Kata but Ao Sane and Yanui are much better.

For some reason windsurfing, paddle-boarding and water-skiing don’t seem to be too popular in Phuket. I have no idea why.

If, after everything you’ve seen online, you do decide to jetski, carefully check for any damage before you take the jetski into the water. Photograph any scratches or dents if you feel it’s appropriate. And if you parasail just make sure that you are properly secured.

By law they are all supposed to be insured but in practice, who knows?

Of course, if you want a quiet beach with absolutely no jetskis, parasailing or other annoyances, check out my Beaches post.

Phuket Beaches

You come to Phuket to relax on a beach, umbrella shading you from the ferocity of the mid-afternoon sun, cocktail in one hand, good book in another, getting ready for that next dip in the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea or a soothing beach massage. Sounds idyllic. It could be idyllic…..if the authorities got their act together and provided the sort of beach facilities expected by well-heeled tourists!

For many years, such relaxation on a sandy Phuket beach was possible and the tourists lapped it up. Following the 2004 tsunami the ancient wooden beach chairs were replaced with new plastic ones, the mishmash of umbrellas became more uniform with mostly Siam Commercial Bank sponsored gifts, the small beach bars and massage huts were rebuilt, and the vendors kept their part of the beach clean.

Over a period of time, however, the Phuket authorities lost control. Two rows of sunbeds became three, the umbrella and beds became tatty as they were never replaced, the number of annoying beach vendors grew by the day and the solitude of many beaches was destroyed by the growing number of jetskis and parasailing operations. More about those in a later post.

Certain beaches had become ugly and unsightly and in 2014 the Military Government decided to step in. Sunbeds and umbrellas were banned, all beach vending was halted; the beaches were to be returned to their natural state. Why? Beaches are public land belonging to the Crown. Local authorities had been charging money for sunbed concessions yet had no right to do so. Where the money went is anyone’s guess but it certainly wasn’t into Central Government’s coffers.

 

Not only this, all restaurants, beach clubs and other establishments that had encroached onto the sand were closed and many buildings destroyed. At Surin Beach, in particular, this ruined a thriving beach club atmosphere.

Lam Singh Beach

So we now had the situation where tourists had little comfort and no shade! After a number of compromises, beds and umbrellas returned in 2017 but only in so-called 10% zones; the rest of the beach was still to be kept in a natural state. Jetskis and parasailing operations were not affected at all so the oily, noisy, smelly machines haven’t stopped polluting the atmosphere of many of Phuket’s beaches.

As is often the case in Thailand, we have no idea whether the current status quo will exist for any length of time but at the time of writing the following beaches have beds and umbrellas for rent within the ten percent zone: Nai Yang; Bang Tao; Kamala; Patong: Karon; Kata; Kata Noi; Nai Harn.

Surin Beach, once the party beach of the hi-sos, has been declared a virgin beach, meaning absolutely no beds, umbrellas or any commerce whatsoever! And if you’re planning to visit nearby Laem Singh Beach the you may wish to forget this as a land dispute has effectively closed the beach for the foreseeable future.

Patong Beach

Patong is the busiest beach in Phuket and if you don’t want a crowded beach with the noise of jetskis and boat engines ruining any possibility of relaxation than avoid Patong. Karon is much bigger and easy enough to find a quiet spot away from the annoyances. Kata, Kata Noi, Bangtao and Kamala are other beaches favoured by jetskis so if they bother you I’d suggest one of the other beaches. Although the Where To Stay section of Phuket Pains contains some basic information regarding certain beaches, as the situation regarding commerce on beaches can change regularly, I would recommend you research via Google for up to date information or if it’s quiet beaches you’re after, have a look here.

The monsoon changes around May and the west coast beaches take on a different character. It’s between May and October that the sea becomes dangerous and care should be taken when entering the water. Waves become bigger, rip tides are prevalent and several people drown off Phuket every year, tourists and locals alike. You should listen to lifeguards and obey any flags. Swimming zones are clearly marked with red and yellow flags. If red flags are flying, do not swim! It’s simple, it’s commonsense, but it’s also ignored by too many.

