Some consider it the most outrageously fun party hub in Asia, while for others, it’s the worst place on the planet. Conde Nast Traveller explicitly tells travellers to “avoid Bangla Road in Patong.” Regardless of whether you love it or hate it, most people consider a visit to Patong’s Bangla Road something of a Phuket bucket list item – something you need to experience simply to tick it off your list.
So what’s all the fuss about? Let’s take a stroll down the most famous street in Phuket.
Located in the coastal hub of Patong, Bangla Road itself is only 400 metres long but it packs a lot of punch into those metres. Geographically, Bangla Road sits sandwiched between Patong Beach and Jungceylon shopping complex.
During the day, Patong Beach is arguably the most popular beach in Phuket. Once the sun goes down, Bangla Road is closed off from traffic and the beachgoers trickle down to this bustling walking street. If you need a break from the insanity that is Bangla Road, Jungceylon offers an air-conditioned sanctuary in the eye of the storm, along with familiar brands from McDonald’s to Starbucks and beyond.
“Soi” is the Thai word for a small street and there are several little “sois” jutting off from main Bangla Road. Many off these lanes share their name with large clubs located alongside them, i.e. Soi Tiger, Soi Freedom and Soi Hollywood.
Exploring Bangla Road
Walking down Bangla Road is a blur of neon lights and music blaring from the bars, clubs and pubs lining the street. It’s impossible to walk very fast, as every five metres or so you’ll be stopped by touts advertising drink promos and a variety of shows, most of them involving ping-pong balls – we’ll let your imagination and/or Google make out what’s involved.
If you’re not that into go-go bars, one of the highlights of Bangla Road is the street food. Bangla Night Market is tucked to the side of the main street. Here, you’ll discover a maze of street food stalls selling pad thai, grilled meats, fresh fruit juices and cheap beer.
Besides the street food, Bangla Road is also a surprisingly good spot for catching some live music. During our stroll down the walking street, a part of our group disappeared for a better part of an hour to hear a female singer performing down one of the smaller side-sois. Afterwards, they couldn’t stop gushing about how great she was. In between the beer halls and “exotic” shows, there’s live music happening even on Bangla Road, where one of the most famous spots for live bands is Monsoon.
If the year-round insanity is not enough, you could always visit Patong during the Songkran festivities. The Thai New Year sees the streets turn into a free-for-all water fight and as is only fitting, things get particularly crazy in and around Bangla Road. (In case you were wondering, in 2018, Songkran takes place between April 13-15.)
The Good, The Bad and The Infamous
One of the most infamous aspects of Bangla Road are of course the go-go bars, bar girls and yes, the lady boys. This reputation is well deserved, as you literally can’t walk two metres without being invited to pose with a flamboyant lady boy or to enjoy a variety of “shows”, each one more outlandish than the next. All of these invitations should be taken with a grain of salt, as the price tag might come as a shock.
The touts, bar girls and go-go bars are not only the most famous but also the most divisive aspect of the area. Some people consider it all just good fun, while for others it’s the epitome of sleaze. Then there’s a third point of view: it’s a sign of liberation.
Our group is making our way down Bangla Road and just as I begin to roll my eyes at yet another offer at a ping-pong show, a friend interjects: “But isn’t it amazing to have it all out in the open?” And while this scene is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, there might be some truth to her words.
Though it’s all too easy to peg Thailand’s lady boys as little more than a raunchy punchline, transgender people are actually more openly accepted in Thailand than many other places in the world. This is said to be connected to the local Buddhist faith (about 95% of Thai people are Buddhist). If you can look past Bangla Road’s neon lights, cheap beer and blaring disco music, you might just see glimpses of a kind of freedom in between.
So should you include Bangla Road into your Phuket itinerary? Whichever way you’re leaning, the most important thing to remember about Bangla Road and indeed, Patong, is that they’re not Phuket.
Phuket is the largest island in Thailand and it’s almost the same size as Singapore – and that’s an entire country we’re talking about. In other words, there’s a lot more to Phuket than Bangla Road and Patong Beach. During our time in Phuket, we stayed in clifftop villas along the west coast, within minutes’ drive from Patong – and still enjoyed absolute peace and quiet. For us, Patong and Bangla Road were the exception, not the rule.
If you want to experience the neon-hued madness and indeed, tick that box off your bucket list, by all means, pay a visit to Bangla Road. But more importantly, don’t forget to explore the rest of this beautiful island that’s waiting beyond.