Phuket is Thailand’s largest island, and arguably the most famous. Blue waters, sandy beaches, spicy Thai cuisine, and excellent snorkeling and diving are all part of the appeal. Arriving from all over the world, travelers flock to Phuket for relaxation and adventure, and the island rates as one of the most popular destinations in Thailand. Phuket has an exceptional climate with warm, sunny days year-round. Monsoon season is usually mid-May through October, but it might only rain once or twice a day during this period. Phuket is also easy to access; it’s a short one-hour flight from all the big-city attractions of Bangkok.
Phuket’s longest beach was also once its most beautiful, until development and tourism turned it into a bustling hub of activity rather than a retreat from the world. Still, Patong is great for people watching, and part of the fun of Thailand is that (in addition to being a land of smiles) it is one of contrasts. You may not be able to find a quiet spot on Patong to read and contemplate life, but you’ll find plenty of shopping and activity to keep you entertained. Many resorts are strung along the beach road, and one of the island’s best hotels, the luxury Amari Phuket, perches on a headland overlooking the sea.
Fringed with casuarinas and palms, Kata Beach is a lovely, curving bay hugged by lush hillsides at either end. Although it’s still touristy, it’s more peaceful than Patong Beach with less hawkers. A tiny islet sits just offshore, and the beach itself is broad, with soft, white sand and decent snorkeling spots at either end. If you’re hungry, you can grab a papaya shake or a snack at one of the beachfront stalls, and larger restaurants are within walking distance. At the southern end of the beach sits The Boathouse Phuket, a luxury boutique hotel that is one of the only resorts fronting the sand. If you want an even quieter slice of shoreline, head south to adjacent Kata Noi Beach.
Less developed than popular Patong Beach, about 15 minutes away, Karon Beach is a 3.5-kilometer-long strand of squeaky, golden sand and sapphire sea that attracts many couples and families. When the weather is calm, it’s a beautiful spot for a swim, but when the winds whip up, big waves pound the wide-open shoreline here, so take care if you are swimming during these times. Restaurants and resorts are spread out opposite the beach along the busy road, but a few four-star resorts offer direct beach access, including adults-only Beyond Resort Karon and the luxury bungalows of the nearby Marina Phuket Resort at the southern end of the beach. At its northern end, Centara Grand Beach Resort Phuket overlooks the shoreline with its own water park.
Phuket Town lies on the southeastern coast of the island on a picturesque bay. This island city bustles with activity thanks to its many hotels, restaurants, massage parlors, and other tourist attractions that have sprung up in the decades since Patong Beach was opened to development in 1980. The architecture reflects the influence of Chinese immigrants and a Portuguese aesthetic and provides an interesting contrast to the more traditional Thai styles seen elsewhere. Make sure you stroll through the streets of Old Phuket Town, with its well-preserved shophouses, Sino-Portuguese mansions, temples, and shrines. Other things to do in town include visiting Phuket Trickeye Museum, an interactive 3D art gallery; sampling lip-smacking street food at the Sunday Walking Street Market; and paying your respects at the Jui Tui Shrine, a colorful Chinese temple.
Island Boat Tours
You may be tempted to lounge on the beach for your entire stay (and really, who would blame you?). But if you’re willing to exert just a little effort during your island getaway, sign up for an island tour to discover the stunning seascape surrounding Phuket. Particular mention must be made of Maphrao, Nakha Yai, and Nakha Noi (on the east coast, with pearl culture at the latter) as well as Koh Kaeo, Racha Noi, and Racha Yai (off the southern tip), and finally little Koh Poo on the west coast off Hat Kata.
Organized tours are the best way to make sure you see all the highlights. The nine-hour, guided Phang Nga Bay Day Trip from Phuket includes a visit to the distinctive “James Bond Rocks,” and the eight-hour Phuket to Phi Phi Islands Tour takes you to Koh Phi Phi and the famous Maya Bay beach from the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach. An expert guide, transportation, food, and refreshments are all included.
Diving & Snorkeling
The waters around Phuket Island offer some of the best diving and snorkeling in Thailand, with typically excellent conditions. Visibility is good, and the water temperature ranges from 26 to 30 degrees Celsius. Apart from colorful corals and tropical fish, you can see seahorses, sea turtles, manta rays, and even whale sharks.
Many travelers come to Thailand to complete their scuba diving certification because the courses tend to be more affordable here than other countries. Some dive operators will take you to Koh Phi Phi, one of the world’s most beautiful islands, and other picturesque locations. Once you’ve earned your certification, consider checking out Similan Islands National Park. Comprised of eleven uninhabited islands, this area is famous for its superb diving.