You should also be wary of jellyfish, sea lice, which can give a mild sting, usually harmless but some folk do suffer a reaction, sea urchins on a couple of rockier beaches, garbage, especially in low season, and even sewage. If there’s a discoloured stream of water then don’t take any chances. It might just be plankton but it might be something else! Beware of tourists on jetskis and don’t sunbathe in areas where the parasailers land. They’ll soon let you know if you’re in the way!

I should also mention that you shouldn’t leave your valuables unattended on the beach. I know many people that have lost phones, cameras, wallets and even passports which have been left alone when the owners decided to take a dip. It might look safe enough but……………………. Also freak waves are not uncommon and a phone soaked with saltwater is not usually salvageable.

Karon Viewpoint
Kata Noi, Kata, Karon

 

It’s the beaches that made Phuket such a popular place for tourists. Going to the beach is a major part of any holiday on the island and swimming in the sea is part of what a tropical holiday is all about. Enjoy it……………but be safe!

Renting a Car in Phuket

We’ve looked at motorcycle rental. If it’s not for you then how about renting a car?

I’m surprised so few people do rent a car in Phuket. It’s possibly the thought of driving in Phuket, with its reputation for road accidents, hilly, potholed roads, dangerous drivers, traffic and left-side driving.

But is it that bad? Let’s have a look:

Most accidents involve motorbikes;

The roads aren’t the best but easily navigable by a competent driver;

The traffic can be dreadful but that would be the same if you were sitting in a taxi or on a bus;

You soon get used to driving on the “wrong side” of the road, though if you’re British, Australian or Japanese then this isn’t an issue anyway.

The pros possibly outnumber the cons. In addition:

You have the freedom to go where you want, when you want;

You are not at the mercy of tuktuks and taxis;

You can rent at the airport, thereby avoiding the cost of a two-way transfer.

Cars are sturdier than bikes so your chances of a serious injury in the unlikely event of an accident are diminished.

Of course, there are dangers. Anyone who’s visited Thailand will be aware that the standard of driving is far worse than in most visitors’ home countries. The Thai driving test is a joke (I don’t think anybody ever fails) and law enforcement is lax; speeding, running red lights, dangerous overtaking, even driving against the traffic are rarely punished. It’s also a fact that many Thai drivers don’t even have a licence, despite the easy test. A small fine is the usual punishment if caught, and the unlicensed driver is then sent on his way.

And there’s more:

Road rage: try not to intimidate other drivers; you don’t know how they may react;

Ghost-riders: cars and mainly motorbikes on the wrong side of the road, a nightmare when you are turning right;

Dogs can be a nuisance. They don’t usually wander down the middle of the road but watch out for them anyway. You might even encounter a python or monitor lizard crossing the road; please don’t drive over them!

You also need to be aware of bikes at all times. Use your mirrors more than you normally would, especially the left-side wing mirror. Many bikes are hit by cars turning left;

You’ll encounter poor driving, all the traits I mentioned in the previous paragraph, buses that can hardly get up the hills, black exhaust smoke pouring out of the back of beaten up pickups, vans and buses. And if you drive in the rain be extra-cautious; too many drivers don’t take the conditions into account, don’t switch on their lights ad you may well encounter localised flooding.

Honestly, I could ramble on for a few thousand words on the dangers on Thailand’s roads but just do a Google search to find out more.

Accidents, of course, can happen and for that reason we would recommend only renting cars from reputable, preferably internationally known companies. You might save a couple of hundred baht a day renting from the hotel manager’s friend, the local tour shop or the place near the beach but if you are involved in an accident and you’ve signed an agreement in Thai that you don’t understand, you could lose your entire holiday spending money plus much more.

Check your travel insurance to make sure you are covered for medical expenses. You won’t be covered for damage to the car nor third party damages. With a reputable international company this will not be a concern for you. With Somchai’s Honda City, it might be.

We’d also recommend buying Excess Protection Insurance. Don’t buy this through the car rental company as it’s well overpriced. Use a specialist company for this and save a fortune, also consider an annual policy, which works out very economical.

In the event of an accident you’ll be told to leave your vehicle exactly where it is, regardless of how minor the scrape you might be involved with. Contact the rental agency, they will inform the insurers. You won’t generally be allowed to move your car until the insurers and the police have made an inspection. You might be holding up traffic but don’t worry; it’s a daily occurrence in Phuket.

A final few points:

It is law that seatbelts are worn at all times by all passengers;

Mobile phones may not be used whilst driving;

Make sure you fill up with the correct fuel. Thailand isn’t self-service so ask correctly;

Look out for parking restrictions. Red and white lines on the kerb, also signs on lampposts.

Carry your driving licence and preferably passport at all times. You may be stopped in a police roadblock. An International Driving Permit is preferable.

Don’t drink and drive!

Renting a car can really help you have a better vacation. Driving in Phuket isn’t difficult as long as you keep focussed. Just drive like you would at home, don’t be aggressive and don’t think that driving like the locals is a good idea. It usually isn’t!

Renting a motorcycle

You arrive on a tropical island and the first thing you decide to do is rent a motorbike in order to avoid the excessive public transport costs and get to places not served by local buses.

You’re not alone: many people do this, and quite a few come a cropper. Here are a few tips and dangers of motorbike rental in Phuket and other parts of the country.

First of all, it is cheap, and that attracts tourists to ride a bike. 200 baht a day in Phuket, rising a little for a new bike, or if you want a big bike you can multiply that amount several times. A little 100 or 125 cc bike. That’s the price of a one-way tuktuk ride between Karon and Kata! What can go wrong?

Plenty, is the answer.

First, and very importantly, a licence is required to ride in Thailand. Not a car licence, a motorcycle licence. If you are stopped or have an accident you will be fined if you do not have a current licence and, in theory at least, it should be an international or a Thai licence. Most police will accept a licence from the renter’s country but that is not universal. Different police have different rules. Get an International Driving Permit from your home country before you arrive if you want hassle-free motorbike riding.

It is also the law that riders and passengers wear a helmet. Yes, that’s correct, it’s the law, despite what you may see the locals do. You will be fined if you don’t wear a helmet. Now, most Thai helmets are of poor quality and certainly nowhere near the standards you’d expect in the West. Many that you’ll be offered are old and these just crack upon impact; OK, that’s better than cracking the skull but the protection is minimal. If you are riding a bike here long term it is worth investing in your own helmet; a few long-stayers even bring one from their own country.

When you rent a bike you will more often than not be asked to deposit your passport as security. You should try to avoid this where possible. Under Thai law you are supposed to carry your passport at all times. Try to offer a photocopy or another form of ID, though not your motorcycle licence! If that’s not acceptable then try renting from your hotel or guesthouse; as a resident they may be more lenient. Shop around and you should find someone willing to rent without your passport.

You’ll be asked to sign an agreement. It’s written in Thai and basically makes you fully responsible for loss or damage to the bike and any third party damage payment if required. No rental companies purchase insurance to cover the riders as it’s too expensive.

This can lead to scams, the most common of which is to charge you for pre-existing damage or overcharge for any damage you may have caused. The former can be prevented by photographing any scratches, scuffs or dents before you take the bike out. If you do cause damage, get your own estimate at a bike repair shop (there are loads of them on any roadside) so you can argue your case if the amount quoted by the rental agent appears excessive. If they have your passport and you are due on a flight later that day, remember they hold all the aces.

A much rarer scam is the stolen bike; it disappears overnight. You are liable under the terms of the agreement you have signed. That bike may miraculously reappear shortly after you leave Thailand. I’ve never come across a victim of this particular scam but apparently it does occasionally occur.

For security always use the steering lock and don’t leave anything in the under-saddle compartment.

So, you have a licence, a helmet and you’ve handed over the money. You should familiarise yourself first. I’ve seen people go straight out onto the open road and immediately crash! You might also find something wrong with the bike, in which case return it. When you’re happy and you hit the road, remember a few things: Thai drivers are not the best; be careful and try to work out what they’re doing; tourists are often worse bike riders than the locals, especially the Chinese for some reason, so beware of non-Thai faces. Trucks are dangerous, as are minibuses, cement trucks, in fact everyone. It’s worth knowing that Thailand has the second highest road-death rate in the entire world! You should always keep to the left where dedicated motorcycle lanes often exist, though you will encounter dogs, street food carts and cars and other bikes often driving against the traffic flow, a practice that, although common amongst Thais and occasionally those used to driving on the right, is both illegal and dangerous, hence not advised.

