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!

Where in Phuket should you stay?

I was walking in the middle of Phuket Town when I was stopped by a young French couple, struggling with a map.

“Excuse me, can you tell us where the beach is?” the girl asked.

“Not here” I replied. “You’re in the wrong place for the beach”.

I ended up recommending they go to Karon Beach the following day.

In this internet age, you would think it’s quite easy to research the best place to stay for your desires but it’s obvious so many people don’t. Backpackers arrive at Kata Beach expecting nightclubs and loud music bars, families and the elderly go to Patong expecting an idyllic beach holiday. Sorry guys, you’ve chosen the wrong place.

Phuket’s a much bigger island than many realise; public transport is limited and taxis and tuktuks expensive compared to the rest of Thailand, so choosing the right area to say is important. I’m not going to recommend any hotels, resorts, guesthouses or hostels; you know the type of place you’re looking for, your own budget, you know the large online agents like Booking.com, you’ve read the reviews on Tripadvisor. But let’s have a look at some of the major resort areas. I’m not trying to suggest where you might want to stay but more where you shouldn’t be.

Soi Romanee, Phuket Town (courtesy of Jamie’s Phuket Blog)

I’ll start with the already mentioned Phuket Town. There’s no beach, it’s a municipal centre, has a fairly attractive and interesting Old Town area and some good local style nightlife. Worth a night or two if you’re travelling around and have plenty of time or for a night before travelling elsewhere from the main bus terminal, but if you’re taking a ferry it’s just as easy to get there from the beaches.

If it’s nightlife you want the Patong is the place to be: big, bright, brash, in your face but fun nonetheless. The beach is not the best, with jetskis and parasailers taking up much of the space, constant hassle from both legal and illegal vendors, and it’s busier and dirtier than many other beaches in Phuket. On a rainy day, however, Patong has more activities than anywhere else: massages, cinemas, bowling, shopping, Kidzania and a huge selection of bars and restaurants. Its nightlife is by far the best on the island with several nightclubs and literally hundreds of bars, together with an array of restaurants of variable quality. The nightlife can be on the seedy side, especially on Soi Bangla with its girlie bars full of scantily clad working ladies, ladyboys and sex-show touts, but you you can actually stay in Patong and avoid Bangla if you want. It’s the place to go for the younger crowd, same-sex groups, single men, party animals and pissheads but families, couples, the elderly and other less gregarious people may prefer to stay elsewhere.

Patong at night

Karon is the second largest tourist area in Phuket but it’s very different. Many believe Karon to be the best beach on Phuket but when a place is deemed to be the best, it often attracts too many tourists, and this can be the case on Karon Beach in high season, when sunbeds are full and the beach is busy; I won’t say packed, though, as many tourists are intrinsically lazy and don’t bother to walk five minutes to a slightly quieter part of the beach, which would also enable them to get away from the jetskis and the parasailers for a more relaxing beach experience.

Nightlife in Karon is much less frenetic than Patong. There are enough restaurants and bars to keep you amused, including a couple of live music bars near Karon Circle, but there are no nightclubs and few places catering mainly for the young.

In low season Karon used be just about dead, partly because of its notoriously dangerous beach at this time, where every year drownings occur, but the Chinese are there year-round so it’s now a much busier place.

Karon Beach in low season

Kata is similar in character to Karon, its neighbour, though the beach is more of a large bay rather than a long stretch of sand. The huge Club Med resort is just across the road, hence the ends of the beach are much busier than the middle as there’s no through road to the centre of the beach unless you’re staying at Club Med. I like Kata, also Kata Noi ihas a decent beach but the whole area is dominated by the Katathani Resort

Mai Khao Beach in the north of the island is a long stretch of often-deserted sand, with minimal facilities outside of a few large, expensive resorts that border the beach there. It’s a long way from anywhere else on Phuket, the airport excluded.

