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.