Thailand's biggest and busiest island
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.
Phuket is so big, we’ve split it up into areas, select one of the below for detailed accommodation and food listings in that area. Sights and general overviews for Phuket as a whole can be found via the icons above. Don’t know where to start? Read an overview of Phuket’s different areas.
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.
About our coverage of Phuket
Phuket is Thailand’s largest island, with places to stay and eat spread right across it. We’ve split our coverage into a series of smaller sections to make it easier to navigate (though you can see all our sights listings on one page).
On the western coast, Patong Beach is Phuket’s most famed and popular beach, but we’d suggest giving it a wide berth. Though once possibly the loveliest beach in the Andaman Sea, these days it represents the worst of mass tourism. Heading south, you’ll hit beautiful Karon Beach, with its development spread out along nearly two kilometres of beach -- even during high season, you should find a patch of sand to claim for yourself. The next bay south is home to Kata Beach, divided into Kata Yai Beach, home to Club Med, and Kata Noi Beach, home to the Kata Thani. Though the resorts dominate, beach access is public. Further south again lies Nai Harn Beach, a heavenly strip of powdery, almost-white sand tickled by calm waters, most of the year. Then comes small, secluded Ya Nui Beach, perfect for swimming and snorkelling -- beaches like this are getting fewer and further between on Phuket, so head here while you can.
Heading east along the south coast will bring you to Rawai Beach, which is well regarded more for its seafood and scenery than swimming as the water can get dirty and at low tide the beach turns into mudflats. From Rawai strike out to Coral and Raya Islands, which have safe swimming, reefs teeming with fish and a real feel of getting away from it all. Or you can catch a boat from Ao Chalong, a protected bay which is home to a pier and overflows with speedboats, ferries, longtails and moored yachts. Cape Panwa lies on the southeastern tip of the island, largely untouched tourism-wise, with rubber and coconut plantations and quiet streets throughout. Beautiful (and more affordable) Phuket Town lies inland from the east coast -- it offers a better slice of the real Thailand than any of the beach towns.
From the north heading down the west coast lies Mai Khao and Naithon beaches. Mai Khao, the island’s longest beach at 11 kilometres, stretches down to the airport, then Naithon is another good choice for some peace and quiet. Spinning back down the west coast is the former tin-mining area of Bang Tao, where the beach is the second longest on Phuket. The northern half of the beach has been annexed by the luxurious Laguna Complex, but there’s still plenty of sand to share and mid-range options. South again takes you to five-star Surin Beach, where a public park developed from a long-closed golf course has kept the hotels away from the sand. Then south once more leads down to casuarina-lined Kamala Beach, which has standard touristy stuff but boasts more of a village feel than elsewhere on the island.
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