From balmy beach life to brilliantly bizarre burlesque shows, explore the highlights of Phuket and discover vacation diversions galore.
Phuket is equal parts beautiful, exotic, opulent, and fun. With the plethora of sights and activities available, you’d be hard-pressed to take advantage of them all in just one trip. Here are 10 vacation recommendations from a frequent visitor.
1. Sand and Sea
It’s no secret that Phuket has some of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand. Anything goes in Patong, Phuket’s party capital, which juts up against a fabulous crescent of white sand. The beach is packed with sunbathers, and you’re never more than a few feet from a tropical cocktail (or a souvenir-seller). For something more pristine, in-the-know travelers seek out compact and quiet Kata Noi beach, with its turquoise waters and coral sand. Looking for a locals’ spot? Nai Harn beach in Rawai is where many residents and expats hang out.
At 222 square miles, Phuket isn’t exactly petite. That, combined with its proximity to the mainland, probably explains why its name doesn’t bear the prefix koh (meaning “island”) that most other Thai landmasses do.
If you crave a jaunt to somewhere smaller and more secluded, Phuket is well-situated to reach some of the country’s most paradisiac koh. It takes about two to three hours by ferry (or faster if using a speedboat service) to reach Koh Phi Phi (one of “The Beach” film locations), and makes for a delightful day-trip. A similar distance away, Koh Khao Phing Kan, also known as James Bond Island for its appearance in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun, is famous for its striking limestone karsts. Sea canoe or speedboat tours let you get up close and personal with these soaring rock formations, standing like sentries in the azure waters.
3. Superlative Sunset
It’s said that you haven’t really been to Phuket until you’ve watched the sun dip into the Andaman Sea from the island’s southern tip. Yes, Laem Phromthep is a tourist cliché, but a gorgeous one. A shrine by the parking lot displays a quirky collection of elephant sculptures, and there are plenty of souvenir sellers and snack stalls to browse as well. To bypass the crowds, you can hike a slippery path to the rocky limit of the cape, where you’ll have the vista all to yourself.
4. Entertainment Extravaganza
Arguably the best of Phuket’s famous cabaret performances, the Simon Star Show is fun for the entire family. Admittedly, cabaret isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the flamboyant costumes, high energy and Las Vegas–inspired razzle-dazzle make for an impressive spectacle that is highly entertaining throughout. A huge hit, the show has expanded to multiple locations across the island.
5. Tranquility in Temples
For those in search of spiritual enlightenment, or just a break from the beach, there are around 30 wat (Buddhist temples) scattered across Phuket. One of the oldest is Wat Phra Thong, where the main attraction is a half-buried Buddha statue protruding up from a temple hall. Not too far away is Wat Srisoonthorn, immediately recognizable for its 95-foot-high sleeping Buddha in all his golden glory atop the wat’s main hall.
Built in 2007 at enormous cost, Big Buddha is the island’s most important spiritual landmark. Gazing out serenely from the Nakkerd Hills, the 148-foot-tall statue is a must-see (and to be fair, you can see it from miles around). A stairway lined with bells and prayer flags leads up to the base of the statue, rewarding visitors with some of the island’s most expansive views.
6. Old Town
Before tourism, it was tin that lured foreign visitors and their money to Phuket. Traders from China, the Middle East and Europe transformed the island capital into a melting pot of cultures, and today Phuket Town still retains its old colonial soul. A stroll through the Old Town reveals pockets of fine Sino-Portuguese architecture, much of it rapidly gentrifying into hip cafes and galleries. History buffs won’t want to miss the well-preserved Chyn Pracha House, a century-old mansion-turned-museum, built by former tin barons when the island was the center of the trade, or the Standard Chartered Bank building, Thailand’s oldest foreign bank.
7. Night Market
A great place to snack and shop, the popular market known as Naka is just outside of Phuket Town. You can nibble on a wide range of local bites — try the khao niao mamuang (mango with sticky rice) — as well as unique global eats, such as Japanese sushi shaped like Angry Birds characters. There are also plenty of bargains, from cellphone cases to handbags to jewelry.
8. Artisanal Rum
The Chalong Bay Rum Distillery was started by a French couple living on Phuket, and their innovative creations are now making waves on the global craft-liquor scene. The best thing about the 30-minute distillery tour is the delicious mojito cocktail at the end — made with their impressive cane-sugar rum, naturally. There’s also an opportunity to take part in a cocktail workshop in the bar to learn a few recipes and techniques.
9. Bar Crawl
At night, Bangla Road, running inland from Patong Beach, is closed to cars and open for nightlife until the early hours. This strip is packed with nightclubs and neon bars serving cheap beer and loud music — just find a table, order a drink and enjoy some of the best people-watching anywhere.
10. Cooking Classes
Thanks to the island’s long-standing role as a center of Asian trade, Phuket’s cuisine is a delicious marriage of Thai cooking with Chinese and Malay influences. Try your hand at preparing some local specialties, such as curry pastes from scratch or the ever-popular pad thai at one of the many cooking schools. Most offer half- or whole-day classes, but longer courses are available for budding master chefs. The Kata School earns accolades for the quality of its teachers. The addition of a market tour, offered several days a week, helps to familiarize participants with the dazzling array of ingredients for sale.
This article originally appeared in Issue 2, 2017, of the North America edition of Interval World magazine, published by Interval International, Inc., an indirect subsidiary of Marriott Vacations Worldwide Corporation. Any re-use of this content, or any portion of this content, is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved.