Phuket – what happened to the Land of Smiles?

Azure seas, amazing food, welcoming customer service with a smile

That was the Phuket of 2007 when we first visited – long since the benchmark by which we have measured all holidays.

Today the sea looks a little more green, the streets are too crowded, the rip-offs are more obvious and most of the smiles have vanished.  The Scandinavians and Germans are out, and the Russians are in, heralding what seems a complete change in the atmosphere over a short span of years.

Phuket for family travel - what happened to the land of smiles

Let’s start with some positives though as our recent trip really was a lovely family break.  We invited the in-laws to join us for this trip to Thailand, a perfect halfway point between the Middle East and Australia.  The kids enjoyed spending some quality time with their grandparents, and Mr H and I very much enjoyed the relief of getting a couple of afternoons and evenings off to do things at our own pace.

Our Phuket Accommodation – Karon Beach

Our room was perfectly located within the hotel complex for a quick dive in the pool, which was just the right height for Miss 4 to touch the bottom. A toddler pool which we had almost exclusive use of throughout our stay was perfect for Master 1, with a head-wetting aversion to stroll around in. 

Master 1 also overcame his fear of the waves in a space of days and hubby and I have honed our sandcastle-building skills.


It did rain a bit which can be expected in April, but still humid and plenty of fun in the pool splashing in the rain. The sea was certainly not as clear as I remember but calm rolling beaches stretch for miles and the waters are warm, the sand relatively clean though too many lighters and beer tops for my liking scattered in the sand castle territory.

Now for the disappointments…

Good airport-to-hotel transfers were arranged, but on arrival at our hotel  – not too late into the evening – no warm smile and cold welcoming drink awaited us. 

Despite follow-up reminders by email several days before and confirming at the check-in desk, no child’s bed or cot were set up in our room (the poor bellboy did his best to create a bed using a fitted mattress protector as a blanket – a good 30 mins after arrival).

We had missed the cut-off for room service by a matter of minutes (no doubt while faffing about to get beds in the room), no they could not provide us with any food. 

The following morning I then dared to ask for more towels given we were only supplied with two despite booking a family room; you would think I had asked the head housekeeper to sacrifice a limb when I repeated our request after being ignored twice already.

Don’t get me started on the beach

Then there was the beach lounge chair tyrant. When our group asked to only have two beach chairs when there were six of us, we were point-blank refused.

Explaining we only needed one really for the pregnant lady, everyone else would sit on towels on the beach, “No, no, cannot, not allowed”. 

When it bucketed down with rain 20 minutes later and we upped sticks on the beach idea we were glad to of saved our 400 baht and see the beach empty of customers.


(Update: in 2014 a massive beach clean-up occurred that removed all private beach chair operators and commercial businesses from Phuket’s beaches in an attempt to stamp out corruption and profiteering.  We understand no more chair-bosses to deal with!) 

Tuk-tuk pricing appears more regulated, but the suit sellers are even more desperate for a sale, physically touching and grabbing you.

Massage parlours at every second door seem to sit vastly empty, but with the correct request, some wonderful relaxing service still exists. (See also the wonderful job one of the ladies did on Miss 4’s nails so she could look like Nan).

Downtown Patong is now awash with girlie bars and more prostitutes than you could poke a ping-pong ball at. The town centre is dominated by the huge Jung Ceylon shopping center and Phuket Square; whilst a welcome relief from the heat, it feels completely out of place in comparison to the markets with ‘the real thing’ costing up to ten times more, it’s a wonder these shops seem as crowded as they are while the markets are practically empty.

And the food?

Food is now incredibly hit and miss, with old favourites now proving overpriced and rude; the market sellers tell us sales are down by over a third this March, which should still be the shoulder holiday season. I guess the regular thunderstorms and downpours do not help the outside traders.

I can, however, give the thumbs up to Ging Restaurant in Karon Beach, who seem to get the flavour/spice combo right, and if you want to watch the Aussie footy in air-conditioned comfort, there’s nothing wrong with the spanking new Bondi Bar at Jeng Ceylon.

The award for best smile, though, and cheering up the six-month pregnant woman after a very long, hot, sweaty walk getting slightly lost in the back streets of Patong dragging around a double pram must go to the guy working at the Black Pearl bar in Paradise Market.  He restored my sense of fun that night, teaching our overtired,  thirsty little munchkins how to play Connect 4 and making napkin puppets thank you for making us smile!

