Pearl of the Andaman Sea: 10 Phuket Highlights / by Thomas O'Malley

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This piece was originally written for the good folks at Interval World magazine. 

Sand, Sea and Sun

It’s no secret - Phuket has some of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand. Anything goes in Patong, Phuket’s party capital that juts up against a fabulous crescent of white sand. The beach here is packed with sizzling sunbathers, and you’re never more than a few feet from a tropical cocktail (or a souvenir seller). For something more pristine, in-the-know travellers seek out compact and quiet Kata Noi beach, with its turquoise waters and coral sand. For beach life with a side serving of glamour, Nai Harn beach in Rawai is where the beautiful people strut their stuff. The Nai Harn, an exclusive resort hotel, overlooks the postcard-perfect bay - treat yourself to a sundowner drink at one of its trio of bars.

Explore Phuket Old Town

Before tourism, it was tin that lured foreign visitors and their money to Phuket. Traders from China, the Middle East and Europe transformed the island capital into a melting pot of cultures, and today Phuket Town still retains its old colonial soul. A stroll through the Old Town reveals pockets of fine Sino-Portuguese architecture, much of it rapidly gentrifying into hip cafes and galleries. History buffs won’t want to miss the well-preserved Chyn Pracha House, a century-old mansion turned museum built by former tin barons when the island was a centre of the trade, or the Standard Chartered Bank building, Thailand’s oldest foreign bank.

See the Sunset at Laem Phromthep

It’s said you haven’t been to Phuket unless you’ve watched the sun dip into the Andaman Sea from the island’s southern tip. Yes, Laem Phromthep is a tourist cliché, but a gorgeous one. If the clouds roll in and spoil the show, a shrine by the car park has a quirky collection of elephant sculptures on display, and there are plenty of souvenir sellers and snack stalls to browse. To bypass the crowds, you can hike a slippery path to the rocky limit of the cape, where you’ll have the vistas all to yourself.

Go Island Hopping

At 222 square miles in size, Phuket isn’t exactly petite, and its close proximity to the mainland makes it one of the few Thai islands without the prefix ‘ko’. If you’re craving somewhere smaller and more secluded, the good news is Phuket is one of the best embarkation points to reach some of Thailand’s most paradisiac ko. Ko Pi Pi (from movie The Beach fame) takes 2-3 hours by ferry to traverse the 53km of ocean (or faster if using a speedboat service), and makes for a delightful day trip. A similar distance away, Ko Khao Phing Kan, also known as ‘James Bond Island’ for its role in 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun, is famous for its striking limestone tower karsts. Kayak tours let you get up close and personal with these 20m high natural towers, standing like sentries in the azure water. 

Buddy Up With Buddha

For those in search of spiritual enlightenment, or just a break from the beach, there are around thirty Buddhist temples, known as wat, scattered across Phuket. One of the oldest is Wat Phra Thong, whose main attraction is a strange, half-buried Buddha statue poking up from a temple hall. Not too far away is Wat Srisoonthorn, immediately recognisable due to its 29-metre high sleeping Buddha kicking back in all his golden glory atop the wat’s main hall. But if size really is everything, there’s only one contender on Phuket –Big Buddha, the island’s most important spiritual landmark, built in 2007 at enormous cost. Gazing out serenely from the Nakkerd Hills, the 45-metre tall statue is a must-see (and to be fair, you can see it from miles around). A stairway lined with bells and prayer flags leads up to the base of the statue, rewarding visitors with some of the island’s most expansive views.

Gender-Bending Family Fun in Patong

Despite what you might think, the Simon Star Cabaret, sometimes known as Patong’s ‘lady boy show’, really is pantomime fun for all the family. Admittedly cabaret isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the exuberant costumes, ambitious dance ensembles and Vegas-inspired razzle-dazzle make for an impressive spectacle, and best of all the show is funny throughout. A hit with the mushrooming numbers of Chinese tourists, the show has opened up new branches across the island. After the show guests are invited to take their photographs with the performers in all their finery, but expect to pay extra for the privilege.

Master the Thai Culinary Arts

Phuket cuisine is a delicious marriage of Thai cooking with Chinese and Malay influences, thanks to the island’s longstanding role as a trading centre in Asia. To really get to grips with the local food, like creating curry pastes from scratch or practising everyone’s favourite streetfood standby the pad Thai, make a visit to one of the many cooking schools on the island. Most offer take half-day or day classes, but longer courses are available for budding master chefs. The Kata School earns plaudits for the quality of its teachers and the addition of a local market tour helping you get to grips with the dazzling array of ingredients on offer.

Tour Phuket’s Artisanal Rum Distillery

The Chalong Bay Rum Distillery was started by a French couple living on Phuket, and their boozy creations are now making waves on the global craft liquor scene. The best thing about the 30-minute distillery tour is the delicious mojito cocktail at the end – made with their impressive cane sugar rum, naturally. There’s also the chance to take part in a cocktail workshop in the bar and learn a few recipes and techniques.

Graze at Phuket’s Premier Night Market

A great place to snack and shop, this popular market, known as Naka by the locals, is a little way outside Phuket Town. You can munch on a wide range of local bites (try the khao niao mamuang - mango with sticky rice) as well as more esoteric global snacks like Japanese sushi shaped like Angry Birds characters. There’s also plenty of cheap and cheerful shopping on offer too, from mobile phone cases to handbags and jewelry. But be prepared to bargain hard!

Bar Crawl along Bangla Road

At night, Bangla Road, running inland from Patong Beach, is closed to cars and open for grown-up fun until the early hours. Nowhere does nightlife quite like Thailand – neon bars with cheap beer and loud music, packed nightclubs, questionable ‘shows’ - but even the more salubrious streets are imbued with the trademark friendly Thai vibe, so you always feel safe. Take your pick from any number of busy bars and clubs along this strip, or just find a table, order a drink and watch the weird and wonderful world go by.