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Long, lovely Karon Beach grows more and more popular with each passing season. The development is spread out along the 1.5 kilometres of beach and, even at the height of the season, it's possible to have a swatch of sand all to yourself. Karon has a range of accommodations and services comparable to Patong, but on a much smaller scale, making it a hit with families and anyone trying to avoid the crowds.
The beach is very exposed and the sand much coarser than on other Phuket Beaches (except Mai Khao to the far north) but, in the high season, it's terrific for swimming. Other than the portable man-made variety, there's very little shade on the beach. You can either give in and pay whatever the guy renting chairs and umbrellas is asking (do not pay more than 200B for a full day) or slather on litres of sunscreen.
During the monsoon season the water becomes rough and is frequently too dangerous for swimming, especially for children. If there are red flags flying on the beach you'll need to go south to Kata or north to Patong where the sea is calmer year-round.
Surfers on Karon face the same problems as on Bang Tao and Mai Khao beaches further north, Karon Beach is very exposed and the shifting sands make for unreliable, though at times, very big, waves. Basically if you can find a surfable wave on Karon, you're almost guaranteed a better wave elsewhere on Phuket.
The best snorkelling on Karon is at the southern end of the beach, around the rocky headland -- the rest of the beach is a complete waste of time unless you just like snorkelling in clear water looking at sand.
Jet ski hire is available, but, as elsewhere, your Second Class Helmsman's license is officially required -- of course this is rarely checked, especially not by the guy whose job it is to rent out the jet skis! Both passenger and driver should always wear a life jacket.
There are three main districts along the beach: the north, centre, and south.
At the northern end most of the accommodations and restaurants are scattered near the round-about and on the sois running off Patak Rd. Heading south on the beach road are a handful of low-key self-contained resorts. They are massive but none are directly on the beach so their presence isn't nearly as intrusive as it could be.
Continuing south you'll see a supermarket that marks the turn-off for Luang Pho Chuan Rd. There's a few mid-range places around here and, at the far end, a cluster of budget guesthouses and dorms.
Further south on the beach road, just before Karon fuses with Kata, is a small group of mid and upper range resorts on southern headlands.
Most of the entertainment and restaurant options are on Patak and Luang Pho Chuan Rds. Other than the occasional ice cream vendor and massage hut, there's just about nothing on the beach itself. Come evening, once the spectacular sunset has ended, the beach is mostly deserted. While Karon doesn't have the pulsating nightlife of Patong it isn't as quiet as it may first appear. Once the sun sets the bars and restaurants sprinkled across the area spring to life -- there's plenty of good restaurants, a popular Irish pub, and a soi-worth of small bars.
From 07:30 to 18:00 the districts are connected by a slow but regular songthaew service originating in Phuket Town. It runs a circuitous route north down Patak Rd and through North Karon before taking a left at the round-about and continuing down the beach road past central and south Karon before it terminates in Kata. Whether you're going to the end of the line, the next district, or just the next resort the fare is 30B.
There's a cluster of ATMs near the round-about and some full-service banks on Patak Rd. Also near the round-about you'll find an optical shop, pharmacy, Internet cafe, dive centre, numerous tour offices, mini-marts, and a 7-eleven. The best place to stock your mini-bar is at the Big One Supermarket beside the Rattana Beach Hotel.
Half-way down the beach road, under a huge yellow and red tent, is a collection stands selling souvenirs, pirated DVDs, luggage, and all sorts of knock-off goods. There's some interesting finds here and good deals if you're prepared to bargain. If you're staying in southern Karon the shopping and services in Kata are much lot closer.
By Stuart McDonald.