Phuket Big Buddha
Sitting serenely above the island at the top of Nakkerd hills between Kata and Chalong, the Phuket Big Buddha is one of the island’s most distinctive landmarks. Spectacular 360-degree views greet you once you reach the summit, where this 45-meter-high monument presides. Faced with white jade marble, the statue was constructed in 2004. It’s a peaceful spot to take time out from your day. Prayer flags flutter in the breeze, and you’ll hear the tinkling of small bells. You can take a taxi or tuk-tuk up the windy six-kilometer road to the hilltop, but you have to climb a steep flight of stairs to the monument. If possible, pick a clear day for the best views; mornings are generally less crowded.
To experience a more authentic side of Phuket, venture out to this small village on the island’s east coast to glimpse the lifestyle of the Moken, a tribe of “sea gypsies.” They have roots in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and have remained staunchly committed to their own beliefs and customs. Some live by the sea and others choose a semi-nomadic life on land. The men of the village work mostly as fishermen and sometimes also as guides for sea trips.
Rawai itself has a small fishing harbor and a sliver of beach covered with coconut palms, swamp oaks, and fishing boats (Nai Harn Beach is one of the best in the area.) You can rent boats here to sail to offshore islands. The village is also known for its seafood markets, where you can buy the catch of the day, and one of the local restaurants will prepare it cooked to order.
Karon Viewpoint (Three Beaches Hill)
Just south of Kata Noi Beach, this aptly named vantage point gives you a lovely view of three of Phuket’s most beautiful beaches: Kata Noi, Kata Yai, and Karon Beach. Look north from the viewpoint over one of the island’s most iconic views, with a little bit of everything that makes this island so picturesque: emerald hillsides, blue seas, and white surf. This is one of the island’s most photographed vistas. You can reach the viewpoint by traveling along the branch road in front of Kata Noi Beach in a southwesterly direction toward the southern tip of the island.
Wat Chalong is the largest, most popular, and arguably the most beautiful of all Phuket’s 29 temples. It is dedicated to two highly respected monks, Luang Pho Chaem and Luang Pho Chuang, and you can see life-size wax models of them and other figures in the exhibition home. The Grand Pagoda protects a fragment of Lord Buddha’s bone and features murals depicting images from the Buddha’s life story. As you wander through the complex, notice the many golden buddhas in various poses, and make sure you dress respectfully; visitors are not allowed to wear shoes inside the temple, and women must cover their shoulders and knees.
Gibbon Rehabilitation Center & Bang Pae Waterfall
Located within the Khao Pra Theaw Non-Hunting Area, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center is a great place to learn more about these intelligent creatures and support important work at the same time. The center’s mission is to rescue, rehabilitate, and return gibbons to their natural environment. Many of these animals were poached from their mothers as babies and sold as pets or used in the tourist trade. Visitor contact is limited with animals suitable for release so they don’t become habituated to humans, however you’ll have a chance to meet some of the animals that live full-time at the sanctuary and hear stories about their miraculous rescues. The center does not charge an entrance fee, but you need to pay to enter the park. You can support the center’s important work by making a donation or sponsoring a gibbon. After visiting the center, trek through the lush tropical forest to the Bang Pae waterfall for a refreshing dip in the pools.
Phuket Trickeye Museum
At the Phuket Trickeye Museum, you can add a few zany vacation photos to share with your friends and family back home. This interactive 3D art gallery allows you to look as though you are part of more than 95 trompe-l’œil-style paintings created by clever Korean artists. Teeter on a tightrope, touch ET, climb a wall with Spiderman, or step into a famous masterpiece. This is the perfect rainy day hangout for the whole family.
Sirinat National Park
Formerly called Nai Yang National Park, Sirinat National Park reveals a quieter side of this touristy isle. The 90-square kilometer coastal park sits on the island’s northwest coast and is largely made up of marine areas, including four relatively unspoiled beaches. Two of these, Hat Nai Yang and Hat Mai Khao, are the only two beaches in Phuket where leatherback turtles come ashore at night to lay their eggs. The best time to see them is from November to February, when locals patrol the beaches and help protect their eggs.
Wat Phra Thong at Thalang
This temple is steeped in local lore, and houses a half statue of Buddha that was broken during a Burmese invasion. Legend has it that a boy was minding a water buffalo, which he tethered to a piece of metal protruding from the ground using a hemp rope. Suddenly the boy died, but appeared to his father in a dream and told him about the piece of metal. The father began to dig and came upon a statue of Buddha cast in pure gold. The Buddha could not, however, be completely excavated and so a temple was built on the site in 1785.
When the Burmese conquered Thalang, a second attempt was made to dig up the statue at which point it broke in two. One half disappeared, but the other still stands in the temple today. The gables and windows of the temple buildings exhibit rich carvings.