Accidents do happen. What do you do?

If you are involved in a very minor at fault accident then you may be able to fix this with a high denomination banknote. If you get a puncture, have it fixed at a local shop. It’s cheap. For any more serious accidents you should call the rental agency immediately. They will negotiate on your behalf but you’ll end up paying if you are at fault and in the majority of accidents involving tourists on bikes, the tourist will be considered at fault. Your travel insurance will not pay for such damage.

You might need hospital treatment. This too will generally be at your expense. You may or may not be covered by travel insurance, depending upon the wording of your policy. Motorcycling may be excluded altogether, it will almost certainly be excluded if you are without a licence, if you are deemed to be riding recklessly, if you are not wearing a helmet and/or if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. So check your policy before renting a bike. Too many tourists rent bikes then have to plead for cash to settle their medical bills. Columbus Travel Insurance does not exclude motorcycling on bikes/scooters up to 125cc. Check them out here.

Don’t drink alcohol and ride a bike. It’s against the law and you are a hazard to yourself and other road users. Phuket police are much less lenient these days and if you are caught you might end up with a Court appearance and/or a large fine. The drink/drive limit is 50mg per 100ml of blood. That’s similar to most European countries and lower than the UK or most of the USA!

To sum up: only rent a bike if you are an experienced rider with a motorcycle licence; wear a helmet; wear appropriate clothing, as swimming trunks and bikinis give zero protection even in the event of a minor fall; check your insurance to see if you have cover; drive carefully and keep left as much as possible; beware dogs, trucks and Chinese tourists; don’t get drunk; don’t get scammed.

Public Transport in Phuket

Across most of Thailand, reasonably priced public transport is readily available. Bangkok has a good Skytrain and underground service and taxis are cheap, provided the driver will use the meter. Bangkok transport is a subject for another time. Pattaya has its baht bus, a hop-on hop-off songthaew on a circular route and other cities have reasonably priced buses and tuktuks.

And then there’s Phuket, a law unto itself.

Unfortunately, the Phuket public transport system is run by mafia types under the guise of tuk tuk co-operatives, meaning price-fixing and restriction of trade for other transport forms is the norm.

There are buses of sorts; an array of songthaews, converted trucks with bench seats, that serve Phuket Town and travel between Town and various beaches. They’re mainly to serve local people and can be especially busy during the school rush hours, but tourists are welcome to use them. However, they’re only useful if you are travelling into and out of Phuket Town. They are not allowed to ply their trade between beaches, nor are they allowed to operate after dark. That’s tuktuk territory. And note that Phuket tuktuks bear no resemblance to those used in the rest of Thailand. Look at the images.

BANGKOK TUKTUK
PHUKET TUKTUK

 

 

 

 

 

So what are the options for a tourist travelling between, say, Karon and Patong, a 7km journey? In order of price here are the alternatives:

  1. Walk! Not advised; it’s hot and the roads are dangerous.
  2. Get a songthaew into Phuket Town and another out again. Time-consuming, uncomfortable, hot and doesn’t operate after dark. Not really practical.
  3. Motorcycle taxi: very few of these exist in Karon and Kata and it’s hardly the safest mode of transport but possibly economical for a solo traveller.
  4. Rent a motorcycle: OK for some, not for others. Cheap, as most bikes rent for 200 baht per day but definitely not always advisable. See the next post for more information on motorcycle rental.
  5. Taxi or tuktuk: 400 baht each way seems excessive. It is excessive but they have control of the route and as the only other options are those above, they get away with it. If the fare is split amongst a few of you it’s OK but for one or two, particularly those on a budget, it’s pretty off-putting.

And that’s the story around the whole island.

Songthaew

Are tuktuk and taxis safe? Probably as safe as any car journey in Thailand but that’s not saying much, being the second worst country for road deaths per head of population in the entire world. Drivers have been known to use violence against both passengers and other car drivers, particularly if you happen to occupy a parking spot “reserved” for he tuktuks.

Taxis have improved in recent years as unlicensed cabs have been forced off the roads. Official taxis sport yellow stickers with the drivers name and a phone number to ring should you have any problems.

