Sitting in the Andaman Sea just off the southwest coast of Thailand, Phuket is this nation’s largest island and its largest tourist draw for international visitors by far. While this island bore the brunt of the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand, causing 7,000 deaths and catastrophic damage, there are few visible remainders of that dark time (save a memorial at Kampala Beach).
The majority of developments lie along the west coast, as it holds some of this countries’ most stunning beaches. While many of them may be marred by the presence of mass tourism, depending on your point of view, they are all worth a visit, and some of them in the north and south parts of the west coast still remain blessedly empty.
Additionally, Phuket Town, situated within the calm interior of this typically hectic isle, holds a number of cultural attractions related to the Chinese Buddhist and Islamic residents of this corner of Southern Thailand. It is also considerably cheaper to stay and eat here compared to the resort beaches on the coast – so make your base here, start exploring around town, and then commute out to the beaches when you need them … it’s time to explore Phuket!
Beginning in the centre of Phuket Town, where the beach is nowhere to be seen, you may think that the only thing to do is to hitch a ride to Patong, end of story. Wrong. There are a number of aspects that are quite fascinating about this typically “boring” provincial Thai town, which is precisely the thing that makes it charming.
Begin by digging into the daily lives of the residents of this far southern Thai community by seeing the principal temple of the followers of Chinese Taoism, Jui Tui Shrine. This shrine is at the centre of celebration during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, which is held over nine days every October, so be sure to brave the dying days of the wet season and enjoy the very best food that don’t involve an ounce of animal flesh in their preparation!
Another significant Taoist temple worth seeing in Phuket Town is Put Jaw Temple. The oldest Chinese temple on the island, this visually stunning temple is best known for treating the sick with its many herbal medicine remedies, and its penchant for naming newborn babies in a fashion that ensures luck and prosperity throughout their lifetime.
Walking the streets of Phuket Town can be an attraction in itself, as many of the shophouses have been built in the Sino-Portugeuese architectural style. There are a number of places you should hit on a self-guided walking tour, including the On On Hotel, which stood-in for a crumbling budget guesthouse where Leo DeCaprio stayed on Khao San Road in the famous traveler movie “The Beach”. Next, cruise by the Thai Hua Museum, likely the most dazzling building in the entire city. A former schoolhouse, this museum showcases artifacts from Phuket’s tin mining years, as well as the island’s long and strong connections to China.
Hitting The Beach
So you’ve dropped buckets of sweat temple tramping and architecture crawling through Phuket Town – time to get to the beach to cool down and have some fun! Before you get the party going though, take a moment and pay the Phuket Tsunami Memorial a visit in Kamala Beach, located north of Patong Beach. Situated by the Print Kamala resort, the sculpture that comprises the memorial was constructed by a Japanese artist, who strung together metal wires in the form of a wave. Every December 26, locals, tourists, and families of affected foreigners turn out here to lay wreaths and say prayers to their dearly departed loved ones.
After the heavy, serious ruminations of the previous site is complete, head over to the beach and partake of many of the fun activities that you can undertake here. While there are many SCUBA outfits here in Phuket, this area is home to trainers in the hardcore art of freediving. This sport practices the sport of descending to deep depths like their tank-wearing compatriots – only they do it without a breathing apparatus. If you have diving experience, and you’re looking for a new challenge, this may just be up your alley.
If doddering along over shallow reefs with a mask, fins, and a snorkel is more your speed, there are some outstanding snorkelling grounds just offshore of the island, on both the west and east coasts. Trips out to Ko Hae, Ko Racha Yai, and Ko Khai come highly recommended, where vibrant corals and abundant clownfish await your arrival.
Those more than content to soak up the sun on the beach have a wealth of sandy strips to choose from. However, they are not all created equal, as each one has a different character which will appeal differently to different people.
Patong is by far the busiest beach, and the most touristy. Every convenience you could ever need or want in available to you here, but it also comes with relentless touts that don’t take no for an answer, crushing crowds, and occasional dangerous encounters with jetskis.
Kamala Beach, where the Tsunami memorial is located, is quieter, but still holds on to many tourist conveniences, making it a fine alternative to Patong. The northern end, due to the presence of a Muslim cemetery, is blessedly undeveloped.
For those looking to get away from it all on Thailand’s busiest tourist island, Mai Khao Beach should be on your radar screen. 11 km long, and virtually empty even during the high season, this behemoth of rough yellow sand is a world away from the overdone development further south. During the west season, this beach is safer for swimming than in other places in Phuket, though everyone should still stay out of the water during monsoonal flows. Closures may be in affect during sea turtle egg laying and hatching, which is also another great reason to check out this beach that is well off the beaten track.