Thailand's largest island is its best example of the benefits and problems of tourism. Huge promotions of Phuket by the TAT and travel agents since Thailand first start attracting international travellers on a large scale in the 1980s have brought in millions of tourists and billions of baht -- the province is visited by over a third of all international visitors to Thailand in any given year. But along with them has come unregulated development, severe environmental degradation, organised crime and a raft of other ugly annoyances.
The Pearl of the South has quickly lost a good deal of its lustre in the past few decades. As property prices soared, many locals sold up to national and international hotels and many of the most beautiful beaches are now host to scores of them, along with over-priced restaurants, bars, travel agents, massage parlours and the rest of the usual suspects.
For many though, the very developed and westernised beaches that run down the western coast of Phuket are exactly what they are looking for. With over a dozen beaches and bays to choose from -- including Patong Beach, Kata Beach, Karon Beach, Kamala Beach and Surin Beach -- you can opt for tourist and deck chair madness one day and follow it with a hidden-away bay the next.
For the budget traveller, the days of grass huts on the beach are largely gone and simple seafood feasts have been all-but replaced by KFC, Starbucks and Pizza Hut. Phuket is an expensive place, with lodging, eating and transport all far costlier than elsewhere in Thailand. You can minimise this by eating on the street and drinking less (or diligently chasing happy hours) but if you really want to spend some time here, you'll need to adjust your budget.
Dishes of pad thai for 100B are not unusual, in some areas and you can't avoid the disgraceful public transport here, where the spineless authorities refuse to crackdown on the tuk tuk mafia, meaning public buses only run between Phuket Town and the beaches, but not between beaches. This makes inter-beach travel very expensive and a good reason to hire a motorbike or car.
For the upmarket traveller and holiday vacationer, Phuket does offer an amazing range of more luxurious hotels and resorts, both on the popular beaches and along with the more farflung locations to the north of the island.
Phuket was hit by the Boxing Day Tsunami, with Kamala, Patong, Bang Tao and Ya Nui the worst hit. A mini-series about the tsunami was filmed by a British/American co-production here and in Khao Lak in the summer of 2006 -- it's telling that many Thais were upset by the filming and thought it was 'too soon,' even more than two years after the fact.
Phuket is also a rapidly-growing real estate market for those looking at retiring or at least buying a holiday home. Massive upscale development is going in all over the island and the prices are not cheap. With an international airport, top standard medical care (Phuket is the sex-change capital of Thailand) and all the western creature comforts, it is easy to see why for some, Phuket is indeed their very own Pearl of the South.
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Text and/or map last updated on 27th March, 2015.