Local transport in Phuket is fun and educational.

Tourism is big business in Thailand. Even the Tuk-tuk drivers and the taxi drivers are informal tour guides and tour operators. They have tourism brochures and A3 laminated brochures that display restaurants, island boat trip companies, elephant trekking, go-karting, clubbing and all other sightseeing trips and experiences tourists want to explore. But, there is no mention of the .almost obligatory gem or jewellery shops that these drivers will inevitably weave into your trip.

Our tuk-tuk driver and us posing in front of the Clock Tower in Phuket City.

Such was our 'gem" experience when we decided to go to old Phuket Town to do a walking tour of the old city. I had worked out our 2-3 hour walking tour based on the research I had done. We boarded the Baht blue bus near Patong beach and for 30 baht each,we were taken to Phuket City. When passengers get off at various points en route to Phuket City, the driver stops the bus, gets out and then collects the fare. At a stop just before we reached the city, the driver-conductor promptly stopped his bus and all of us had to pay our fares to him. He was taking no chances with free-loaders who may hop off in the city and disappear pronto.

From baht bus to tuk-tuk 

The bus had barely stopped when we were surrounded by Tuk-tuk drivers. Before we knew it, we had agreed to a 3-hour city tour for 100 baht. Our walking tour morphed into a drive-through the city. Our Tuk-tuk driver and his companion of 15 years were excited that they had a farang family and off we went in our red tuk-tuk. Part of our negotiations was that our driver would take us to the sights I had indicated on our walking tour map. Our first stop was supposed to be the Clock Tower, but our Tuk-tuk driver decided that we had to  visit this wonderful shop just down the road to buy jewellery at highly discounted prices . We protested mildly, but then decided that perhaps it wasn't such a bad idea.

Gem store adventures

The gem shop is a far cry from the colourful, chaotic street markets. When you enter the air-conditioned gem store through wide glass doors, you are greeted by well-groomed assistants dressed in black. The jewellery is displayed in glass cabinets lined with black velvet. I expected the prices of the necklaces, rings and bracelets to be high, but I almost choked when I saw the 1000s of baht for a fresh pearl necklace, or a ring with a single pearl perched like a sea goddess.

I must confess that I cannot tell the difference between a genuine pearl and a fake one. You can probably sell me a paper mache look-a-like and I will be none the wiser.  I respectfully declined all offers made by our male assistant who has mastered a smattering of Afrikaans. As we wove our way down the aisles with our gracious assistant in tow, he charmed us with his knowledge of South Africa. When he said " baie dankie , I felt so guilty that I bought two tuk-tuk souvenirs for a whopping 90 baht each!

The beautiful clock tower

Our tuk-tuk duo was smiling from ear to ear when we returned. I was however, still moaning about being the guilty owner of two expensive tuk-tuk souvenirs that our poor fridge and somebody were going to inherit. We went to the Clock Tower at Surin circle. Here we admired the surrounding buildings and took pictures of everything, including the antique lawnmower that was also on display in this area.

We drove along the streets, admiring the energetic chaos and the historical buildings. Our next stop was supposed to be an antique shop where you find a mish-mash of a bygone era. I have a serious fetish for old objects so this shop was supposed to be a highlight. Instead, our driver said he was going to take us to a shop where everything is less 50%. We will love that shop, he said. All farangs go there.

"You're not taking us to another gem shop," I warned our smiling driver. I pointed to the place on the map we were supposed to go to.

"Ja, ja, " said our driver." You can buy for cheap. You can buy sweaters (pointing to Basil's) and hats  ( pointing to my sun hat) for cheap. Ja, no ring for you,yes?" he laughed.

Sasha and Basil - my shopaholic partners -  looked interested and we agreed to go and catch some bargains. Lo and behold, when we stopped and we saw the tinted glass windows, we knew it: we were at another gem shop!

We were livid. I gave our driver a typical Cape Town rant and pointed repeatedly to my walking map. We refused to go into the shop while our guy begged us to just "go look and no buy. Only walk to the clothes section, he said, and no buy."  We wouldn't budge. Eventually, our driver explained that he needs the commission he gets when he brings clients, whether they make purchases or not. He needs the money, he said. He and "his father of father" need the money.

Our driver's honesty flipped my sympathy switch, but Basil was not being swayed and he refused to set foot in the gem store. Sasha and I went through the glass doors, greeted our well-dressed shop assistants, went on a power walk through the store, touching a bag, scarf or a sarong briefly in a hidden section in the store and waltzed out in under five minutes.

Saphan Hin local park

Spending time at Saphan Hin Local waterfront park

The rest of our city tour flowed beautifully after this drama.I think our driver was still in shock after our Cape Town-Thai exchange  Our driver even took us to a local waterfront park, Saphan Hin at Phuket Bay. Apparently this park is popular with the locals and come alive in the evenings where there are many food carts and families having picnics. We saw the Chinese shrine in this park area and bought our first coconut milk drinks from a vendor there.

The Chinese shrine at Saphan Hin Park

Rounding off the roundabout

We spent some time here, chatting away with our driver and his quiet companion -"his father of father" ( I still don't know what this means), learned about his family and then we ended our city tour with lunch at a restaurant recommended by our guide. Obviously, he earned some commission which was worth the effort because we loved our local meals and the friendly staff.

Our three hour City tour that cost us only 100 baht was value for money. Basil tipped our driver generously so he must have forgiven him for fitting in two gem store visits!

Driving through Phuket city.

Lunch in the city


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