You might know it as Thailand’s largest island, or as a southern Thai province. You might know it as a rainforested, mountainous region, or as a beachgoer’s delight. If you’ve been there, you might know it as paradise.
In November of 2016, three friends and I spent five days in Phuket. Pro tip: Five days were not enough.
After four days and nights in bustling Bangkok, we were ready for a change of scenery. Bangkok, while an amazing city in its own right, obviously didn’t provide much of the natural beauty we knew Thailand was famous for. So, we hopped on a plane for the short 90-minute flight to Phuket’s only airport.
Upon arrival, we took a bus to our hotel in Kamala Bay, ready for some fun in the sun. Unfortunately, it was pouring rain. This monsoon quickly passed, though, as we learned that the weather in Phuket changes more often than Donald Trump’s position on any given issue.
What followed was merely the vacation of a lifetime. So, without further ado, here are my five must-do activities and attractions in Phuket.
Since we were staying at a hotel on Phuket’s west coast, right on the beach in Kamala Bay, we didn’t have to go far or wait long to take in some astounding sunsets, starting with a jaw-dropper from our infinity pool the very first night. However, since we had a rental car at our disposal, we decided to incorporate some variety into our nightly sunset chase.
Quite a few restaurants offer amazing sunset views. Of these, I would recommend Wassa Homemade Bar, Diavolo, and Joe’s Downstairs, all of which feature great menus, upscale atmospheres and stunning sunset views. We didn’t have a chance to check out Baba Nest, but from everything we heard, it deserves its place in most lists of the world’s most beautiful rooftop bars.
Looking to take in the end of the day on a beach rather than at a restaurant? You really can’t go wrong with most of the beaches on Phuket’s west coast. Of these, I would recommend Kata, Bang Tao, and the beach in our own backyard, Kamala.
Wherever you choose to take in your first Phuket sunset, have your smartphone or camera ready. Phuket will not disappoint.
Phuket, while mountainous, isn’t home to as many world-class hiking trails as are other parts of Thailand. Still, we found enough natural beauty to satisfy all but the most dispassionate soul. Our two favorite trails were both suitable for novice hikers, yet provided a significant amount of bang for your buck (or bang for your baht, should I say).
First, we hiked the short trail to Phuket’s tallest waterfall, Bang Pae. While small by Oregon standards, this 10-meter-tall cascade features mossy cliffs and a nifty scramble to its base. We also stopped by a Gibbon Rehabilitation Center along the way, spoke with a volunteer, and learned the stories of several of the center’s more gregarious gibbons. Once reaching the waterfall at the end of the 500-meter trail, we thought about jumping in, but quickly realized the water itself was quite warm and wouldn’t provide us much relief from the drenching humidity. We stood and took in the beauty that surrounded us, from the thick rainforest to the mossy rocks, from rocky pools below to the waterfall in front of us. We scrambled down a rocky cliff and along a ledge to the base of the falls itself, snapped a few photos, and headed back.
Second, we headed for Phuket’s southernmost point, Phromthep Cape. While a renowned sunset-watching spot, we arrived at the Cape in the middle of the day. We parked and paid to use a toilet that featured cesspools of brackish water on the ground. Ignoring the diseases we’d probably just contracted, we headed to the top of a hill, past a large display of golden elephants, to a lookout, probably 300 meters above the ocean, featuring one of the most astonishing views of tropical paradise I’d ever seen. Miles of turquoise ocean stretched out in front of us, punctuated by lush, mountainous islands.
A trail stretched before us, leading down to the water itself. We headed partway down this trail, but after taking into account the midday sun, stifling humidity, and our lack of water, declined to go all the way to the ocean, deciding instead to turn around and find some air conditioning and a cold beverage. Heatstroke was not a part of our agenda for the day. However far you get on this trail, you’ll be rewarded with ever-changing, astonishing vistas.
BANGLA WALKING STREET.
Patong, Phuket’s entertainment capital, features a street that makes the Vegas Strip and Bourbon Street seem like they’re for toddlers. It’s called Bangla Walking Street. Want a ladyboy show? A Ping-Pong show (Google it)? A massage with a happy ending? Public nudity? You’re at the right place. Want to avoid the seedy underbelly of Phuket, yet have a good time? Bangla is replete with karaoke bars, insanely cheap drink deals, Connect Four hustlers (really), and so much more.
We ended up here four nights in a row. Since Thailand’s beloved king had recently died, Bangla shut down early every night to pay homage and respect. By early, I mean 3:30 AM instead of 5. Needless to say, numerous shenanigans took place each night before closing time.
RENTING A CAR.
Since we wanted to see the entire island, we decided that renting a car for a couple days made the most sense, rather than trusting our lives to thoroughly intoxicated tuk-tuk (three-wheeled pedicab) drivers. So, after some haggling and miscommunication at the local travel agency, a third party drove down with our new ride.
I’d driven on the left side of the road before. I’d never sat on the right side of the car before. With a little mental focus, I managed to stay on the correct side of the road, but may or may not have turned on my wipers while trying to use my turn signal at least 50 percent of the time.
With the exception of getting pulled over by phony cops and extorted for money, our overall experience with renting a car made it something I’d definitely recommend in Phuket. We drove the entire perimeter of the island, stopping at fantastic beaches, temples, and marketplaces along the way. Only once, at a roundabout in Old Phuket City, did the absolute mayhem that is Thailand traffic actually stress me out a bit.
PHI PHI ISLANDS.
Phuket is ringed with scores of stunningly beautiful tropical islands. Of these, the Phi Phi Islands are arguably the most picturesque. Pronounced “Pee-Pee” (really), this group of two major and six smaller islands are technically part of Thailand’s Krabi Province, but are easily accessible via a 60-minute boat ride from Phuket.
Numerous guided tours and ferries are available daily, but we opted to charter a private boat, allowing us to explore at our own pace away from the teeming tourist masses.
Simply put, the Phi Phi Islands are extraordinarily beautiful. Green, forested limestone cliffs jutting out of an aquamarine sea. Monkeys that drink Red Bull. White sand beaches. Secluded, cliff-ringed coves.
We came. We saw. We swam.
We snorkeled amongst hundreds of brightly colored tropical fish of all shapes and sizes, so close you could reach out and pet one, or smuggle it home.
After eating lunch on the beach, we swam out between longtail boats at Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Leh, the beach featured in the aptly named movie The Beach. We marveled at inhabited cave structures clinging to cliffsides.
Time flew by and darkness beckoned, so we hopped back in our private boat for the choppy ride home. We all agreed that next time we were in Phuket, we’d spend a night or two at one of Phi Phi’s several resorts, because the magic of these islands had gripped our souls.
Got only five days in Phuket? That’s one activity a day. You got this.
Of course, there are countless other Phuket attractions worth checking out, as well. From iconic temples to giant Buddhas, from cultural theme parks to old-world markets, from scuba diving to James Bond Island, there’s something for just about everybody.
In short, Phuket is not a destination that you want to take a power tourism approach with. It’s a rich, diverse, beautiful, fun island that is worth taking the time to explore in depth.
Ready, set, Phuket.