Bang Tao beach is another long stretch of sand but much of it is home to the Laguna complex, a village of large resort-style four and five star hotels. Great if you’re happy to stay in this type of complex for your entire holiday as other nightlife and facilities nearby are somewhat limited, though you don’t have to travel too far to find good restaurants, bars and shopping.

Laguna Bangtao Beach

Kamala is a more family orientated centre with good hotels and plenty of bars, restaurants and shops close to the beach.

Surin Beach used to be the trendy party beach with its exclusive beach clubs attracting quite an upmarket younger crowd. Not any more, as the beach has been declared a “virgin beach” with the clubs demolished and all sunbeds, umbrellas and commerce prohibited. Sad.

But that’s better than its neighbour Laem Singh which is currently closed to the public. This much photographed beach can no longer be reached from the road as the local landowners are not allowing the public to cross their land! So, effectively, there’s no access.

Nai Harn is much used by locals and expats. Not a huge amount of accommodation in the area but the demand for good food by the local expat community has made it a good area in which to stay, with a diverse selection of restaurants and several bars.

Nai Yang is near the airport. Not recommended for a long stay but good for a couple of nights either directly before or after a flight.

You should bear in mind that swimming can be dangerous on all West Coast beaches from May until November. Far too many tourists and locals drown as a result of ignoring lifeguards, flags and signs. Please don’t become a statistic.

The East coast has some excellent hotels but average beaches with poor swimming.

Beach bums might like to find some of the quieter beaches on the island: Yanui; Ao Sane; Nui; Freedom Beach; Banana Beach and a few others. Not necessarily a place to stay but, for example, a tourist staying in Nai Harn or Rawai could easily visit Ao Sane and Yanui.

Yanui Beach (courtesy of Jamie’s Phuket Blog)

Once you’ve chosen where you want to stay then the hotel is down to you. Families will probably want a hotel with kids’s facilities and a pool, backpackers might consider staying in more than one part of Phuket, single men should take into account any fee the hotel charges for entertaining young ladies (ask how much is the joiner fee), in which case guesthouses with no fee are sometimes more suitable.

This is just basic information. Have an idea of the type of place you prefer then do your research. This saves the dreaded “It’s too noisy!”, “It’s too quiet!”, “There’s nothing to do here!”, “The beach is too far away!” type comments every hotel owner hates to hear.

Get it right and you’ll have a better vacation.

Welcome to Phuket Pains

Welcome to Phuket Pains, the blog designed to help you preparefor your vacation in Thailand by giving you plenty of hints and travel tips but also warning you of the dangers, the scams, the inconveniences and difficulties that you may experience during your visit and what to do if you fall foul of any of these.

Don’t worry, we’re not trying to put you off coming to Thailand, far from it, but being aware of what you might experience may actually help you enjoy your holiday that much more. We hate seeing tourists scammed, hurt or hospitalised but it happens and perhaps reading someof the cautionary advice here may stop it happening to you.

Thailand is a great holiday destination and we’ll also be incorporating some general travel advice, recommendations for places to visit, restaurants, hotels, bars and shopping places, though this is already catered for in several online blogs which we’d recommend: Jamies Phuket Blog for those in Phuket, Richard Barrow for Bangkok-based activities, but sadly Stickman, Bangkok’s premier nightlife commentator, has just called it a day; we’ll mainly we’ll be telling you how to stay safe and out of trouble in a country recently designated in the top twenty most dangerous in the world. Why? Read on and you’ll find out.

There’s nothing in the blog you won’t be able to find elsewhere on the worldwide web but to have all this in one place is hopefully a very useful resource for those of you already in Thailand or simply preparing for your holiday.

We’ve lived in Phuket for several years and are familiar with most of the issues here, but scams, dangers and problems occur all over Thailand so other areas within the country will not be ignored.

We’ll be keeping you up to date with the latest scams, dangers and travel advice for Phuket and the rest of Thailand and we’ll be incorporating a few real-life experiences.

Remember, the vast majority of tourists have a great holiday with many returning year after year. Read this and it’ll help prevent you joining the minority.