Is Phuket one of those dream locations that promises so much for an English teacher and yet delivers so little? Is it a case of hotel teaching and little else?
The Lonely Planet guidebook says......?
"The original island getaway, Phuket may be older, pricier and not quite as exotic these days, but it's still got it. The white beaches, psychedelic sunsets and aquamarine sea, they're all still here, and Phuket continues to party with the best of them."
Aside from that curious bit about the ‘psychedelic' sunsets, this is a pretty good summary. Phuket is massive and has so much more to offer than just Patong. Phuket Town is in the middle of a major overhaul and creative entrepreneurs around the island continue to help fill Phuket with fun and interesting things to do.
In general, what are the pickings like for an EFL teacher?
For native English speakers (NES) with a degree and a TEFL/TESOL certificate, jobs are plentiful. Salaries typically begin at 30,000 baht/month but jobs paying 40-45k occasionally pop up. Better schools are scattered around Phuket Town-a far cry from Patong and the other tourist traps along the island's west coast. Phuket has a huge expat community, so if you're looking to immerse yourself in Thai culture, Phuket (or "Thailand Light" as I like to call it), is not the place to be.
Finding decent jobs in mainstream education will be difficult for those without a degree. With so many applicants bombarding schools on an everyday basis, school can afford to be picky. For those without a degree, language schools are the way to go. The pay is a bit lower but language schools are almost always looking for hard-working teachers who've been marginalized by the MoE's degree requirement. Unfortunately, don't expect to make anything more than 400 baht/hour.
Language schools also nab quite a few contracts from Phuket's government schools and farm out their teachers to various campuses. Travel time will be significant but teachers aren't required to stay on campus all day.
Phuket's international schools are a great source of employment for teachers who are fully qualified and have experience in Western centers of education. British International School, Phuket International Academy and HeadStart International School are all on a British curriculum, while Quality Schools International is the only such school operating on an American curriculum.
If you're looking to do some private tutoring, it's certainly possible but don't expect to earn a living wage without accumulating plenty of students. These jobs are typically best for teachers who make contacts through their full-time jobs and don't have to advertise the fact that they're looking to supplement their income.
The best time to look for work in mainstream education is from March to June, and again from September to October. If looking to work for a language school or private company, any time of the year is fine, but note that high season (Nov-Feb) isn't great, as hotels will be busy serving customers-leaving no time for English class.
Danny - Many schools here hire foreign teachers with Kajonkiet School advertising the most posts. BISP is the most prestigious school on the island, many teachers have tried and failed to get in.
How far from Bangkok or civilization?
Unlike other provinces, Phuket is often all the civilization one needs. But every once and a while you've got to pack your bags and see what other provinces have to offer.
It's 900km to Bangkok or roughly 12 hours away by bus and 85 minutes by air. Krabi is about three hours away by car or four hours by bus. Surratthani, the gateway to Koh Samui and Koh Phang-Ngan is about five hours away. Khao Lak is an easy journey over Sarasin Bridge and only an hour and a half away by car.
Thanks to Air Asia, direct flights are now available to Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Udon Ratchathani, as well as many international destinations such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul and many more cities. Routes are ever-changing so please check the website for up-to-date information.
What's the place like for nightlife, eating out etc?
Phuket certainly has no shortage of entertainment.
Patong is famous for its Bangla Road and only one trip there will justify its reputation-good and bad. From great Western food to world-class DJs, Patong will rock you all night long. Just keep a low profile and never forget that you're the visitor. Do so and a barman or tuk-tuk driver and a dozen of their friends will happily remind you. There are plenty of horror stories coming from Patong but with so many tourists and English-language media outlets, Phuket is bound to get more than its fair share of bad press.
Phuket Town is in the middle of a fantastic resurgence of nightlife. The best part is that this is driven by innovative Thais, as well as foreigners, who are beginning to offer options that break the tired traditions of basic coffee shops and sports bars. Fantastic new restaurants like Smokin' Fish and Rom Dee offer burgers and pastas that would give western chefs a run for their money; the Brasserie offers a real bar area with Leffe and Hoegaargen on tap, while Thai venues like Sa-We-Na, Hua Pan and Cue Bar help to keep visitors from wondering if they're still in Thailand.
