The guidebook had varying things to say about Phuket. It is a large island on the Andaman Coast and is a well known tourist destination for various reasons. But from there it is very easy to visit the Similan Islands, a group of nine islands a ways off the coast that are reputed to be one of the best dive spots in Thailand if not the world. I stayed in Phuket Town, which was bigger and noisier than I expected. Luckily a local I had been in touch with recommended a good place to stay which was friendly, inexpensive, and very nice.
Since many people associate Thailand with one thing (prostitution and more), I decided to check out the scene on the other side of the island at Patong Beach, the largest center of nightlife on the island. There is one main street blocked off to traffic at night that has numerous large alleys branching off, each one full of hundreds of small open air bars full of girls and poles up on the bar. Many bars will have girls half-heartedly dancing while others are talking to potential customers and still more are trying to lure other guys in. Yes there are a lot of older usually overweight westerners with their Thai girls which wasn't a surprise- what was a surprise was the number of couples of all ages walking around, and even more so the number of kids taking in this spectacle. In one spot a little girl of about 9 was dancing on the bar next to a Thai pole dancer as her mother sat there smiling. It was sickening and I was actually physically pissed off at the kind of parent that would condone that. I can't imagine what the little girl is learning by what she sees. The dancers were all covered, but barely. Call me old-fashioned- I mean people in the states are taking pole dancing lessons these days, which is idiotic- but that is just too much. I was interested to learn that far from being a Western influenced trend of prostitution, most of the clientele for the country as a whole is local, something like 95% (according to Lonely Planet). Polygamy was only outlawed here in the '30's, and even though prostitution is illegal not all laws are actively enforced. To get guys to stay and drink the girls will offer to play Connect 4 or Jenga or some other game, as they get you to buy even more drinks for yourself, the girl you're playing with, and an ever-increasing number of her friends. I actually won a few Connect 4 games (they may have let me win but I don't think so) which I considered a feat since they definitely know how to play.
But to answer the question- no, I didn't. For many reasons but I realized that I'm just not interested in paying for sex.
One of the alleyways was exclusively 'ladyboys'- all males (or former males) that dress up and put on cabaret shows and offer up their services as well. An interesting phenomenon, and relatively accepted here without much of an issue. Unfortunately they are often (and may prefer) mistaken for women by unsuspecting customers who don't notice the more angled face or hello, the fact that they are the tallest 'women' in the area. A huge number of people taking pictures with them. Strange.
I spent a day checking out the beaches- first went to Kamala Beach, which loosely translated must mean 'beach full of overweight sunburned Germans'. It was long beach between rocky headlands, not too wide, but completely packed with umbrellas and chairs. I went to a couple of others but they were all fairly similar and I didn't think they were all that nice, and usually fit the description above. It is a big island and I didn't get everywhere but I'm guessing the nightlife is the primary draw.
The next day I left for my dive trip for the Similan Islands. It took hours to get out there but the islands were very pretty, with a rocky coastline sloping into the water, only the occasional small beach, and clear sea green water. The first day we went diving 3 times, then once at night, then 3 more times the next day. The water has a much greener tint than the Great Barrier Reef but there were even more fish- tons of them. I saw moray eels, schooling barracuda, sand eels, a leopard shark, clownfish (like Nemo), giant barreled coral, coral fans, hard coral of many shapes and colors, an eagle ray (a medium sized manta ray), giant clams, a black and white striped sea snake, pipefish, 2 small white crabs covered with black polka dots nestled deep within coral folds, a lionfish, burrowing goatfish, and Christmas tree anemones.
On the night dive I saw a sea turtle, little orange shrimp inside the coral whose eyes glowed orange in the light, a large red crab, and a beautiful bright red bumpy-skinned scorpionfish lying on some coral. Quite a variety- another sea turtle visited the boat on the surface the next day. One interesting thing was twice as we were diving the current all of a sudden would change direction, get really strong and bring really cold water (thermocline) , a bit unnerving since this was a main area devastated by the tsunami in 2004.
In fact after one especially strong thermocline, the instructor found out that there had been a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia that morning, which may have been related.
The coast has recoved almost completely from the tsunami in 2004, but there are many reminders with all new signs for multiple escape routes away from each beach and people selling dvd footage of the devastation, and the tourists very definitely back in force. The diving trip was awesome but after a very long trip back to Phuket Town, I has finished with that island and decided to head elsewhere.