For all its mega-touristy hubs, Phuket is still undeniably beautiful. Thailand’s largest and most popular island, it’s renowned for its wild nightlife, chic restaurants and beaches packed with rows of sun loungers. But it’s just as perfect for taking a peaceful boat trip from beach to bay and discovering secluded little spots for rest and relaxation. However you soak it up, the scenery is spectacular. The sandy shores are white and soft between your toes, the turquoise waters incredibly clear, and the island’s centre is brimming with lush green vistas and waterfalls. Tropical palms line the shores, and on the western edge, the jungle backdrop practically kisses the water’s edge. In parts, dramatic limestone cliffs rise majestically out of the water, and in others, colourful coral reefs lurk beneath the tranquil surface. Whether you’re partying in a beach bar or snorkelling in a quiet bay, the beach is always centre stage here.
Vivacious Thai towns and tourist resort areas are also an inevitable part of the Phuket scene. Ranging from lively to chaotic, this is where you’ll find the busiest of beaches, littered with bodies and lined by street vendors, beach bars and restaurants. Beachside Patong is the undisputed capital of tourism mania and buzzing nightlife. Beyond the heaving mix of neon lights and roads laden with beeping cars, scooters and tuk-tuks, you’ll discover stacks of restaurants, discos, shopping and fun activities. Laguna Beach and Bungtao Bay are also popular yet still relaxed, home to many great resorts and long stretches of shoreline. For a glimpse of local history and old town architecture, Phuket City is a gem, while beautiful Buddhist temples, Chinese shrines, monuments and museums offer unique insight into the customs and traditions of Thai life.
Things to do
Rest assured you’ll never get bored in Phuket. There’s a wide range of cultural attractions, family-friendly activities, adventurous excursions and downright fun things to do away from lazing by the beach or resort pool. Patong offers a dizzying array of options. Pick up some bargains in the shops and vibrant markets, grab a ticket to a Thai boxing match or join a Thai cooking class before a thumping night out on the town. But don’t miss the cultural highlights either – there are 40 temples alone dotted across the island. Drop into beautiful Wat Chalong, the golden Buddha at Wat Khao Rang and the biggest Buddha of all, Big Buddha in Chalong. Old Phuket Town in bustling Phuket City is also fascinating for its lovely temples, shrines and museums. If you’re bringing the whole family, the kids will love the Phuket Bird Park and Tiger Kingdom, as well as the interactive fun at the Trickeye Museum, the Chamber of Secrets and Baan Teelanka (an upside down house).
Do you prefer to ogle over tropical sunsets and bask in nature’s glory? Skirt the famous limestone islands of Phang Nga Bay in a traditional junk boat, or join a canoe tour instead so you can venture inside the sea caves and cliff-lined lagoons. Take a hike along the walking trails of the island’s national parks, hike through the jungle to discover magnificent waterfalls, or cycle through the rows of pineapple, coconut, rubber and cashew nut plantations. From rafting rivers to elephant treks and ATV tours, there’s an adrenalin level to suit every traveller. Many beaches offer a fabulous range of watersports too. Go parasailing for incredible views high above the shoreline, hire jet-skis for some high-speed fun on the water, or experience the world-class diving on offer beneath the water’s surface.
Food & restaurants
Don’t be surprised to recognize the smell of Phuket’s tastiest temptations before you even see the menus. Thai food needs little introduction. Thai green curry, pad Thai, fried rice and the tasty national soup, tom yum, are just a few of the most famous and familiar dishes sure to pop up around the island. But you’ll also discover plenty of massaman curry, chicken cashew stir fry, tom kha gai and spicy papaya salad. With rice and noodles the traditional staples, they’re impossible to avoid, and you’ll most often find them accompanied by coconut milk, fresh vegetables, peanut sauces, fragrant herbs and spices. Thanks to Phuket’s fabulous location, there’s also an abundance of fresh seafood. Wherever you go, you’ll discover the perfect combination of sweet, sour, hot and salty elements on your plate.
