If you’re anything like me, someone mentions Phuket and the usual clichés spring to mind – crowded beaches, drunken travellers, frantic traffic, tourist scams, and ladyboys trying to coax you into bars.
And certainly, you could go to Phuket and have exactly that experience. Thousands do, every year. But if you open your eyes, keep your ear to the ground, and say yes to new experiences, then there’s a whole other world of Phuket just waiting to be discovered.
If you want to unearth a more unique Phuket experience, escape the tourist traps, and see the best this island paradise has to offer – read on.
First things first, avoid staying at Patong beach
Great alternatives include Kalim and Karon Beaches
Patong beach is Phuket’s undeniable tourist epicenter – busting streets lined with bars, nightclubs, tour operators, fast food joints, and endless stalls selling souvenirs and designer knock-offs. The wide stretch of Patong beach must once have been stunning, but is now so cluttered with deck chairs, sun umbrellas, rubbish and jostling tourists that’s it’s difficult to see any remaining natural beauty.
Given this, it’s often perplexing why so many tourists choose to stay at Patong beach over the multitude of other coastal options. While Patong can certainly be a vibrant and colourful place to check out, it can also be frantic, grimy and overwhelming at times. If you’re on a hens weekend or a boys trip it makes sense to be in the party capital. But for couples, families and backpackers there are much more relaxing and pristine locations still within striking distance of the action.
In terms of choosing accommodation, any travellers to Phuket are spoilt for choice when it comes to where to stay – the island offers everything from humble beach shacks to world-class luxury resorts. If you still like a bit of action, try Kalim and Karon beaches, which are slightly more low-key versions of Patong. Or better yet, head to the quieter beaches near Chalong Bay or to Phang Nga Bay, an area celebrated for its caves, limestone cliffs and traditional fishing villages.
Absorb as much nature as possible
If you only travel from the airport to Patong Beach and back again you risk missing out on a smorgasbord of postcard-worthy beaches, spectacular diving sites and lush tropical rainforests. Resist the temptation to spend the whole day by the pool drinking cheap cocktails and make it your mission to get out and see some of Thailand’s famed natural beauty.
Snorkelling with a shoal of fish in Phuket!
Once you’ve had your fill on sunbaking on pristine golden sand, snorkeling is the easiest way to experience Phuket’s underwater world (although increasingly many of their inner reefs are suffering extensive damage and coral bleaching). For a more impressive subaquatic experience, try deep sea diving near Racha Yai Island or King Cruiser Wreck where you can spot leopard sharks and manta rays. Or join a canoe expedition and explore hidden inlets and caves only accessible by sea.
Above ground there are also plenty of nature adventures to keep you entertained – try kite surfing, jungle trekking or off-track quad bike riding. If you’re visiting in the rainy season (May to October), make a point to see Phuket’s Bang Pae, Ton Sai and Kathu waterfalls, some of the largest and most impressive in Thailand. Bang Pae and Ton Sai waterfalls are also situated in Khao Phra Thaeo National Park, where you can explore Phuket’s last pocket of virgin tropical rainforest and discover a diverse array of plants and animals.
Book a tour, but choose wisely
You’ll have no problem finding somewhere to book a day trip in Phuket – your hotel will offer tours, your taxi driver will want to sell you tours, and just walking down the street you’ll be bombarded by tour operators. The most popular tours are island-hopping day trips to Phang Nga Bay, the Similan Islands or Koh Phi Phi (made famous by the filming of ‘The Beach’).
The tricky part is, finding the right tour. Let’s just say, tours in Phuket vary from oh-my-god-this-is-amazing-I-want-to-do-this-on-my-honeymoon to I’d-rather-stab-my-own-eyeball-than-have-to-endure-another-minute-of-this. The distinctions between tours lie in the type of boat you’re on, how many people are crammed on board, the quality of the guides, and the amount of time you get lying on pristine beaches verses clinging onto a hurtling speedboat. As is often the case in life, you seem to get what you pay for.
Choosing a tour itinerary is easy, the challenge lies in picking the right operator and trying to get accurate information (some touts seem very intent on telling you only what you want to hear). Be persistent and make sure you find out which islands your tour will cover, what your ticket price includes and whether you’ll have an English-speaking guide. And make sure you uncover exactly how many people will be on your boat. Believe me when I say that an island tour on a speedboat with 20 people is a far preferable experience to a bumpy ferry ride crammed with 100 seasick tourists. Check out Simba Sea Trips and Phuket Sail Tours for a better experience.
Don’t go to Phuket with the sole ambition to shop
Shophouses from Old Town Phuket
Yes, Phuket has a lot of shops. And yes, the prices are cheaper than Singapore. But you’ve just travelled over a thousand kilometers to be on a weekend getaway – do you really want to spend your time traipsing in and out of stores? And do you really need a knock-off Chloe handbag, or a fake pair of Ray Bans that’ll break in a month?
If you’re fidgety from lying on the beach too long, there are plenty of ways to occupy a few spare hours in Phuket – head to the Aquarium, go parasailing, check out a show at Phuket FantaSea, or pack a picnic and head to the beautiful Prom Thep Cape for a dramatic sunset. Better yet, try learning a new skill like Thai cooking or Batik painting, or just try your hand at photographing the diverse natural landscapes. If you do decide to have a bit of a spin around the stores, try to shop with a conscience and purchase local handmade crafts instead of imported fakes and multinational labels.
Get your culture on
Wat Chalong Buddhist Temple
Phuket might not seem like Thailand’s cultural epicenter, but once you scratch the surface there is a veritable feast of cultural experiences to be discovered. The island’s inland region is a fertile, green expanse of hills dotted with mangrove forests, shrimp farms and pineapple plantations. And once you head away from the beaches, the interior of Phuket is very local and low-key, making it a welcome escape from the throngs of tourists.
Gorgeous view from the Big Buddha
Hire a driver or rent scooters and make for Phuket Old Town, full of traditional shop houses, cute bars, hipster cafes, local food stalls and colourful Sunday markets on the main road. On the way, stop at The Big Buddha monument perched atop Nakkerd Hill or head to Chalong Temple and learn about the history of Buddhism in Thailand.
As you make your way to some of the more popular landmarks you’ll undoubtedly come across some of the roadside ‘elephant shows’ where baby elephants are chained to the curb to attract passers by. As temping as it might be to stop for a photo, try to resist. Tourist demand only increases these inhumane and exploitative practices – instead make a donation to an elephant charity, like The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.
Eat local food, ideally with some locals
Hawker Market in Phuket
If you’re planning to travel through Thailand for a month, it’s perfectly understandable that you might crave western comfort food. But if you’re only on a weekender in Phuket, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to miss out on the local Thai delicacies. Head to a street food vendor or a hawker centre which can be found all over the island and let your taste buds run wild on aromatic green curries, spicy peanut noodles and crisp mango salads. Basic hygiene rules apply, and food should always be hot, but if you head to the crowded stalls you should have no worries.
One of the best parts of eating in hawker centres is getting to meet local Thai people and chatting over a shared meal or a Chang beer. Even if your conversation is mostly smiles and gestures, you’ll have interacted with someone you wouldn’t otherwise have met, and you’ll walk away feeling you’ve had a much richer Thai experience.