Phuket is Thailand’s playground

Phucket's Phi Phi Island

Floating lazily in the warm waters of the Andaman Sea, Phuket is moored to the mainland by several bridges that connect the island to Thailand’s southwest coast. Surrounded by more than 30 smaller islands, each with their own charms and wiles, Phuket is one of Thailand’s most popular visitor destinations, and it’s easy to understand why.

A legendary tourist destination, the island of Phuket (pronounced ‘poo-get’) is simply spectacular. To many, Phuket has all of the ‘lures’ necessary to ensure a pleasant visit. When you come, you can expect soft, sandy beaches (a number of which stretch for literally miles) and warm, tantalizingly clear waters, full of marine life that is ideal for both snorkelling and scuba diving.

The coastline of Phuket is a mixture of sandy bays, rocky outcrops, and dramatic limestone cliffs. Phuket also has lush areas of rain forest, large coconut plantations, rice paddies, elephant trekking, sailing, safaris, bamboo rafting and even bungee jumping, which is highly recommended for any adventurous traveler.

But there are surprises as well …

The town of Phuket is a small urban treasure full of surprises, many of which are not readily apparent to the visitor simply passing through. Spend some time exploring the narrow alleys and back streets and you will be surprised by the hidden gems you encounter.

The rich cultural heritage of Phuket, evidenced in its architecture, is perhaps the foremost of attractions here. But don’t miss the shops for the buildings. There are fascinating markets bursting with local colour, Chinese shrines and Buddhist temples and shopping opportunities both modern and traditional.

Phuket town was largely founded by Chinese who immigrated to the island in the late 19th century to work the booming tin mines. Many came penniless but ended up as rich moguls. Thus, much of the interesting architecture of the town is Chinese in style and origin. Thais, of both Buddhist and Muslim origin lived largely in rural villages, where the finest examples of their temples and mosques are found.

On December 26, 2004, Phuket and other nearby areas on Thailand’s western coast suffered extensive damage when they were struck by the Boxing Day tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. By February 2005, many damaged and most undamaged resorts were back in business, and throughout 2005 life slowly returned to normal for the island people. Following strenuous recovery programs, there is little obvious remaining damage other than at the most remote beaches, and the tourist industry, which drives the Phuket economy, has now recovered.

Did You Know?

  • Phuket is Thailand ’s largest island, approximately the size of Singapore.
  • In 1785, alerted to an impending attack by the Burmese, Phuket’s women posed as armed men and struck a menacing pose along the coast. After some weeks, the Burmese force turned back, and the women were lauded for saving the island.
  • James Bond Island is located off the coast of Phuket in Phang Nga Bay. The strange limestone formation was used as a backdrop for a scene in the 1974 Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun.
  • Every October, a huge vegetarian festival is held on Phuket. To participate, you must abstain from eating meat, drinking alcohol and having sex for seven days. During a bizarre procession through the town, young men fall into a trance-like state and pierce their cheeks with swords and knives.

How to Get Here

The quickest and most comfortable way to get to Phuket is by air. There are flights from most cities in Thailand and are especially frequent from Bangkok. Phuket International Airport (HKT) welcomes millions of travellers from countries all over the world. The airport is located on the southern part of the island and is connected to downtown by the Thep Kasatri road. Various transportation services, including taxis, limousines, minibuses and airport buses, are available outside of the arrivals level.

Long tail boats | Photo credit: Fitri Agung

Getting to Phuket by boat can be interesting, as the boats are long tail boats. These boats are a slightly improved version of the older rustic boats used by local fishermen. However, if you have the time, this would also be an opportunity to get to see the picturesque beauty of the coastline.

The other means to get to Phuket is by car, which can take 12 hours, or there are several bus companies that operate from the larger cities.

Thai Baht

The currency in Thailand is the Thai Baht. One of the easiest ways to get cash from home in the local currency is to use ABMs in Thailand. You might be charged a small fee by your bank, and you may need a new PIN number, so contact your bank before you travel to make sure you’ll be able to access your funds. There are ABMs in Phuket, but they are few and far between in rural areas.

For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.

Traveler’s checks are becoming relics of the past and are actually a bit of a nuisance. The larger denominations people typically carry are difficult for smaller businesses to cash and many smaller businesses don’t cash them anyway.