Southern Phuket (Chalong, Naiharn and Rawai) is also a great source of entertainment. Most patrons here fall into three categories: divers, Muay Thai boxers-in-training or retired expats. Bars tend to be a bit more chilled out down here but Laguna bar keeps its doors open past the wee hours of the morning.
Along Phuket's midsection is Cherng Taleh. With its expensive restaurants and bars catering to Thailand's "quality tourists", it's not exactly a Mecca for teachers, but Peppers does a mid-week pub quiz and some of the bars in Bang Tao are more reasonably priced. If you want to hobnob with the hi-so crowd, there are plenty of beach clubs like Catch, Xana and Bliss that will happily charge you two or three times the price you'd pay elsewhere.
Karon, Kata, Surin, Kamala and Nai Yang, you name the beach, there's a good chance of finding an open bar or restaurant.
Danny - Phuket, in my opinion, is not in Thailand. It is a playground for foreigners. There are Western joints on every corner. To he honest, I don't think I have been to a restaurant here that doesn't offer a Western menu. Nightlife here is plentiful. Bars are everywhere, beach clubs dominate the eastern side of the island, and Patong is a party haven. Plenty of booze cruises here too.
How much to rent a house or basic apartment?
Single rooms with a private bath, balcony, air-con, hot water, cable TV and Internet will run right around 6,000 baht per month. Attached houses and small detached houses with gardens run anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 baht per month.
The rates quoted above are for average locations and will probably be inflated as you move closer to Phuket's west coast. Good deals are rarely advertised so it's best to start in a basic apartment and look for better accommodation as you get more acquainted with Thailand's largest island.
Danny - Depends where you stay. Rawai and Nai harn can set you back at least 12,000 baht for a 1-bedroom "Westernised" and clean apartment/house. Chalong is much cheaper, you can get a decent 3-bedroom double story home with a garden, pool etc from around 20,000. Patong's prices are seasonal so an 11,000 a month modern apartment can shoot up by a couple of thousand in high season. Kathu is by far the best value for money starting at around 9,000 for a modernised 1 bedroom apartment. Best deals are up north but then it is a bit of a drive to get to the southern areas.
Shopping malls, department stores?
Ayutthaya has its temples; Suirn has its elephants; Chonburi has its mafia bosses, and Phuket has its shopping malls.
Central Festival in Phuket Town, Jung Cylon in Patong and Villa Market in Chalong carry the most Western products. Phuket also has a Big C and a newly-renovated Tesco Lotus in Phuket Town. Plus, there are numerous mini-marts now such as Tesco Express, Super Cheap and Topps Daily.
You can also find Ocean Mall in Phuket Town but it seems to get more and more run down with each passing year. If you want to get most of your teaching wardrobe at affordable prices, try Expo, just near Ocean Mall.
Danny - Jungceylon and Central Festival are the main shopping malls here. We have the big weekend market in Phuket Town and many other smaller markets scattered across the island. We have 3 Villa Markets, 2 Big C's, a couple of Makros and Tescos. Our floating market has closed down. Shopping is very convenient here but more expensive than the rest of Thailand.
How is mobile / internet coverage?
Internet cafes...are you serious? Get a laptop, Caveman. With all the restaurants, bars and other venues providing Wi-Fi, why go to an internet café? Plus, reliable internet services piped into your house or apartment are available for less than 1,000 baht/month if your landlord doesn't already provide it.
Will you be stared at? and what's the likelihood of a good beating?
Stared at? Not a chance, but don't expect any of those famous Thai smiles either. Foreigners are as much a part of the landscape as anyone else so few locals take notice.
Beaten? Well, unfortunately that can happen here. Phuket's "Tuk-tuk Mafia" has control of the island and if anyone doesn't wish to believe that, bear in mind that in 2011 Cape Panwa's tribe of drivers managed to blockade an entire US Navy flotilla from entering the island until they used local drivers' services.
If they can mess with the world's most powerful navy, they can mess with anyone. Just steer clear of the tuk-tuk drivers and refrain from spouting off at the mouth in nightclubs and you'll be okay. Then again, you could say the same for almost any province in the Kingdom.
Danny - I hear more Russian than I hear Thai. Foreigners have completely taken over the island. For a more Thai feel, stay north of the island. Beatings happen all the time in Bangla Road, very rarely in the quieter areas.
Taxis, buses....or horse and cart?
