Phuket is firmly established as one of Thailand’s most popular destinations. And with an abundance of beaches, a lovely location and a wide variety of accommodation to choose from, it’s easy to see why. Although Phuket is an island (the largest in Thailand) it is also the name of the province which includes over 30 smaller islands. An international airport and a road bridge that spans the short distance to the mainland help make Phuket one of the most convenient Thai islands to travel to.
Tourism drives the local economy, but the cosmopolitan resort island has been drawing overseas visitors for centuries. Long before the advent of tourism, Phuket was an important stop on a marine trade route linking India, the Middle East, Burma, China and the Malay Peninsula. In the 16th century, large tin deposits were discovered in Phuket and resulted in an influx of traders from Europe and merchants and labourers from China. The influence of this era remains today and is reflected in local food and festivals and can also be seen in some of the historic buildings in Phuket Town.
Where to stay in Phuket
Many of Phuket’s best beaches can be found on the west coast of the island. Stretching down from Mai Khao in the north to Rawai in the south, each beach area has its own distinct character and finding the best place to stay will depend on what you are looking for from your holiday. Patong, Karon and Kata are the busiest and best-known resort areas, but there is more to Phuket than this popular trio of beaches.
Bang Tao and Layan
The central part of Bang Tao Beach is home to the classy Laguna Resort. Describing itself as an ‘integrated resort’ there are six upmarket hotels set amongst the lagoons and landscaped gardens. Laguna Resort is a good choice for a family holiday with guests able to make use of all of the resort’s extensive facilities which include swimming pools, golf, children’s clubs and gyms. Head further north from Bang Tao and you arrive at the more secluded Layan Beach.
Chalong Bay and Rawai Beach
By Phuket’s high standards, the beaches at Chalong and Rawai in the south-east of the island are ordinary. But that doesn’t deter frequent visitors to Phuket who are attracted to this area by the local ambience. Chalong Bay is the departure point for many boat excursions and together with Rawai is a popular area to live and work for Phuket’s expat community. Chalong and Rawai are home to some of Phuket’s best seafood restaurants and dining out here is better value compared to some of the west coast beaches.
There has been development in recent years on Kamala Beach, but it has managed to retain its quiet charm and remains a solid option for families. You’ll find some good local and international restaurants here and Kamala is an excellent choice for anybody seeking that happy balance of a peaceful location without being completely isolated.
Despite being the second most popular tourist destination in Phuket, the long sandy beach at Karon doesn’t feel crowded. Karon is something of an all-round destination and is a good option for a broad range of visitors ranging from solo travellers to families to mature couples. You’ll find pockets of bars and a certain amount of nightlife, but it isn’t as brash as Patong’s Bangla Road.
Kata and Kata Noi
Heading south from Karon around the headland brings you to the twin beaches of Kata Yai (yai = big) and Kata Noi (noi = small). You can walk between the two beaches, but it does involve walking up and down a small incline. With an attractive setting, soft sand and a wide choice of hotels, Kata draws a broad range of visitors. Staying here is a good compromise if you want to be able to enjoy the occasional night or two on the town. There is a small nightlife area in Kata, but you are also just a short tuk-tuk ride away from the nightlife areas of Karon and Patong.
Mai Khao and Nai Yang
The longest of Phuket’s beaches, Mai Khao, is also one of the quietest. This is largely because much of Mai Khao (and Nai Yang) is part of Sirinat National Park so there has been limited development. The National Park has helped provide a safe nesting environment for the giant sea turtles that come to lay their eggs between October and February. Mai Khao is home to some superb luxury resorts and is handy for visiting the Splash Jungle Water Park. A short drive from Phuket airport, Nai Yang beach is another laid-back location suitable for anybody looking for a relaxed holiday. The tree-lined beach offers lots of shade and is a popular weekend picnic spot for locals.
The Slate (formerly the Indigo Pearl)
One of the most attractive beaches on Phuket, Nai Harn is situated at the southern tip of the island close to the Windmill Viewpoint and Laem Promthep with their sublime views over the Andaman Sea. With quiet coves and sheltered bays, this area of Phuket is popular with snorkelers, divers and sailors.
The Nai Harn (formerly the Royal Phuket Yacht Club)
Nai Thon is one of the quietest beach areas in Phuket and ideal for anybody seeking a peaceful retreat. With a 500 metre stretch of golden sand on one side and the verdant green backdrop of the hills on the other, Nai Thon is worth considering if you are seeking solitude in a stunning location.
Located in the south-east of Phuket, Panwa Beach (sometimes called Khao Kat Beach) isn’t ideal for swimming, but is a scenic and quiet spot with some outstanding hotels.
Patong is the most built-up beach area in Phuket and offers the widest range of accommodation options on the island. The beach itself is attractive, but does get busy. Frequent visitors to Patong have welcomed the decision by Thai authorities to relax the ban on sun-loungers and beach umbrellas and these are now allowed in designated zones. The popularity of Patong means it isn’t the place to come if you are looking for seclusion. On the other hand, Patong has plenty of options for shopping, a huge range of places to eat and a vibrant nightlife scene centred around Bangla Road.
Understandably, most visitors to Phuket want to stay at one of the island’s many beach resorts, but if you want to buck the trend you’ll find there are plenty of advantages to staying in Phuket Town. Frequent and cheap local buses (‘songthaews’) run from Phuket Town to most of the island’s beaches so you can stay in town and visit a different beach every day during your stay. The downside is that from the town centre it can take an hour to get out to some of the beaches. Unlike the beach resorts that rely on tourism, Phuket Town has more of a local vibe with accommodation, food and shopping generally better value here than the west coast beach areas. You’ll find historic buildings, traditional restaurants and local markets in Phuket Town and if you are travelling solo or on a budget it can be a great place to base yourself.
