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Many visitors find themselves briefly in Ao Chalong while they wait for a tour boat at the massive 720-metre long pier that juts out into the sea. The broad waters of Chalong Bay overflow with speedboats, ferries, longtails and moored yachts, with early morning and late afternoon seeing an uncomfortable amount of traffic as tour boats go to and from Coral, Raya and other nearby islands.
If you want to cut out the travel agency middle man, the pier at Ao Chalong is the place to hire a private boat for fishing or sightseeing trips off the south coast of Phuket. In high season from November to May, the large-scale Tigerline high-speed ferry, which stops at Phi Phi, Lanta, Lipe, Langkawi in Malaysia and several small islands of the Andaman in between, also operates from this pier.
While the multitude of boats is a bit unsightly, don't fret about missing out on any A-grade swimming — even if it weren't full of anchored boats, the beach isn't suitable for swimming, as the water here is shallow and murky. Come low tide, the water retreats significantly, leaving mud flats strewn with sharp oyster-covered rocks — it ain't pretty.
There is some swimming though, towards Ao Chalong's southern end, which is better known as Friendship Beach. It's still not great, but if you're desperate for a dip, this is the area to head to. For less murky waters, head to Laem Ka Beach just a bit south of Friendship. It's still quite rocky in parts but there are open areas fine for swimming.
Friendship Beach was once home to a few budget choices, but they've mostly given over to mega- and boutiquey resorts. From a guest's perspective, one assumes it doesn't matter that they're paying top dollar to stay on one of Phuket's most average beaches — the only time they set foot outside their salubrious digs is probably when they're coming from or leaving for the airport.
While it's certainly not one of Phuket's premier destinations, increasing numbers of visitors are finding Ao Chalong an affordable and pleasant alternative to the more typical beach scene. Hassle and hustle are rare compared to busier spots like Patong or Kata Beach, and Ao Chalong sees but a fraction of the custom of Phuket's busier beaches.
The bay is close to the amenities of Phuket Town, allowing you to replace the exhaust fumes and tooting horns of Phang Nga Road with a fresh sea breeze and blissfully quiet evening strolls, and pleasant Cape Panwa is just another couple of kilometres further. What budget guesthouses and hotels there are are generally of a higher quality than you'll find elsewhere and there's a growing year-round expat community.
With this community comes the associated selection of Western restaurants that tends to accompany expats — the eating is excellent. A kilometre or so north of the pier, the unpretentious Ao Chalong Yacht Club has a restaurant and bar that are open to all, and it holds regular sailing races in the area.
By Lana Willocks.