Always agree a price before starting your journey and bear in mind that drivers may charge extra for any drop-offs en route, even if it’s a two second stop on the road. You should avoid getting into arguments with these guys as they always have “friends” on-hand to help them.

So, if you are travelling to Phuket on a budget you do need to factor transport costs into your calculations. One option is to spend a couple of nights on different beaches so as to avoid return fares. The other option is to base yourself where you feel you might be more comfortable and just stay there. Despite what you might read elsewhere, prices aren’t as high as London, Paris, Sydney or New York but for Thailand they are excessive.

Changing Money

The currency in Thailand is the Baht. One baht is also 100 satang (satang is also the Thai word for money).

Denominations are as follows:

Coins: 25 satang, 50 satang, 1 baht, 2 baht, 5 baht, 10 baht.

Notes: 20 baht, 50 baht, 100 baht, 500 baht, 1000 baht.

There’s no point offering an approximate exchange rate as it changes regularly, as any other currency. At the time of writing the baht is a pretty strong currency, making Thailand a little more expensive for visitors.

I’m often asked where to get the best rate of exchange. My usual answer is that most places are roughly the same. You might get an extra .02 of a baht for each dollar if you shop around but if you’re changing up USD500 that gains you ten baht, the price of a pack of chewing gum. You might, however, find independent kiosks are better than the banks and in Phuket the best rates seem to be had at Superrich or NC Plus, both in Phuket Town. If you’re at the beach it’ll cost you more in transport than the extra baht you’ll receive.

It’s worth taking your passport; some places ask for it, others don’t, but policies can change overnight so be prepared.

You’ll almost always get a better baht exchange rate inside Thailand than anywhere else, even at the airport, so it’s better to exchange a little at the airport upon arrival – airport rates are worse than elsewhere but the differential isn’t as great as in some countries – and change the rest at your destination. Hotels are a last resort, almost always offering dreadful exchange rates.

ATMs are common throughout Thailand; I don’t think I’ve been to another country with so many of them. It’s perfectly OK to use them, and they generally have an English language option, but it should be borne in mind that all of them charge a fee of 180 baht for a transaction on a foreign card, plus a 30 baht bank charge on top. This makes drawing small amounts uneconomical, though many tourists don’t like to walk around with too much money. It’s the same using a credit card in an ATM. Your home bank may also make a charge so it can work out quite pricey to use cards.

If your card doesn’t work, don’t panic. Ring your bank and in most cases you’ll find they’ve blocked the card just in case its use is fraudulent. The card can be reactivated immediately.

Be wary at ATMs. They can be busy so hide your PIN. If you get approached by anyone asking you to reinsert your card for any reason at all, and reasons can sound genuine and advantageous, do not do it. Skimmers are used by criminals to clone credit and ATM cards, another reason for hiding your PIN. If anyone ever asks you to reinsert your card into a machine for any reason, don’t do it.

If you lose your card, have it stolen, cloned or fraudulently used, then the process is no different to your home country. Ring your bank, cancel the card and have a new one dispatched to you. Sounds easy, doesn’t it. And it should be, but it often isn’t. Many banks will only send a card to a registered address, some won’t use a courier service and reliance on the Thai mail is not a good idea, you may be travelling to another destination and don’t know where to have a card sent and you might have hotel bills to pay and have no means of doing so. For this reason it’s always best to have a back-up card. Otherwise you may need to borrow from a friend to tide you over, a helpful hotel owner can be a godsend, but a rare one, and Western Union is always available if you need cash quickly.

If your card is retained by an ATM machine for any reason, go into the bank and tell them. Usually returning with your passport the following day will enable you to collect your card. For this reason, as well as the rare occasion that something goes wrong with a transaction, ATMs outside banks are much safer to use than standalone ATMs or those outside convenience stores.

You might need to find a Thai speaker to help you. Ask at your hotel or guesthouse; they will hopefully be able to go with you.

Finally, when spending money, watch your banknotes. People hand over 500 or 1000 baht thinking they are 100 baht bills. Most Thais are honest and will tell you of your mistake but don’t expect a taxi driver to hang around if you’ve just paid 2,000 baht instead of 200!

