Thailand’s largest island and a province in its own right, PHUKET (pronounced “Poo-ket”) has been a prosperous region since the nineteenth century, when Chinese merchants got in on its tin-mining and sea-borne trade, before turning to the rubber industry. It remains the wealthiest province in Thailand, with the highest per-capita income, but what mints the money nowadays is tourism: with an annual influx of visitors that tops five million, Phuket ranks second in popularity only to Pattaya, and the package-tour traffic has wrought its usual transformations. Thoughtless tourist developments have scarred much of the island, and the trend is upmarket, with very few budget possibilities (expect to shell out up to twice what you’d pay on the mainland for accommodation and food, and sometimes more than double for transport, which is a particular headache on Phuket). However, many of the beaches are still strikingly handsome, resort facilities are second to none, and the offshore snorkelling and diving is exceptional. Away from the tourist hubs, many inland neighbourhoods are clustered round the local mosque – 35 percent of Phuketians are Muslim, and there are said to be more mosques on the island than Buddhist temples; though the atmosphere is generally as easy-going as elsewhere in Thailand, it’s especially important to dress with some modesty outside the main resorts, and not to sunbathe topless on any of the beaches.
Phuket’s capital, Muang Phuket or Phuket town, is on the southeast coast, 42km south of the Sarasin Bridge causeway to the mainland. Though it’s the most culturally stimulating place on Phuket, most visitors pass straight through the town on their way to the west coast, where three resorts corner the bulk of the trade: high-rise Ao Patong, the most developed and expensive, with an increasingly seedy nightlife; the slightly nicer, if unexceptional, Ao Karon; and adjacent Ao Kata, the smallest of the trio. If you’re after a more peaceful spot, aim for the 17km-long national park beach of Hat Mai Khao, its more developed neighbour Hat Nai Yang, or one of the smaller alternatives at Hat Nai Thon or Hat Kamala. Most of the other west-coast beaches are dominated by just a few upmarket hotels, specifically Hat Nai Harn, Ao Pansea and Ao Bang Tao; the southern and eastern beaches are better for seafood than swimming.
As with the rest of the Andaman coast, the sea around Phuket is at its least inviting during the monsoon, from June to October, when the west-coast beaches in particular become quite rough and windswept. At any time of year, beware the strong undertow and heed any red warning flags; there are dozens of fatalities in the water each year, but there is currently no official lifeguard service on the island. Some stretches of Phuket’s coast were very badly damaged by the December 2004 tsunami, which caused significant loss of life and destroyed a lot of property. Reconstruction was swift, however, and a first-time visitor to the island is now unlikely to notice any major post-tsunami effect.Read More
Diving and snorkelling off Phuket
Diving and snorkelling off Phuket
The reefs and islands within sailing distance of Phuket rate among the most spectacular in the world, and diving and snorkelling trips are both good value and hugely popular. Many trips operate year-round, though some of the more remote islands and reefs become too dangerous to reach during part or all of the monsoon season, roughly June to October.
Andaman coast dive and snorkel sites
About 22km east of Phuket. Submerged reef of soft coral and sea anemones starting about 5m deep. Lots of fish, including leopard sharks, tuna and barracuda. Usually combined with a dive at nearby Shark Point. Unsuitable for snorkellers.
About 250km northwest of Phuket; only accessible on live-aboards. A series of submerged “banks”, well away from any landmass and very close to the Burmese border. Only worth the trip for its sharks. Visibility up to 25m.
Hin Daeng and Hin Muang
56km southwest of Ko Lanta. Hin Daeng is an exceptional reef wall, named after the red soft corals that cover the rocks, with visibility up to 30m. One hundred metres away, Hin Muang also drops to 50m and is good for stingrays, manta rays, whale sharks and silvertip sharks. Visibility up to 50m. Because of the depth and the current, both places are considered too risky for novice divers who have logged fewer than twenty dives. Unsuitable for snorkellers.
Near Shark Point, between Phuket and Ko Phi Phi. Dubbed the Thai Tanic, this became a wreck dive in May 1997, when a tourist ferry sank on its way to Ko Phi Phi. Visibility up to 20m, but hopeless for snorkellers because of the depth, and collapsed sections make it dangerous for any but the most experienced divers.
