As Thailand’s biggest island, there is much to see and do on Phuket. And as tempting as it may be to stay close to the same beach for the duration of your holiday, taking trips out to other parts of the island and seeing what else Phuket has to offer reveals some pleasant surprises. Explore the historic Old Town district of Phuket Town, dive or snorkel at some of Asia’s most spectacular underwater locations and discover an array of wonderful islands all within easy reach of Phuket.
Enjoy Phuket’s quieter beaches
Patong, Karon and Kata are the most popular tourist resort areas on Phuket, but there are plenty of other beaches to choose from if you prefer quieter locations. In the north of Phuket, the long stretch of beach at Mai Khao is a joy for those seeking more seclusion. As part of Sirinat National Park this is one of the few remaining areas of Phuket where sea turtles choose to lay their eggs. You’ll find no beach umbrellas and no beach hawkers here, but you will find casuarina trees and shaded salas set back from the quiet road that runs through the park. These are popular locations for local people and you will find an entirely different and more laid-back atmosphere compared to Phuket’s busier west coast beaches.
If you fly into Phuket, try to book a window seat for views of Mai Khao Beach and Nai Yang Beach as you come in to land. This makes for a unique photo opportunity too once you are on the beach itself with the planes proving to be an attraction rather than an annoyance as they make their descent to Phuket airport. Walk south along the soft golden sands of Mai Khao and you arrive at Nai Yang. Fishing boats fill the northern end of the beach, but continue walking along Nai Yang for softer sand and a good selection of accommodation including The Slate and Marriott Resort & Spa Nai Yang. The Slate is also the venue for the excellent Black Ginger restaurant.
Explore Phuket’s old town
Phuket may be famous now as a tourist destination, but the island also has an interesting history involving maritime trade routes and tin mining. Phuket’s tin mining industry flourished during the 1800s and attracted European and Chinese merchants. A number of the original buildings built by those traders can still be seen in the historic Phuket Old Town district.
There are similarities here with Georgetown in Penang with lovely old buildings, colourful street art, museums, charming cafes and a vibrant food scene. Pay a visit to the convivial Bookhemian cafe for coffee, try bijou Phuketique for a tasty massaman curry sandwich and a cold beverage or sample local Phuket dishes at the atmospheric Kopitiam. Admire the architecture and pastel hues on Soi Romanee and walk through the Chinese gate on Phang Nga Road that leads to the beautiful Shrine of the Serene Light. And don’t miss the amazing interiors at Tantitium, a restored heritage house, where you can dine at the restaurant, enjoy cocktails at the bar or unwind in the spa. Time your visit to Phuket Town for a Sunday afternoon or evening and you have the added bonus of experiencing the delightful Walking Street Market that sets up along Thalang Road.
Sample local southern Thai food
With Phuket being such a popular tourist destination, a plethora of restaurants and eateries have set up to cater to overseas visitors. The quality of the food near the busiest beaches can be hit and miss with some restaurants offering toned down tourist versions of classic Thai dishes. Despite this, there are still plenty of outstanding authentic Thai food options to be found on Phuket. The local cuisine reflects the cultural heritage of the island with Chinese, Malay and Thai influences. One of the best ways to track down where the locals eat is to ask the staff at your hotel for suggestions. Amongst the recommended local dishes to try are roti and curry, moo hong (pork belly stew), and mee Hokkien (Hokkien style noodles).
You’ll find the biggest and best choice of local restaurants in Phuket Town with the likes of Kopitiam, Tu Kab Khao and Mee Ton Poe (for mee Hokkien) to name just three. For a special occasion, sample Royal Thai cuisine at the Blue Elephant restaurant which is located in a photogenic mansion house. For seafood lovers, Kan Eang enjoys a good reputation with two branches at Chalong called Kan Eang Seafood 2 and the newer Kan Eang at Pier. Over on the east coast, the atmospheric Laem Hin Seafood is another long-standing favourite with views over to Coconut Island.
Dance on the tables at Ka Jok See restaurant
If there is a rule book for the way a good restaurant should be run, Ka Jok See have covered it in sequins, poured tequila over it and serenaded it with a version of I Will Survive. You won’t find five-star food at Ka Jok See restaurant, but you will find an amazing experience at this fun and quirky restaurant. When the diners have finished their meals, tables are cleared and the music and dancing takes centre stage. If you’re the shy and retiring type, this might not be for you, but let your hair down and you are guaranteed laughs aplenty and as the alcohol flows it’s not unusual to see customers and staff dancing on the tables. It’s camp, it’s kitsch, it’s sanuk!