One of the great things about eating out in Phuket is that you don’t have to go with the first option you smell – or see. With so many cheap and quick rides close by, from hotel transfers to tuk tuks, seeking out a particular restaurant, view or neighbourhood is easy. Patong will overload you with options, from fast-food outlets to Asian chains and fine dining, while Kata Beach offers quieter cafes, restaurants and bars. For some fancy food options all the way up to five stars with ocean views, head to one of the notorious hotels along Bang Tao Bay. Wherever you go, you’ll find street vendors selling easy bites and sliced fresh fruit, on top of the wide range of choices from Thai to Italian and Middle Eastern. Like any popular tourist destination, Western food is easy enough to come by, from chains like Subway and Starbucks to sandwiches and deli food.
There's a bounty of choice when booking accommodation in Phuket, and thanks to the generous exchange rate, luxury doesn’t have to come with the typical luxury price tag. The affordability of Phuket and its popularity as a romantic getaway for couples and honeymooners sees many take the opportunity to splurge. Check in to a beautiful seaside lodge touting a serene infinity pool looking out over the ocean, a hillside villa with onsite spa rooms for pampering in the jungle surrounds, or an internationally-renowned five-star chain that dishes up fine fare from top chefs in the lobby restaurant. From resort atmospheres to secluded sanctuaries and mid-sized lodgings oozing space and comfort, opulence comes in many shapes and sizes.
If value is more important to you than hot tubs and turndown services, the tremendous variety of hotels is no less enticing. Unpack in a beach bungalow for easy access to the water, check in to a beach club with its own private section of sand, or go for a family friendly resort with pools, kids’ clubs and spacious rooms. For the true budget traveller, basic campsites are also available across the island, and in Patong, there are many cheap accommodation options and reputable chains. The Holiday Inn and Novotel are just two of many well-known providers. From eco-friendly getaways to cheap cabins and boutique hotels, when it comes to finding a place to stay in Phuket, the hardest part is choosing.
Phuket is shopping heaven. With so many markets, shopping malls and the odd boutique to explore, you’re sure to wind up with at least one souvenir as a holiday keepsake or fashion statement. Like in most parts of Thailand, travellers here revel in the chance to browse for fabulous bargains. You could pick up a brand new shirt for as little as three dollars, or get a suit tailor made for a price much cheaper than you’d pay back home. Sometimes vendors will even come to you on the sandy shores. The trick is to bargain hard to get the best price. There’s an art to bartering and the more you shop, the better you’ll get. Beware though that this doesn’t apply everywhere – department stores, shopping malls and shopping centres typically sell at fixed prices.
Everywhere in Phuket your first stop should be the busy markets, which often run well into the night. Browse the alleys of Talat Mai, pick up a ripe pomelo from Or Tor Kor Market or cruise the stalls of the Indy Market. Handmade arts and crafts, beautiful jewellery, cheap fashions and all kinds of random souvenirs are easy to find. Artsy types and antique lovers should add in a trip to the Palace of Art, Heritage Collection and Sontique, as well as Baanboonpitak for beautiful teak sculptures. General fashion shopping is best at the malls, such as Patong Promenade, and shopping centres like Central Festival Phuket and Jungceylon Shopping Mall. Jim Thompson is also fabulous for beautiful Thai silks. From home wares to ‘designer’ bags, Phuket is brimming with buys you won’t need a credit card to afford.
Phuket has beautiful beaches galore, but many of them can get very busy. For something a bit quieter, you could try little Nai Yair Beach, also known as Pon Beach, north of Patong, where you'll share this quiet stretch of sand with just a handful of people. Other great hidden gems include Ao Sane Beach, which has three little beaches to its name, Hua Beach, a lovely and tiny little slice of golden sand, and Siam Beach, which has its own natural sheltered ‘swimming pool’ area. For a beautiful escape inland, head to the waterfall near Ao Yon Noi Beach and Cape Panwa – it’s quieter than the better known Bang Pae, Ton Sai and Kathu Waterfalls.
Exploring the highlights near Phuket is also easy thanks to its fabulous location. It’s easy to catch a boat to the neighbouring islands for the day to explore, or for a few nights so you can stay a little longer. Popular islands include the beautiful Similan Islands, Coral Island and the peaceful shores of Koh Rang Yai. The Phi Phi Islands are also quite famous and incredibly beautiful, and from here, you can continue on to Krabi on the mainland. You can also access mainland Thailand via the bridge in the north to discover the nearby national parks.