Arrival at Phuket Airport

Most visitors’ first experience of the island of Phuket is the airport.

Phuket International Airport opened a brand new international terminal in 2016 and initially the queues at Immigration were an absolute nightmare with waits of over two hours a regular occurrence. Blamed on the lack of computers, Phuketians were scratching their heads as to the whereabouts of the old computers and cameras from the old terminal where waiting times were’t great but nothing like those experienced in 2016.

It appears that the situation has greatly improved with waiting times at an acceptable level. Don’t expect smiling, friendly, English-speaking Immigration Officers, however, as these are few and far between. Expect a scowl as you pass your passport over, a nonplussed look as the officer peruses the document, apart from the compulsory glance to make sure you’re the person in the photograph, a gesture to stand in the correct position and look at the camera as your photo is taken before the page is stamped and the passport is returned. If you have any sort of visa it is worth checking you have been admitted for the requisite number of days as they do sometimes make mistakes. Don’t forget to fill in your Immigration Card before you get to the desk. Also if you can avoid joining a queue of Chinese visitors then do so. They usually have no idea how to fill in these cards so the process takes much longer.

The two Bangkok airports can be just as bad, even worse at times, with reports in August 2017 of waits of over four hours at Don Muang, people urinating on the floors rather than risk losing their place in the queue. This in turn prompted a relocation of Immigration Officers to Don Muang which left Suvarnabhumi undermanned!

With passport in hand, it’s now time to collect your bags, a simple enough process. It’s worth knowing that most bags are x-rayed by customs officers before you exit so if you happen to have more than the permitted 1 litre of alcohol and 200 cigarettes, you are very likely to be stopped. Duty charged is usually at the whim of the officer but remain polite at all times if you are stupid enough to try smuggling anything you shouldn’t. As for drugs………DON’T!

The terminal has ATMs and money exchange booths. Bear in mid ALL Thai ATMs charge 180 baht per transaction, often with another 30 baht added, and exchange rates are better outside the airport.

If you’ve booked a taxi in advance you’ll need to look for a sign with your name on outside Exit 2. We recommend booking a pickup from your hotel or guesthouse, where the price should be cheaper, though some of the more expensive hotel prices can exceed those of the Airport Taxis.

The procedure at the domestic terminal is similar but head to the meeting point to find your taxi sign, It’s currently under renovation so it’s a bit of a zoo right now. And if you’re being picked up, make sure your accommodation knows at which terminal they should find you. It should be simple but this is Thailand, where even Thai Airways put the wrong terminal on the tickets. A straightforward domestic flight will arrive at domestic but if you are on a connecting flight from another country and will be collecting your bags in Phuket, you’ll be arriving at International.

If you haven’t booked a pickup you have several options: Airport Taxi, where there’s a stand inside the terminal, Meter Taxi, usually slightly cheaper, with a stand outside the terminal, shared minibus, a cheap option or the airport bus, which is the cheapest option but only goes to Phuket Town. What happened to the Patong bus? Apparently it’s still running so if you find it please et me know where.

If you take the minibus or limo, be prepared to stop at a tour shop en route. Here they’ll attempt to sell you accommodation if you have nothing booked, even if you have a booking elsewhere they will sometimes state that the place is dreadful, has rats and cockroaches, has burned down or is closed! They’ll also try to sell you day trips. We recommend you do not book anything with this office for a number of reasons: they are more expensive than you’ll find elsewhere; if there’s a problem it’s difficult to change a trip or even get money refunded. They insist upon a personal visit if a refund is necessary and this may entail a two hour or more return trip. Phuket is a much bigger island than many realise and the traffic can be dreadful so travelling can be a real pain.

Take your accommodation’s phone number so the driver can ring for directions. Thais are generally poor map readers and GPS is still rare. Failing this you may be dropped a long way from your hotel or guesthouse, the driver insisting it’s just around the corner. Also, if the minibus is your preferred option, be prepared to be driven around the houses before you arrive at your destination.

Phuket traffic nowadays ensures that it may not be the most relaxing journey and you will quite possibly be disappointed with the scruffy concrete scenery but most people arrive at their destination with no problems.

Don’t leave anything in the bus or taxi. Too many mobile phones fall out of pockets!