Get crafty with your drinks
Even the most fervent admirer of Thai beers will probably admit that there are better alternatives on offer around the world. But Thailand has been upping its game in recent years with a blossoming craft beer industry. On Phuket, you can sample some tasty offerings at the Full Moon Brewworks Microbrewery Restaurant. Try the Chalawan Pale Ale or the Andaman Dark Ale amongst many others. You’ll also find craft beers on sale at various locations around Phuket. If you prefer spirits to beer, visit the Chalong Bay Rum Distillery for a tasting tour or sign up for a cocktail workshop and impress your friends and family with your new-found skills when you return home.
Experience life as a Thai farmer
Take your family to meet the resident buffaloes, cows, sheep, rabbits and assorted other animals that live on Vanich Farm in the centre of Phuket City. Learn about the way of life of Thai farmers and take the opportunity to plant rice which is grown organically on the large plots of land belonging to the farm. Vanich Farm provides a fun and educational experience that is distinctly different to the more obvious tourist attractions that Phuket has to offer.
Oops upside your head
The quirky Upside Down House (Baan Teelanka) is the setting for a trio of activities to entertain the entire family. The house itself has been cleverly designed and takes some getting used to as you enter and adjust your senses to the topsy-turvy layout. It makes for some amusing photo opportunities and together with the Garden Maze and the Live Room Escape Game makes for a pleasant excursion away from the beach.
Ethical animal encounters
Visitors to Phuket can enjoy ethical elephant encounters at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary which provides a safe haven for elephants that previously worked in the logging or trekking industry. Another location which has been doing consistently good work with rescued animals is the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project located close to Bang Pae waterfall in the east of Phuket.
The hilly terrain of Phuket and the surrounding areas offers up a number of impressive viewpoints. Promthep Cape is probably the most famous, but it’s also the most crowded (especially at sunset) because it features on the itinerary of most group tours. Phuket’s famous Big Buddha can also get busy for the same reasons. As an alternative, check out Windmill Hill just south of Nai Harn Beach or Khao Rang in Phuket Town. For a rooftop bar with panoramic views, head to Baba Nest at Sri Panwa. And if you have your own transport, you will find striking views at the Samet Nangshe viewpoint just to the north of Phuket island in neighbouring Phang Nga province.
Trips to the islands in the Andaman Sea
Phuket makes for an ideal base to indulge in some island hopping around the Andaman Sea. There are numerous islands in the waters close to Phuket which can be visited as a half-day or full-day trip for snorkelling, diving or sunbathing. Trips can easily be arranged via your hotel or any tour office to the nearby islands including Ko Bon, Ko Hae, Ko Khai, Ko Maphrao and Ko Racha. If you’d prefer not to join a group tour, you can enjoy more freedom by hiring a boat privately for you and your family or friends to explore the islands closest to Phuket. Approach the boatmen directly at Chalong and Rawai and simply let them know where you want to go and how long for. One of the most popular day trips from Phuket is to Phang Nga Bay and ‘James Bond Island’, but these tours can be rushed and crowded. To explore Phang Nga Bay away from the tourist throngs, join one of the highly recommended John Gray Sea Canoe trips.
Further out from the shores of Phuket, you can experience some of the best dive sites in Asia at the Similan Islands and the Surin Islands which can be reached as part of a day trip from either Phuket or Khao Lak. These are wonderful locations too for serious divers who can join a liveaboard boat. Phuket is also a handy transit point for onward travel to other islands in southern Thailand with regular and reliable ferry services to Ko Lanta, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai as well as to mainland Krabi.
Visit Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai
If you are seeking the quiet life, the delightful twin islands of Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai fit the bill perfectly. Conveniently close to Phuket, but world’s apart in terms of atmosphere. Most Ko Yao residents still make their living from fishing, farming or rubber tree plantations. Ko Yao can be visited as part of a cycling day trip from Phuket, but try to spend at least a couple of nights here if you can. Compared to the stretches of soft sand found on Phuket, Ko Yao’s beaches can be described as ruggedly beautiful with stunning views looking out to the Andaman Sea. You’ll find no nightlife on the Ko Yao islands where the main attraction for in-the-know tourists who come here is the fact that these are hideaways where the pace of life is slow, there has been no over-development and life is sabai sabai for residents and visitors.
The majority Muslim population haven’t been jaded by tourism and seem genuinely happy to welcome visitors to the islands they call home. In return, all that is asked of visitors is to respect the islanders’ customs and way of life. Many family-owned restaurants don’t serve alcohol, but you can still enjoy cocktails or cold beers at hotels and resorts. If you are interested in learning more about the local way of life, book a homestay on Ko Yao Noi or join the local fisherman for the day and try your hand at catching fish under the watchful guidance of the local experts. The Ko Yao islands really are special and make for an ideal add-on to a holiday in Phuket. The islands may be laid-back, but they are also home to some chic accommodation options. Take a look at the sumptuous Six Senses or the elegant Cape Kudu, both on Ko Yao Noi. Over on Ko Ko Yai, consider the eco-luxury resort of Santhiya or the superb Glow Elixir.