Credit cards are widely accepted in cities, but not in some small shops and rural areas. Incidences of credit card fraud have been reported, so watch retailers and your card activity closely. Be aware you may be charged a fee to use your credit card abroad. You should let your issuing company know what countries you are travelling to, as credit card fraud departments can sometimes freeze cards used in foreign countries.

What will the seasonal weather be like?

Phuket enjoys a tropical climate and temperatures rarely fall below 21 C, the average is in the high 20s. The island is affected by the northeast monsoon season from November to April, which brings sunny weather, cool breezes and low humidity. Between the months of May and October, the southwest monsoon brings heavy rain and high humidity, but there is still plenty of sunshine.

Getting Around

Although it is an island, Phuket is a big place and you will need wheels of some kind to get about. There are plenty of tuk-tuks around, although Phuket no longer has the three-wheeled variety, these days they are small, red vans with open sides. Fares can be surprisingly steep, so bargain with the driver before you get in.

One of the least expensive and quickest ways to get about is on the back of a motorcycle taxi. Look out for groups of men hanging around street corners wearing coloured vests and be prepared to ride pillion through throngs of traffic and clouds of fumes in the busiest areas. It’s a good idea to ask for a helmet as Phuket is notorious for its road accidents.

A daytime bus service runs to most parts of the island. Buses are considered by many to be the safest method of transport. Fares are inexpensive and the service quite frequent.

Taking a boat is the only way of getting to the many beautiful islands that surround Phuket and ferries operate regular services to popular islands like Ko Phi Phi and Krabi. To get to places that don’t have a ferry service, you’ll need to take one of the old-fashioned long tail boats. These wooden vessels have been plying the waters here for centuries, although they now have the addition of a motor on the back.

Renting a car or motorcycle is possible in Phuket, but be aware that helmets are required by law if you ride a motorcycle. Make sure you have full insurance coverage. Free maps are available from the Tourism Authority of Thailand office. If you hire a car, it might be a good idea to have a handheld GPS system featuring turn-by-turn voice directions. GPS systems also feature points of interest that are nearby, and many other features that will provide a level of confidence while navigating in a foreign country.

What not to miss

World Heritage Site(s)

Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. There are currently five World Heritage Sites in the Thailand.

For many visitors Ko Phi Phi is what paradise is all about; golden beaches, azure waters, waving palm trees; it’s all here despite the fact Phi Phi was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Phi Phi consists of two islands; Phi Phi Don and Phi Phi Lei. Phi Phi Don is the larger island and where the hotels are located.

There are no cars on the island and the only way to get to town from many hotels is via boat. If the tide isn’t right, you have to stay where you are, but with a private beach, good food and enchanting sunsets, that’s not really a problem. Nearby Phi Phi Lei is much smaller and undeveloped. It’s deserted island image is so close to the truth it was used as the setting for the Hollywood film The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Long boats will take you there, past a beach where wild monkeys lie in the sun and spring up as you approach. Some of the best snorkelling in the country is around Phi Phi Lei.

A popular day trip from Phuket is to Ko Tapu and Ko Phing Kan, also known as James Bond Island. Several scenes from The Man With The Golden Gun starring Roger Moore were filmed in the area and fans flock here to see first-hand the stunning scenery and unusual limestone cliffs. A day trip usually includes a visit to a Muslim floating village, or you can take a sunset trip in an old-fashioned junk similar to the one in the film.

Phuket Town is seen as little more than a place to pick up public transport by many tourists, but it has lots more to offer. In particular, there is an interesting collection of colonial-style shophouses that were built in the late 19th century. Decorative stonework and intricate detailing on wooden doors and shutters make these old buildings stand out from the (less attractive) newer structures, and offer a glimpse back to when the town was a centre for traders from all over the world.

Eight kilometres from Phuket Town lies Wat Chalong. It is the largest and most beautifully decorated of the temples on the island, and is a pleasant diversion from the beach and bar culture found elsewhere.

The Thalang National Museum stands as a monument to two heroic sisters who prevented the Burmese Army from invading and taking over the area in the 1790s. Their rallying cries galvanized locals to take action against the encroaching forces and they were both honoured by royalty for their actions. The museum catalogues the history, archaeology and culture of the Phuket province and surrounding area.

The work of two brothers, who have scoured the world for the most amazing and unusual shells around, are displayed at the Phuket Sea Shell Museum. The collection includes giant clams, huge fossils dating back millions of years and one of the world’s rarest golden pearls.

