Bali or Phuket? ‘Tis the question many have asked – and had to answer – when deciding on holiday destinations.
These two tropical island rivals both feature year round sun, beautiful beaches, established resorts, and attractions galore. Phuket in Thailand’s Andaman Sea is the country’s largest and most popular island, while Bali is ten times the size of Phuket and one of the most popular island destinations in the world.
So…how do the islands truly measure up?
Beaches and Beauty
From stretches of volcanic black sand on the east coast to the breath-taking white strips of the south, Bali’s beaches is sometimes hampered by infrastructure, and its popularity can lead the water quality to suffer.
Phuket’s beaches tend to be larger than Bali’s, and are always a beautiful white. Most are situated on the 45 km of west coast. Away from the three main tourist beaches of Patong, Karon and Kata in the southern half of the island are home to some very secluded and undeveloped spots.
What Phuket doesn’t have though, is world-class surfing. With year-round swell and about sixty prime locations, one can easily learn surfing in Bali. And beneath the water, Bali boasts a proliferation of marine life like nowhere else in the world as part of the Coral Triangle, making it a great location for diving.
As for Mother Nature’s other gifts, Bali’s active volcano Mount Batur is a sight to behold and climbing it affords the best view of the island itself. Phuket, on the other hand, offers the Sirinat National Park and the Khao Phra Thaew Reserve (a beautiful and serene virgin rainforest) in the north.
Know Thy Accomodation’s Neighbourhood
Phuket’s most populous area is the town of Patong, which caters to a mix of beach bums and barflies. The west-coast beaches of Kata and Karon also pull in the sun worshippers, whereas Phuket Town has recently evolved a seductive artistic and cultural character. Hat Surin and Ao Bang Thao offer swanky boutiques and five star resorts. Despite development, Rawai in the south maintains a more laidback vibe.
In Bali, the south is the busiest part of the island. Restaurants, cafes, designer boutiques, and spas are a dime a dozen in Seminyak and Kerobokan. Kuta and Legian offer – paradoxically – both raucous nightlife and unpretentious family holidays. To the north, Canggu offers wild and untamed beaches, though development is beginning. Ubud is the heart of Bali, in both the literal and spiritual/cultural sense. North and West Bali are thinly populated but offer great diving and surfing spots.
Balinese culture is distinctive, rich, and intact. The island is renowned for traditions such as dance, sculpture, painting and craftwork. The Balinese themselves are warm and friendly, usually with a mischievous sense of humour. With over 10, 000 temples, the island is also famous for its spiritual atmosphere, a blend of Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism.
Phuket is definitely more developed and modern. On top of its unadorned beach and bar culture, the island today is also known for high-end luxury – think top spas, fashionable nightspots, and five-star accommodation. Beneath that chest-beating modern veneer, however, is a long and varied history of Arab, Indian and European influence. In Phuket Town you can find Buddhist temples, Chinese shrines, a Mosque, a Catholic church, a Sikh Gurdwara and a Hindu shrine.
See and Do
The things both islands have in common: great beaches, an extensive range of accommodation options, bustling built-up areas and quieter enclaves, as well as fantastic cuisine.
Phuket is the place for rowdy nightlife and draws the stag party crowd. Bali’s nightlife, in general, is more chilled and sophisticated, though Kuta’s can almost give places like Patong a run for their money.
Phuket is a great base for island hopping and cruising crystal waters. There’s Similan, Koh Tachai, and Surin National Park, which are great for divers and snorkelers. Phang Nga Bay is also chock-full of islands, such as Koh Yao, Racha island, the famous “James Bond Island”, and the beautiful Koh Phi Phi.
In turn, Bali boasts the serene Gili Islands, a trio of tiny island paradises of white-sands and coconut palms in a turquoise sea, each with a distinctive character. Bali exceeds Phuket in terms of yoga sanctuaries, prime surf locations (as mentioned), and some of the best diving spots in the world. It’s also an unsurpassable location for romantic dining, be it by the sea, cliff-side, by a jungle river, in a candlelit cave or overlooking hanging gardens.
When to Visit
Bali’s rainy season stretches from October to April. Having said that, the day is still mostly sunny during wet season. May to September is the dry season, with temperatures not much hotter. It also rains during dry season, making Bali’s climate steadier than Phuket.
In Phuket, the monsoon arrives and stays from September to October, when it’s very hot and very wet. November to March is the most pleasant time to visit, due to its lack of rain and comfortable temperature.
For character and culture, Bali has an appeal like no other. Phuket has a more managed visitor infrastructure, where Bali creaks in some areas. If you want the best selection of beautiful beaches, Phuket edges it, unless it’s for surfing and diving, in which case, Bali wins. We were supposed to try to help, but guess what? Whichever you pick, you can’t go wrong with a time out on either island!
This article is contributed by Martin Higgins at eOasia, City Nomads’ go-to platform for booking tours, activities and other services in Asia.