In 2004 the tsunami which hit the west coast of Phuket caused severe damage to the island’s tourism industry as buildings were destroyed and foreign tourists lost confidence in the security of the destination. Huge investment in the sector over the following years saw the old hotels and restaurants replaced by better quality buildings and a slow return of holidaymakers. Today Phuket is again one of the world’s top beach holiday destinations with an exceptional tourist infrastructure and a sophisticated early-warning system should a tsunami ever threaten the island in the future.
Most visitors stay along the west coast which is home to some beautiful beaches and numerous contrasting resorts which will appeal to different types of visitors. Meanwhile the historic centre of Phuket Town is well worth a visit along with the stunning islands located offshore in the surrounding Andaman Sea.
The best time to visit Phuket is between December and March although the island is warm all year round. June to August is popular with Thai holidaymakers when the island isn’t too crowded but heavy showers can be expected on most days. The worst times to visit are in April and May when it’s very hot and humid and in September and October which is the wet season.
Arriving in Phuket
Phuket Airport: International travellers will arrive at Phuket International Airport which lies in the north of the island. This is Thailand’s busiest airport outside Bangkok which attracts direct flights from around the world as well as many connecting services from Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang Airports in the capital. There are official airport buses and vans which run directly from the airport to Phuket Town as well as ‘Smart Buses’ which run down the west coast with stops in the main resorts. These services are very cheap but also very slow.
Alternatives include shared minibuses, metered taxis, limousine services and private transfers from Phuket Airport which can be pre-booked in advance. These services are available to destinations all over the island.
Getting Around: Once you’ve arrived in your destination it’s easy to get around on foot in most places. For short journeys you can hop into a tuk-tuk or onto the back of a motorbike taxi. Just be sure to confirm your destination and the price before setting off. Regular taxis are widely available in the main resorts although they might not have meters so you’ll again need to use your bargaining skills. If you’re planning on travelling around by taxi it’s worthwhile downloading the GrabTaxi app which is Thailand’s version of Uber.
You can hire cars or motorbikes for travelling further afield but should check the insurance policy of any rental before agreeing to go ahead. Otherwise you can use the ridiculously cheap Song Taews (blue local buses) for travelling around with the locals. There are no official bus stops so just put your hand out to get them to stop for you and shout to the driver when you want to get off.
Where to Stay in Phuket
Before booking accommodation in Phuket it’s important to realise that this is a large island with a number of quite distinct resorts which appeal to different travellers for different reasons. Sizewise the island is approximately 50km long and 20km wide with the most popular resorts lying on the south-west coast.
The first major resort on the west coast is Bangtao Beach which lies just 16km south of Phuket’s International Airport. It is best known for its beautiful 6km long beach which attracts mainly families and couples to the resort. There is plenty accommodation and restaurants along the beach with most budget options to the south and fancier resorts in the central area around the lagoons. The nightlife scene is very quiet which makes Bangtao ideal for people who are looking for a quiet break.
Just 7km further along the coast is Surin Beach which used to be known for its exclusive beach clubs and upmarket dining. These beachfront establishments have been destroyed in order to restore the natural beauty of this stretch of coastline. Today’s visitor will find a beautiful, sandy beach lined with palm trees and a number of luxury resorts to choose from. With little in the way of budget accommodation this is certainly the domain of the wealthier traveller who wants to enjoy a relaxing beach holiday with a quiet nightlife.
Another quiet resort is Kamala Beach which lies just 4km beyond Surin. It is home to another lovely beach overlooked by a number of excellent Thai restaurants and can accommodate wealthy and budget travellers alike.
Travel just 8km further to the south and you’ll arrive at the antithesis of the resorts mentioned so far. Patong Beach is ‘party central’ where you’ll find the island’s largest concentration of bars, clubs, restaurants and hotels. Its most famous attraction is Bangla Road where most of the nightlife is concentrated. Plenty mid-range and budget accommodation is available in a resort dominated by raucous drinking dens, go-go bars and crazy nightclubs. This is the place for young travellers who plan on partying by night then sleeping on the beach by day. There’s little of traditional Thailand here but plenty for lovers of the night.
Visitors to Phuket who find Patong’s nightlife a little overwhelming might like to consider Karon Beach which lies just 7km to the south. This resort has the island’s third largest beach and a lively nightlife scene but without the craziness of its neighbour to the north. There’s a good selection of accommodation ranging from cheap guest houses to luxury resorts which attracts quite a cross section of visitors to the resort.
Just 3km away is the chilled resort of Kata Beach which is home to a lovely beach, some excellent restaurants and a lively, but not excessive, nightlife scene. It is popular with divers and surfers and offers a wide range of accommodation to suit every pocket.
Finally, another place to consider staying is Phuket Town which lies inland some 15km east of Patong Beach and 33km south-east of the airport. The island’s largest town is home to many historical and cultural attractions which makes it Phuket’s most authentically Thai destination. It has plenty budget accommodation which attracts backpackers but is some distance from the island’s best beaches. For this reason most visitors prefer to stay at a beach resort then take an excursion to the capital’s old town.
Tourist Attractions in Phuket
Away from the many beautiful beaches around the island and the lively nightlife of some of its resorts there are a number of other attractions which are worth seeing during a holiday in Phuket:
Buddhist Temples: Throughout Thailand there are countless Buddhist temples (known as ‘wats’) and other religious structures which are revered by the local populace. The most important one in Phuket is the beautiful Wat Chalong which lies about 8 km south-west of the island’s capital. A further 8km to the south-west leads to the Big Buddha Temple which is a is 45-metre tall Buddha statue which offers panoramic views over the island.
Phuket Town’s Night Markets: No visit to Thailand is complete without a spending some time at the night markets where tourists can rub shoulders with the locals and truly embrace something of the local culture. There are many of these markets around Phuket where visitors can find local handicrafts to take home as well as being able to sample excellent Thai cuisine from the street vendors who set up amongst the market stalls.
The largest of these markets is the crowded Phuket Weekend Market which takes place near the Central Festival Shopping Mall in Phuket Town. It is only open on Saturdays and Sundays from 4pm until 9pm. A more intimate affair is Chillva Market in Phuket Town which is fully open on Thursday to Saturday nights from 4pm until 11pm. A smaller version of the night market takes place on the other nights of the week. Also recommended is the ever popular Phuket Walking Street which hosts a night market in the historic heart of the capital’s Old Town.
Tropical Island Excursions: The seas surrounding Phuket are home to some stunning groups of islands which can be reached by means of full-day excursions which can be booked in all the main tourist resorts. Probably the most recognisable of these attractions is Phang Nga Bay where a series of limestone karsts appear vertically out of the sea. These natural features became a famous attraction after appearing in the James Bond film ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’. Many tours include a visit to Koh Tapu which is simply referred to as James Bond Island in the tourist brochures. Another famous local island which appeared in the Leonardo di Caprio film ‘The Beach’ is Koh Phi Phi which also appears on many tour itineraries.
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