Ko Phi Phi
48km east of Phuket’s Ao Chalong. Visibility up to 30m. The most popular destination for Phuket divers and snorkellers. Spectacular drop-offs; good chance of seeing whale sharks.
Ko Racha Noi and Ko Racha Yai
About 33km and 28km south of Phuket’s Ao Chalong respectively. Visibility up to 40m. Racha Yai (aka Raya Yai) is good for beginners and for snorkellers; at the more challenging Racha Noi there’s a good chance of seeing manta rays, eagle rays and whale sharks.
Ko Rok Nok and Ko Rok Nai
100km southeast of Phuket, south of Ko Lanta. Visibility up to 18m. Shallow reefs that are excellent for snorkelling.
96km northwest of Phuket; easiest access from Khao Lak. One of the world’s top diving spots. Visibility up to 30m. Leopard sharks, whale sharks and manta rays, plus caves and gorges.
174km northwest of Phuket; easiest access from Khuraburi. Shallow reefs of soft and hard corals that are good for snorkelling.
Just east of Ko Surin, close to Burmese waters. A sunken pinnacle that’s famous for its whale sharks. Considered by many to be Thailand‘s top dive spot.
Shark Point (Hin Mu Sang)
24km east of Phuket’s Laem Panwa. Protected as a marine sanctuary. Visibility up to 10m. Notable for soft corals, sea fans and leopard sharks. Often combined with the King Cruiser dive and/or Anemone Reef; unrewarding for snorkellers.
Phuket day-trips and other activities
Phuket day-trips and other activities
Bookings for most of the following Phuket day-trips and activities can be made through any tour agent and should include return transport from your hotel (though not for the cooking classes). In addition to the trips listed below, diving is also available (see Diving and snorkelling off Phuket). Other sights worth checking out, especially for kids, include the Phuket Butterfly Garden and Insect World in Phuket town, the Aquarium on Laem Panwa, the Shell Museum in Rawai, the Big Buddha near Chalong and the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project near Thalang. Avoid any tour that features Ko Siray (Ko Sireh), the island across the narrow channel from Phuket town, which merely encourages tour-bus passengers to gawp at Phuket’s largest and longest-established indigenous chao ley community.
Full- and half-day guided mountain-bike rides into Phuket’s rural hinterlands and to Ko Yao Noi, as well as multi-day rides around Phang Nga Bay, with Action Holidays Phuket.
Award-winning, conservation-conscious Siam Safari runs Four-in-One tours featuring their hillside elephant camp plus rubber tapping, buffalo-cart riding and a sail on a Burmese junk; tours to Khao Sok National Park are also on offer.
One- and three-day courses at Hat Nai Yang and Ao Chalong (depending on the season) are offered by Kiteboarding Asia.
If you just need a little time off from the beach, head for the eighteen-hole Dino Park mini-golf, next to Marina Phuket Resort on the headland between Ao Karon and Ao Kata, which is part of a pseudo-prehistoric theme park comprising a dinosaur restaurant and an erupting “volcano” (evenings only).
There are dozens of companies offering canoeing and kayaking in Phuket, but the two with the best reputations are John Gray’s Sea Canoe, who offer “Starlight” afternoon and evening trips around the spectacular limestone karsts of Ao Phang Nga, as well as multi-day and self-paddle trips; and Paddle Asia, who run day-trips to Ao Phang Nga and multi-day trips, which can include Khao Sok National Park and other adventure activities.
The rainy season (roughly May–Oct) is the best time for surfing off Phuket’s west coast; courses and board rental are available from Phuket Surf on Ao Kata Yai.
Thai cookery courses
Most famously, every Sat and Sun morning at The Boathouse hotel on Ao Kata Yai; but also at the Holiday Inn Phuket, 86/11 Thanon Thavee Wong, Patong; and the Blue Elephant Restaurant, 96 Thanon Krabi, Phuket town.
Thai culture and wildlife tours
Plan to Phuket run a number of tours, including full-day “Culture Tours” that include market and temple visits, batik-making and rubber production; and “Jungle Tours” to Ton Sai waterfall and the Gibbon Rehabilitation project; or a combination of both.