Is Patong in Thailand Safe? 5 Key Safety Tips for Travelers

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How safe is Patong? Here's what to know about scams, recreational marijuana, motorbike safety, and navigating the nightlife in Phuket's popular beach town.


Photo © istock/zorazhuang

Thailand’s busiest beach resort area, Patong bulges with bars, restaurants, and markets which cater to foreigners. As I learned during a decade living on-off in Thailand, this city on Phuket Island also has many dangers for unwary visitors, from jet-ski scams to deadly roads and unclear laws around recreational drugs. Here are some tips for staying safe.

Scams are rife in Patong

Southeast Asia is infamous for tourist scams and, from my experience across dozens of trips in this region, Patong may be the epicenter of this scourge. Only Kuta in Bali, and Thai capital Bangkok can compete with Patong for density and variety of tourist scams.

Some have fairly low stakes, such as the many Patong taxis that will refuse to use a meter and then quote you an exorbitant fare once your journey is finished. Or the bars and nightclubs which, when you order drinks, will show you one menu with low prices, and then when you later settle your bill will present you with a different menu with far higher prices. Not to mention the money changers who count your money in front of you then use sleight of hand to steal bills.

Other common scams can be much more serious. Motorcycle and jet ski rentals routinely place plaster over damage on vehicles they give to tourists. When you return it, they sneakily remove the plaster, claim you caused that damage, ask for a massive fee to fix it, and if you argue, call a local police officer with whom they have a cosy relationship. That will end badly.

The legality of cannabis in Patong is uncertain

After long being famously harsh on drugs, Thailand shocked the world in 2022 when it legalized recreational cannabis use. By 2024 there were literally thousands of cannabis dispensaries across Thailand selling high-grade cannabis products.

When I was in Patong in 2023, it seemed like every 10th store had a cannabis leaf sign. This could convince tourists that marijuana use is fully legal and that they can smoke wherever they want. That is not the case. In fact, under Thailand’s cannabis laws, police can legally raid most dispensaries and charge its owners and anyone inside.

Such incidents are rare. But the Thai laws only legalized cannabis with less than 0.2% THC (the psychoactive substance in cannabis) and recreational cannabis sold in Thai dispensaries is normally at least 10 times stronger than that, and therefore technically illegal. So, bear in mind that, while cannabis is freely sold everywhere in Patong, it is not as safe to possess as in Amsterdam, Canada, and many US states.

Note: In early January 2024, the Thai government proposed new legislation that would outlaw cannabis except for medical and health-related purposes. Be aware that there may soon be a ban on recreational cannabis use.

Unless you ride motorbikes back home, don’t do it in Patong

I’ll never forget the moment my friend nearly died due to a motorbike mishap near Patong years back. While waiting to cross a road, he accidentally accelerated, his moped lurched forward onto the road, and he was narrowly missed by a truck.

That was the first time he’d ever used a motorbike. It has always shocked me how many tourists in Thailand will hire a moped, and head off into deadly, chaotic traffic, despite having zero experience of riding one of these two-wheeled vehicles.

Thailand has the highest rate of motorcycle deaths in the entire world, according to a 2019 report by the New York Times. It also placed second overall for road deaths. Having driven Thai roads for hundreds of hours myself, I’ve seen some terrifying things. Unfortunately, many Thai drivers and motorcyclists are extremely unsafe. Patong is even worse because of the addition of swarms of inexperienced foreign motorcyclists.

Honestly, even if you’re a hugely-experienced motorcyclist, I’d still advise against riding in Thailand. No amount of skill will save you when you round a corner to find a car driving straight at you in the wrong lane. And such things occur regularly in Thailand.

Patong nightlife: how to avoid trouble

Be very careful of the company you keep. This is sound advice for life in general, but is even more relevant when traveling in Thailand, especially should you plan to delve into the nightlife of somewhere like Patong. If you are hanging out in a bar with someone who is overly drunk, acting aggressively, being vulgar, or in possession of illegal drugs, very easily you can become collateral damage.

Countless times, on a night out in Thailand, I’ve seen innocent tourists get assaulted by security staff or even arrested by police because of the poor behavior of one of their friends. Of course, this can happen back home too. Except that, in your own country, you may be able to talk your way out of trouble, by apologizing on behalf of your friend and explaining you weren’t involved in their transgressions.

But that is a far more difficult task in Patong, for two reasons. Firstly, most security staff and police speak minimal English so, once a situation gets heated, your pleas and explanations will mean nothing to them, quite literally. Secondly, Patong is so awash with intoxicated, rowdy, and disrespectful tourists that most security and police understandably have limited patience. So, as well as behaving yourself in Patong, be very wary of who you hang around.

Be respectful of transgender staff

On any evening in downtown Patong, tourists will likely encounter groups of beautifully dressed transgender women whose job is either to attract customers into clubs, or to pose for photos for a fee. Wearing sparkly outfits and elaborate headdresses, many of these trans women are also towering in height due to wearing the loftiest of high heels.

This is all by design – their livelihood relies on standing out in a crowd – and it makes them a magnet for tourists. As I have seen many times, these trans women are friendly and accommodating to anyone who approaches them in a cordial manner. They’re typically happy to chat or take photos.

However, I’ve also witnessed the ugly side of such interactions. When tourists insult these trans women, either by mocking them, refusing to pay for photos, or touching them inappropriately, it can trigger violence. YouTube brims with footage of drunken foreigners disrespecting these trans women and then receiving some forceful, physical justice.

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