Bangkok vs Phuket: Which Is Better for Expats and Nomads?

So far, I’ve lived 6 months in Bangkok and 3 months in Phuket as a digital nomad. I’ve tried out staying in different areas of each, so I feel I have a decent perspective on what each place has to offer for someone like me.

So, how does life differ in Bangkok vs Phuket? And which one is better for digital nomads and expats? Let’s explore the differences in costs, convenience, food, transportation, social life, and more.

Living in Bangkok vs Phuket: The Big Picture

First off: Phuket and Bangkok offer quite different things. Both are world-famous tourist destinations, but one is a “mega city” while the other is known for beautiful beaches. So, this is the first thing to consider.

Obviously, if you have a strong preference for beach-side relaxation, you’ll probably like Phuket more. Phuket is a very strong choice when it comes to natural beauty, resorts, and relaxation.

On the other hand, if you love high-energy, diverse mega-cities, then Bangkok will be the obvious choice for you. Bangkok is a very strong choice when it comes to skyline views and endless convenient shopping and restaurant options.

So, if you just think about that question for a minute, you might already know which one is better for you: Do you want to be in a big city or a beach town?

But let’s dig into some more details of each place, as well.

Shopping (Bangkok Wins)

You can buy pretty much anything in Bangkok. There are tons of huge shopping malls.

Those malls include the 9th biggest in the world—CentralWorld—along with Icon Siam, Terminal 21, EmQuartier, Siam Paragon, and many more.

Compare that to Phuket: There are a few malls and shopping centers. The biggest seems to be the “Central Festival” near Phuket City, and it’s still less impressive than many of Bangkok’s malls.

At times, I’ve struggled to find certain items in Phuket. Sometimes, I’ve needed to travel across the island pretty far to buy something. Particularly if you’re staying near a beach, you may not have many stores near you.

So, Bangkok seems a bit more convenient for easily finding what you want to buy.

Food (Bangkok Wins)

If you love trying out new restaurants or street food stalls—and if you love having access to huge international grocery stores—Bangkok cannot be beat.

Phuket has some pretty good restaurants, including some with stunning beachfront or mountain views. But the sheer variety and quantity of places to eat in Bangkok could take you a lifetime to exhaust.

Bangkok is also famous for its rooftop bars. There are dozens, so even just exploring all those would take you a while.

As I covered in my pros and cons of living in Bangkok post, the grocery stores in Bangkok are probably the best I’ve seen in Asia, as well. (Yes, even when including more “developed” cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong.)

In contrast, Phuket only has a couple good grocery stores with international options (look for Villa Market and Top’s Market). But in many of the beach areas, you won’t have one nearby. You’ll need to travel pretty far to get to it.

Cost of Living (Bangkok Probably Wins)

Neither Bangkok nor Phuket are the pinnacle of cheap living in Thailand. Chiang Mai is often touted as the cheaper expat destination. However, between these two, Bangkok still seems a bit cheaper than Phuket in my experience.

The rent costs are hard to compare, because in most cases you’re getting something very different in terms of location and scenery. That said, personally I’ve paid a similar amount in Bangkok and Phuket.

Typically for me, renting nice Airbnbs or hotels short-term, that’s been in the range of $20 to $50 per night. (Just depends how much I feel like splurging on a “nicer” placer or more central location.)

Phuket prices seem to fluctuate more based on seasonality, though. (October to January is the expensive “high season.”) So you may notice a difference with that.

The costs of taxis and restaurants will often be noticeably higher in Phuket, especially in the popular tourist areas.

Basically, I think the vendors in Phuket have learned from experience that tourists will spend a lot more on these things than long-term residents. And since there are so many tourists, this has driven up prices. (More on taxi prices below.)

Overall, both Bangkok and Phuket are cheap by American standards, but a bit expensive by Thailand standards. Bangkok is probably the cheaper of the two on balance, but it’ll depend on the specific choices you make.

Scenery (Depends What You Like)

City skylines vs tropical beach sunsets… They’re both great in very different ways, right?

Many people would give Phuket a clear “win” in this category because of all the natural beauty. Bangkok might look dirty and grimy at times in comparison.

But the breathtaking skyline views are so accessible in Bangkok. Tons of affordable condo buildings have stunning views from the rooftop pools, and there are rooftop bars everywhere, too.

Really, either place has awesome scenery, it’s just of different kinds.

Trips and Tourism (Phuket Wins)

If you want to see stunning natural beauty, this is where Phuket really shines. Not only are the beaches beautiful, but you can take a short day trip to some really beautiful nearby islands.

Phuket also has a giant Buddha statue (“Big Buddha”), temples, elephants and other wild animals you can feed and pet, and other such tourist stuff.

Bangkok has some tourist stuff, as well—many temples and a “Grand Palace,” a famous Chinatown with street food, and a famous skyscraper with a “Sky Walk” (glass floor you can stand on, looking down).

But most people would consider to be Phuket the winner in this category.

Transportation (Bangkok Wins)

Bangkok and Phuket both have many different “areas of interest” that are not right next to each other. So the transportation options really matter.

With Phuket, you may want to check out multiple beaches that are on opposite ends of the island, and then go to Phuket City for the shopping or restaurants, as well.

In Bangkok, two of the best shopping malls, CentralWorld and ICON Siam, are over 5 km apart. The famous “Khaosan Road” area is about 8 km from the popular Asok area. So it’s not like all the attractions are in one place.

In all honesty, neither Bangkok nor Phuket get a perfect score for transportation. But Bangkok seems a bit better.

Both Bangkok and Phuket have Grab, which is SE Asia’s version of Uber for ride-sharing (and food delivery). But I’ve personally found that the Grab prices and wait times are usually a lot higher in Phuket.

As far as normal taxi costs, it’s definitely true that some taxi drivers in both Phuket and Bangkok will try to rip you off with a high price. But in my experience, more taxis in Bangkok will use the meter, which ends up being cheaper.

In addition, Bangkok has much more robust public transportation options. Bangkok has the MRT and BTS trains, which are clean, modern, and pretty good overall. Bangkok also has more local bus options than Phuket.

You can still get around Phuket—but unless you rent your own motorbike, you’ll probably pay quite a bit for it. Taxi rides across the island could cost you 500 to 1,000 baht (~$15 to $30 USD) even just for a 1-way trip.

So, Bangkok wins for transportation in my experience.

Dating and Social Life (Bangkok Wins)

Phuket is generally a more transient place than Bangkok, and a bit more tourism-focused. And I think this affects the options and dynamics when it comes to building social connections, at least somewhat.

In Phuket, many people you meet will either be short-term tourists, or expecting you to be a short-term tourist. As such, their first inclination may be toward a transactional or short-term interaction, nothing ongoing.

Another factor is simply the numbers. Bangkok has a huge population, with 14 million people in the metro area. Meanwhile, the whole island of Phuket only has ~80,000 people.

This means that dating apps and other methods of meeting people that benefit from large populations will generally do much better in Bangkok.

And if you’re looking to meet a specific kind of person, with specific interests (or looks)—there’s a much larger pool of people to find that specific person in Bangkok.

That said, I personally had one of my best social connections from my whole nomad journey when I was in Phuket. (And it was the main reason I came back many times.) So certainly, you can make great connections in both places.

Overall—I listed Bangkok as the “winner” for more categories in this blog post… But it still depends a lot on your preferences. If you want to sip from coconuts on the beach, you can’t really do that in Bangkok.

Personally I recommend trying both—but hopefully now you have a sense of the difference from the points I’ve shared above!