Having shaken off its reputation as backpacker central, Thailand’s largest island is now an altogether more luxe, upscale affair. The obvious draw, however, remains the same. Life here revolves around the coastline and its stunning beaches, which are scattered with stylish resorts and excellent diving spots.
Songthaews (converted pick-up trucks that function as buses serve the island, running between Phuket Town and the various beach resorts. Tuk-tuks and taxis can be hired in Phuket Town and most resort areas. If you’d rather steer yourself, you may want to rent a motorbike; just make sure you have insurance and a licence.
The biggest and busiest beach area on the island is Patong on the west coast. This is where holidaymakers go to get their fill of sun and post-dark fun in the nearby bars. It’s almost a rite of passage for travellers to take a boat or kayaking excursion to Ao Phang-Nga Marine National Park. Here, giant karst spires spike out of the water, their jagged tips reaching up into the clear skies above. The turquoise waters below conceal caves that reveal themselves at low tide.
For more laid-back beach scenes, try Kata or Karon further south. Up in the north, the crowds dissipate at the blissfully empty Sirinat National Park, home to the 11km-long protected stretch of Mai Khao Beach. Also on the north coast is the Khao Phra Thaeo rainforest reserve where animals including monkeys, pythons and wild boar still roam.
If Patong is the beach and nightlife capital, Phuket Town is the island’s cultural centre. Its clutch of colonial buildings, with their attractive window shutters and sun-bleached paint, are pretty to look at, but the real cultural ‘meat’ comes courtesy of its cool contemporary galleries, designed-focused cafés and trendy boutiques.
Watching over the island’s sun-seekers is the 45m-tall alabaster Big Buddha, which sits high atop the hills southwest of Phuket Town. The Big Buddha – and all who hike up to him – enjoys glorious views down over the shimmering sea.
Despite being one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, quiet spots still abound for those who seek them. While the rest of the crowds ascend to the Big Buddha, those searching for a less-frequented trekking path should climb up Khao Rang Hill. The views from the top of the hill are even better come evening when the lights of Phuket Town start to sparkle below.
Up in the northeastern reaches of the island is the often-overlooked Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre, which takes care of orphaned and formerly captive gibbons, helping to rehabilitate them before they are released back into the wild.
Eating well is an obsession throughout Thailand and Phuket is no different. Motorbike food carts roam the streets of the island while the resort areas harbour plenty of oceanfront restaurants where fresh fish dishes come with a side serving of spectacular sea views. Eat like the locals and try khanom jeen (thin rice noodles topped with curry) for breakfast.
Chinese-influenced dishes, including khao mun gai (a Thai take on Hainanese chicken rice), are also prevalent. For street eating, visit Patong Food Park, where you’ll find bargain noodle stalls and tasty straight-from-the-grill seafood.