The bartender – who is smiling as if he's the one on vacation – removes my empty glass and replaces it with a fresh one. The sun hasn't even begun to set. Yet, I'm already on my second mai tai. Here in Phuket, you don't have to wait for happy hour to find cocktails under $5.
The Thai island nicknamed the "Pearl of the Andaman Sea" has many things in common with Hawaii, but sky-high prices aren't one of them.
When Thailand reopened to U.S. travelers, my friend and I were among the first Americans to book flights to the largest and most visited island in the country nicknamed "The Land of Smiles."
After months of strict travel restrictions there, we were warmly welcomed at Angsana Laguna Phuket, a five-star beachfront resort situated in a lush lagoon. Cleverly, it's marketing itself as an island within an island. The goal? To attract travelers accustomed to COVID-era isolation. For those sick of social distancing, however, the resort runs a free water taxi stopping at a shopping village and Atoll, a new floating bar only accessible by boat.
VISIT HAWAII CHEAPER: What to know about camping on the islands
HAVEN'T BOOKED THOSE AIRLINE TICKETS YET? Don't dawdle. Bookings are bonkers, pushing prices up
Angsana's accommodations range from luxury rooms to overwater bungalows and even villas with private rooftop pools. In Hawaii, rates at a similar property would easily start at $400 per night. We pay just $84 for our spacious suite complete with a balcony. And that rate includes one of the best buffet breakfasts we've ever had.
Additionally, there's a doughnut bar, DIY dim sum and an array of exotic fruits we didn't even know existed. I'm tempted to stuff my bag with snacks for the beach. But I don't need to do that. Like everything else in Phuket, food is cheap.
One night we treat ourselves to a beachfront steak and seafood buffet at the trendy Xana Beach Club on Bang Tao Beach. For $18 each, we feast on filet mignon and fish so fresh it's practically still swimming. My mango smoothie at an upmarket street fair sets me back just $1.20. On the main drags – where there still aren't many tourists – we pay $5 for plates of unforgettable pad thai. Most of our meals cost less than we'd pay to tip on similar meals in Hawaii.
Tipping in Thailand isn't customary. Massage, on the other hand, is a way of life. A 60-minute massage on the beach or at a massage parlor – and they're on every street in Phuket – starts at just $9 an hour.
A massage at a five-star resort like Angsana, which has its own spa academy, starts at $100 an hour. Meanwhile, a 50-minute massage at the Four Seasons in Maui, starts at $205 an hour.
Of course, no one comes to Phuket to spend their entire vacation face down. They come for the crescent-shaped beaches where white sand meets lukewarm water so turquoise it looks like Listerine mouthwash.
There are more than 30 beaches, ranging from the backpacking mecca of Patong, where you can parasail or Jet Ski for $30, to the remote and rugged Banana Beach, which requires hiking through the jungle. We beach-hop by scooter on a Honda Kick we rent for $9 a day.
Although rental cars start at $50 a day and parking is almost always free, most people get around on two wheels. The island is only 30 miles long and 13 miles wide. Plus, there's something thrilling about using a throttle.
Phuket's most popular day trips, however, require taking a ferry or speedboat to neighbor islands. You don't have to be a diehard 007 fan to be wowed by James Bond Island, as seen in "The Man With the Golden Gun." Koh Phi Phi Maya Bay, where Leonardo DiCaprio filmed "The Beach," is just as Insta-worthy.
For island-hopping we opt for V. Marine's all-day speedboat tour. The package costs $86 per person and covers hotel pickup and drop-off, drinks, snacks, snorkeling gear, a traditional buffet lunch, stops at four islands (including the aptly named Monkey Beach) and all national park entrance fees. It's the most expensive thing we do in Phuket, but it's also the most memorable. A tour like that would cost $200+ in Hawaii.
Of course, getting to Phuket isn't easy, or cheap. It's at least a 21-hour trip from the U.S. Roundtrip flights from New York and Los Angeles start at around $900. Still, upon arrival, we find everything we need for a fraction of the price we've paid in the Aloha State.
We plan on staying in Phuket for four nights. But our dollar goes so far we end up booking two more. For $62 – about the price of a bunk in a dorm at Hostelling International Honolulu – we get a room with a water view at Cassia, a hip, new four-star resort boasting private beach access. It feels like a steal. But here in Phuket, it isn't even a deal. It's just the going rate.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hawaii or Thailand? Phuket offers great beaches, food for 'a steal'