For the kids

Phuket FantaSea is a hugely entertaining place that’s hard to classify. Described as a ‘unique cultural theme complex’, highlights include a performance of acrobatics, trapeze acts, traditional dance and mind-boggling light displays that will wow the entire family. The show might start a bit late for small children, but you’re on holiday, right?

Elephant trekking is a novel experience kids will love and allows you to visit parts of the island’s interior that most visitors never see. Some companies are more conservation-conscious than others, so shop around and ask for recommendations.

About Shopping

Serious shoppers head straight to the Central Festival Shopping Plaza. You’ll find big brand names from around the world in this glitzy shopping and entertainment complex, where bright lights and polished floors could make you wonder whether you’re really on a tropical island.

Elsewhere, shopping is largely limited to the usual stores selling tourist paraphernalia at each beach location, and the market and a few shops in Phuket Town. Some upmarket hotels have boutiques.

Phuket after dark

Patong | Photo credit: Christopher Anderton

Whether you love it or loathe it, Patong is where the party’s at. Visitors used to be drawn here by the beautiful beach, but now the nightlife has taken over as its raison d’etre. From romantic restaurants and beachside bars to neon-lit clubs and go-go girl joints, Patong is one long strip of tourist development. Not the prettiest thing to observe by day, or even at night,  it nevertheless offers plenty of distractions to while away your evenings.

If the bright lights of Patong are all too much, try nearby Kata and Karon, two beaches separated by a small headland. Kata is the smallest and liveliest, with plenty of dining and drinking options, while Karon has managed to avoid some elements of over-development and concentrates more on a dining experience.

Sports & Outdoor Adventure

The waters surrounding Phuket are a diver’s undersea ‘heaven’ and there are dive shops everywhere around the island. Some are more professional than others, so ask around for recommendations. There are too many dive sites to list, but arguably the Ko Similan National Park offers the most stunning undersea ‘views’. Excellent visibility and just as much beauty on dry land as under the water is why divers rave about this place again and again.

Phuket rates among the top 10 scuba diving destinations in the world. Spectacular reefs, unusual underwater rock formations, and a large variety of marine life provide opportunities for divers at all levels. Some of the larger marine life sightings have included reef and whale sharks, tuna, barracuda, manta rays and turtles near the most outlying islands.

To see a different side of Phuket, you can head to Khao Phra Thaeo National Park. As the sole remaining place where you can see a significant area of virgin rainforest, it’s well worth a visit, especially if you need to stretch your legs after all that lazing around in the sun. There are a couple of waterfalls and a strenuous 8 km trail if you really feel like a workout.

Local Customs and Etiquette

Thailand is frequently dubbed the ‘Land of Smiles’. Thais are famously welcoming and hospitable to visitors. However, anyone who doesn’t show sufficient respect for the King will see the smiles quickly disappear. Thais have a deep, traditional reverence for the Royal Family, and criticism of anyone in the Royal Family is a crime. You can be sentenced to prison for defacing images of the King – including those on bank notes.

Religion is also important to many Thais and visitors should dress appropriately when visiting religious shrines. You will not be allowed in wearing shorts or skirts above the knee. Always remove your shoes before entering a chapel where a Buddha is kept. And the same if you enter someone’s home.

All Buddha images are regarded as sacred objects, so never do anything that might indicate a lack of respect. Buddhist monks are forbidden to touch or be touched by a woman – on public transport the back seat is usually reserved for monks. 
The usual greeting when Thai people meet is a wai – when they press their palms together in a prayer-like gesture. If someone wais you, it is polite to wai back. Shaking hands is not the norm.
It is vital to remember the importance of ‘Face’ in Thailand. Face relates to prestige, and losing Face is a no-no in Thai culture. This affects visitors by causing locals to become unresponsive and unhelpful if you make a fuss about something. Even if someone has blatantly done ‘something’, the proper way to deal with it is in a firm, friendly manner. If you get angry you will ‘lose face’. Smiling goes a long way, especially when language is a barrier, and your success in dealing with Thais will hinge on the amount of respect you show.

Another useful thing to know about Thai culture is the importance placed on the head. Symbolically a person’s head is their highest point so never touch or pat it, and always remove your hat when speaking to someone older than you. Similarly, feet are seen as lowly. Never point the bottom of your feet at anyone as it’s considered rude, and never, ever point your feet towards a sacred Buddhist figure or shrine, whether in someone’s home or in a temple.

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