Renting or owning a car or bike are your best options and you'll need a work permit to take out a loan, as well as for obtaining a driver's license. Bike rentals start at about 3,000 baht per month and basic four-wheeled vehicles start at 10,000 baht per month.
As mentioned above, tuk-tuks are not a great option and even Phuket's Thai residents and tourists think the rates are exorbitant. Some buses and trucks (songthaews) can get people from here to there but with individual schedules being what they are, this mode of transport isn't ideal.
Best advice for someone on a budget is to get a reliable bike and a good helmet; then find a place to live close to the school you're working in. Roads can be dangerous here and the wet season will put a real damper on your mornings if you've got a long journey. And for the love of Buddha, please get insurance coverage that covers road accidents.
Danny - Taxis are plentiful here and easy to find on Grab. No Uber here though. Tuk-tuks also drive around but are controlled by the tuk-tuk mafia. I see the odd songthaews driving around but not that many. I'm not even sure if there is a proper bus route around here.. people mainly get around on motorbikes (very easy to rent around here).
Main advantages of living there?
Phuket is the perfect acclimation point for entry into Thailand. You can find yourself in the middle of a small village with only locals or you can be in a restaurant where you won't hear Thai being spoken. From Central Festival and its Burger King to Super Cheap Mall and kitsch Thai bling, Phuket is what you make of it.
Even the beaches have variety: you can people watch on Patong's filthy shores or you can find seclusion on Nai Ton's pristine seaside.
Danny - Main advantages of living in Phuket would have to be that the culture shock was definitely not that bad at all, there is always something to do around here like island-hopping, and I can find 90% of the things that I need very easily. I can still maintain a fairly Westernised standard of living.
And what are the downsides?
Traffic is terrible. If it's not gridlock in Phuket's urban areas, it's untrained drivers driving at unrestrained speeds on the open roads. Keep your head on a swivel and your eyes peeled or you might find yourself able to assess the standard of care in one of Phuket's resort-style hospitals.
And in a case of too much of a good thing, Phuket has plenty of options for spending your salary. From cable water skiing and scuba diving to fine dining and comedy clubs, you'll being living hand-to-mouth if you're not responsible with your cash.
Phuket is also terrible for anyone who really wants to learn Thai and needs motivation for doing so. I learned more Thai in two years of living in Chonburi than I have while spending eight years in Phuket.
Danny - Downsides are that the island is rather dirty, the roads are deadly, the humidity, and how much more expensive it is compared to the rest of Thailand (locals here rely heavily on the tourist industry to make money so they can be quite pushy towards holiday-makers and expats).
Any local attractions?
Big Buddha is complete and it affords you one of Phuket's best panoramic view points. Khao Rang in Phuket Town is a nice place for relaxing, as is neighboring Koh Yao Noi. There's Suwit Stadium for the muay Thai enthusiasts and Phuket's Marine Biological Center is great for the family.
Whether it's, mini golf or golf, snorkeling or diving, Hash runs or cycling routes, football or futsal matches, markets or malls, Phuket really does have something for almost anyone-except cold. Phuket is never cold.
The best part about teaching on Phuket is that with so many like-minded people around, you can easily make their own attractions. Average bars and average beaches can turn into fantastic places if you've got a good crew with you.
Danny - Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is definitely worth a mention. A great half-day trip for the family where you can interact with elephants but not ride them. The establishment promotes ethical tourism and educates people on the dangers of riding elephants.
Where's the best place to meet other farangs or are they best avoided?
As they say in Thailand, "Up to you". However, one thing is for sure: It's not about where to meet other Westerners, it's more about choosing which ones you ought to be hanging out with. You'll have plenty of choices as well as opportunities to meet people, so finding friends on Phuket is no problem at all.
Social clubs abound so you're not limited to meeting piss heads and booze hounds. Phuket's expats come from all social classes, countries and circumstances. If variety is the spice of life, Phuket's life is very spicy indeed.
Danny - Walk out your front door and you will greet at least 10. If you are looking to avoid foreigners and completely emerge yourself in Thai culture then Phuket is probably the last place you should visit. Plenty of young farangs to meet and many families living on the island.
Eric Haeg first came to Phuket in 2004 and is now the Course Director for TEFL Campus-a TEFL training center in Phuket Town. He also writes a monthly education column for The Phuket News and routinely helps teachers find work on the island. For more information on teaching English in Thailand, Eric welcomes your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.