Globetrotters Recommend

Our conclusion is Phuket has now grown too big for its own good.  Too many sellers for too few rude, arrogant tourists results in an air of unhappiness over what was our tropical paradise.  Had we come in to this trip without any pre-existing knowledge of the place, I would probably still be pretty happy with what we got.  

Phuket is undoubtedly a family-friendly place but its a reminder to approach every holiday as a new experience and not try to hold on to a bygone era. Phuket with kids? Maybe not next time.

Phuket holiday pregnant with two kids

For those still keen to check Phuket out, though, here is a great guide to best places to stay with family by Mum on the Move who gives a breakdown of beach resorts by area.  We also love the looks of Koh Kradon and travelling just that little bit further to rediscover paradise in Thailand.

The good news about Thailand is it’s somewhere you can still travel on a budget. See how Gamin Traveller suggests you can survive on $10 a day (though you’ll obviously need to multiply this out with the kiddos and make a few compromises!). 

There’s also a good guide here by Kids Love Travel on how families can budget for a trip to Thailand. 

Tips for Phuket with kids

  • I still found having a double stroller useful for the longer walks as with a baby bump, our usual sling was not really practical but made navigation in some areas difficult where footpaths are thin or non-existent.
  • Like much of Asia, don’t expect too much of toilet facilities. There will always be that Asia drain smell that you get accustomed to; bring tissues and wipes with you everywhere.
  • Smiles are still in plentiful supply for the kids.  Our little blondies still draw a crowd though certainly not as smothered as they were in Vietnam.
  • Fresh fruit juice frequently costs more than double soft drinks – beware of what the kids are ordering!
  • Maybe just our Master 1 being a little fussy, but he was not a fan of the local milk, particularly the carton stuff. If I had my time over, I would have brought more of the instant formula cartons from home.
  • It was harder to find items for small kids than we thought – things kids’ hats, sunglasses, sunsuits, flip-flops.  We found most items after a few days of digging but would have bought more of these items beforehand had we known (older kids are still well catered for).
  • Travelling by tuk-tuk can be a lot of fun.  Our group of six easily fit in with a double folding pram, and the kids love looking out the open windows.
  • We did limit our visits to tourist attractions on this trip given the children’s quite young ages still, and a certain pregnant lady did not feel she had her sea legs on her after the flight for any boat trips which I would otherwise have recommended as a must-do for first-timers.  If you’re not anti-circus animals we have been reliably informed the Fantasia show just north of Patong is a great fun family evening.
  • In the markets, beware the sales staff that will, of course, pass your child items in the pram while you’re not looking; wait for the child to get attached, the child will have a meltdown when you remove it, shopkeeper then tries to guilt you into buying it at an inflated price. Miss 4’s well-trained “no thank you” is paying off!
  • Bring your in-laws! Even an hour or two a day can make a big difference to your holidays.  The kids were incredibly well behaved for them and it meant everyone got to spend some quality time that they were craving.
  • Check out this budgeting guide to Thailand for families for more on expected costs.

The flight experience to Phuket with Emirates

  • All credit where it’s due here for a pretty smooth and stress-free experience with Emirates; There was no spare middle seat to be had for Master 1, but Emirates did try to relocate the fourth person in our row on the flight over so we could spread out; onboard staff tried every possibility to move passengers around, but we did choose the first day of school holidays to fly out so the plane was fully booked.
  • Flying from Dubai Airport in the middle of the day, the place was deserted! Checked straight in, headed straight for the lounge.  A perfect and relaxing start to the trip made it worth the 1.5-hour drive from Abu Dhabi on this occasion.
  • Miss 4 has thankfully overcome her plane toilet aversion and sat like an angel with her headset on throughout the flight there, then to top it off slept the entire overnight flight home- incredible!!! (She was rather confused on waking though how we landed in Dubai before the plane had taken off..)

Have you visited Phuket recently? Do you agree with our assessment or did you have a vastly different experience? We’d love to know where you stayed and how you found your Phuket experience. 

© Our Globetrotters

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1 thoughts on “Phuket – what happened to the Land of Smiles?

  1. largerfamily says:

    Such an interesting and informative post. Sorry to hear you had difficulties and were disappointed at times but thank goodness for the lovely guy at the bar!

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