Surin Beach and Pansea Bay
Discretely tucked away between Bang Tao and Kamala, Pansea Bay and Surin Beach enjoy a reputation as being the most exclusive area of Phuket attracting the well-heeled and a host of A-list celebrities. If you are seeking a luxury escape with amazing views, this area of Phuket ticks all the right boxes.
What to see and do in Phuket
Phuket’s beaches are the main draw for many visitors, but there are plenty of other attractions away from the sand. Wherever you choose to stay in Phuket, it’s worth making the effort to spend time in Phuket Town. Check out the elegant Sino-Portuguese heritage buildings dotted around Thalang Road, photograph the colourful street art and enjoy the boutique shops and local atmosphere that provides a pleasant contrast to some of the beach areas.
Pay a visit to the impressive Big Buddha and check out the other viewpoints on the island including the Three Beaches Viewpoint, Windmill Viewpoint and Radar Hill. Try to make time too for Promthep Cape for sunset views over the Andaman.
Markets & shopping
An enjoyable Walking Street Market (also known as ‘Lad Yai’) sets up every Sunday along Thalang Road in Phuket Town. Also in Phuket Town you can find the small Indy Market off Dibuk Road that sets up in the early evening on Thursday and Friday. And yet more shopping stalls can be found at the weekend Naka Market on the outskirts of town close to Central Festival. Most of the beach areas have their own clusters of shops and small outdoor markets. Of these, the Karon Temple market is notable and a great place to sample many different types of Thai food. By way of complete contrast pay a visit to the modern shopping mall at Jungceylon in Patong.
Phuket with children
There are a host of things to do in Phuket if you are travelling with children. Water-based fun can be found at Splash Jungle Waterpark and for teenagers and adults at Surf House Phuket. The Upside Down House (Baan Teelanka) and Trickeye Museum provide plenty of amusing photo opportunities to upload to your social media accounts and all the family will enjoy a round of mini-golf at the dinosaur themed Dino Park.
Phuket is home to some beautiful, but challenging golf courses including the prestigious Canyon Course and the picturesque Red Mountain. Test a different set of driving skills at Phuket’s go kart circuit or see how fit you are by training at the Tiger Muay Thai gym. If you’d rather spectate than take part, check out the local football team, Phuket FC. A sociable expat supporters group known as the Mushy Peas usually meet up for a few drinks on match days.
Responsible animal tourism
Thailand still has work to do when it comes to animal welfare, but it’s encouraging to see more people becoming aware of the issue. Opened at the end of 2016, the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is already attracting headlines for the right reasons. Similarly, the Gibbon Rehabilitation project has won international plaudits and can be visited by tourists as can the Soi Dog Foundation which was established by a retired British couple to help Phuket’s population of stray dogs and cats.
Diving & island trips
Dozens of small islands are waiting to be explored in the Andaman Sea and it’s easy to arrange boat trips from Phuket. Channel your inner Roger Moore with a trip out to ’James Bond Island’ where scenes from the Man With the Golden Gun were filmed. Located in Phang Nga Bay, the scenery all around here is spectacular and most tours also include stops at the Ko Panyee Floating Village. The nearby Phi Phi islands also have a movie connection having served as one of the locations for the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, The Beach. If you don’t mind doing a bit of paddling yourself, take a look at the excellent tours operated by John Gray sea canoes. During the high season the Phuket area is ideal for snorkelling and diving and even better dive sites can be found just to the north with the Similan Islands and Surin Islands.
Food and drink
Prices of food and drink at Phuket’s beach resorts tend to be higher than elsewhere in Thailand and the quality of Thai food on offer can vary with some venues serving a toned down version of classic Thai dishes. As a general rule of thumb, if you want authentic Thai food seek out the venues where Thai people are eating and you should be ok. Foodies should head to the array of seafood restaurants in Rawai and visit any of Phuket’s traditional coffee shops known as ‘kopitiam’ which serve tasty food and drink at sensible prices. One of the best known is Kopitiam by Wilai in Phuket Town. Nearby you have more sophisticated dining options at Osha Restaurant and Tu Kap Khao. If all of that doesn’t tempt you, there are plenty of international options too at most of the beach areas with pizzas and other Western favourites.
Travel and local tips
Frequent flights operate between Bangkok and Phuket in addition to direct services from Chiang Mai, Pattaya U-Tapao and Ubon Ratchathani. Phuket’s international airport is located in the north of the island adjacent to Mai Khao Beach. Views of the islands in the Andaman Sea can be impressive as you approach and take off so try to book a window seat. On arrival, you can take a taxi to your destination. From the airport to Patong takes approximately 45 minutes. Some hotels will provide transfers for you so check when booking. There is also a shared mini-bus service which serves the most popular beaches (Patong, Karon and Kata) and an airport bus that goes to Phuket Town.
The best of the Phuket weather is during the hot season months from November-April. You can expect lengthy periods of sunshine accompanied by a pleasant sea breeze. The rainy season runs from May-October with the wettest months being September and October. Although rainy season does still see spells of good weather, the sea currents can be dangerous for swimming at this time of year so please take note of any red warning flags.
by Roy Cavanagh www.thaizer.com