My first international trip after the pandemic was – of all places – to Phuket. Phuket is, of course, an extremely popular tourist destination in the region. And yet, I had never before in my life felt inspired to go there. I guess, precisely because it was so popular, I figured it’s probably definitely overtouristed.

But I had not done any scuba diving for a long while due to the pandemic. And my first post-pandemic attempt to dive in Tanjong Jara did not succeed because the boat was out for repairs. So I was determined to try again.

Coincidentally, Jason had a layover in Phuket on his return journey from Eastern Europe. And I figured, I could dive in Phuket just as well as anywhere. I might as well meet him there, kill two birds with one stone. And of course I called Weerachai, who encouraged the idea and told me his daughter knew all about Phuket scuba diving, having been stranded there at the start of the pandemic. In fact, she would be willing to meet me there and dive some more – on his tab, of course!

So that’s how I found myself in Phuket soon after international borders re-opened, with Amy, her aunt and uncle, and Jason. (Weerachai, unfortunately, is now a boring manager and can’t just go on holiday anymore. Which he concealed from me – in true Thai diplomatic fashion – until it was too late for me to do anything about it!)

Phuket has a lot of beaches – what’s the difference?

I confess to never really thinking of Phuket as a serious travel destination, up until then. So it was only when I began my research on where to stay that it dawned on me that Phuket is not a small island. Aside from the (in)famous Patong beach, it has many, many other tourist beaches. The main beaches are along the island’s west cost, but even if you excluded the northern beaches where the posh hotels are, there are still a lot of beaches to choose from.

Stumped, I consulted Weerachai. He told me that they prefer Kata beach, towards the south of the island. It was not as touristy as Patong beach – or at least, the tourism was more beach-oriented rather than nightlife-oriented. And it was more lively than Karon beach, which is more ‘middle-class’. Amy wanted to return to Kata as well, so in the end I just went with the resort that her aunt Tik eventually chose.

Orange sunset at Patong beach, Phuket
Patong beach

Choosing Kata Beach

Kata beach is also Phuket’s surf beach. So if you plan on doing any surfing, this is where you should be. There are surf boards for rental, and surf schools along the beach. If you’re not into surfing, you can also rent body boards. It’s a lot more chill than Patong, but has a slightly hippy vibe. The kind of beach where you might find international country flags flying, but also the Maori, Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags.

There are no hotels that go right onto the beach. But there is no shortage of very nice, affordable hotels with just a short walk to the beach.

This beach is also right across the island from Chalong Pier on the eastern coast. This is where all the dive boats depart to the dive sites. So that was another reason why I was ok with choosing Kata beach for my first Phuket trip.

Kata beach in Phuket, Thailand
Kata beach

You don’t have to stay on a beach!

Although most people associate Phuket with Patong nightlife and beaches, the island actually has far more types of resorts than just the beach ones. This includes even swank, 5-star hotels. So it is perfectly possible for you to go on a hillside retreat, or a forest lodge. I was surprised by how many non-beachy hotels and resorts we passed by while going from one place to another in Phuket, which often required crossing the hilly terrain of the middle part of the island.

For a more comprehensive guide for choosing where to stay in Phuket, see this article at The Travel Runner.

How not to get to your hotel from the airport

As with many heavily touristed destinations in Southeast Asia, arriving at the airport can be pretty disorienting. Once you walk out of the airport terminal, you’re overwhelmed by transport options. I arrived alone, and figured that getting a taxi just for myself seemed wasteful. So I opted for an airport “limousine van” service right outside, which seemed like it was the official airport transfer service.

However, it was not. It was a transport service, basically a shared van taxi. But instead of just taking the passengers to our respective hotels, they made a stop first, at a tour office. There, we had to undergo tour upselling. The transfer only continued afterwards. Needless to say, I was not in the mood, and didn’t take any tours from them.

How to take the Phuket Smart Bus instead

However, there is an affordable airport transfer option around the island, at least if you’re staying on one of the west coast beaches.. This is the Phuket Smart Bus. In order to take this bus from the airport, you have to walk out to the domestic terminal Exit 3.

Taking the bus does take longer than getting a personal taxi. The bus takes nearly 2 hours from Kata to the airport. However, if you have the time, at 100 baht per trip it’s very budget-friendly. For comparison, it took about that long anyway with the shared transfer van that stopped at the tour office, and it cost twice the amount!

Tourism in Phuket

Phuket is very full of tourism. Even as a Southeast Asian and a neighbour of Thailand who knows that, actually arriving and seeing how ‘everywhere’ the tourism is, I was still taken aback. When I arrived, I immediately understood why Thailand always tried to create some kind of tourism bubble for Phuket even while the Covid19 pandemic still warranted travel restrictions around the world. The island was just so incredibly dependent on tourism.

The tourism doesn’t just cater for one type of traveller either. You might assume – since Phuket is an island in the south of Thailand, and with Bangla Road’s red light district reputation – that Phuket is for backpackers and seedy tourism. But actually, this side of Phuket is really just that one street in Patong, and maybe a few others. Yes, it has wildlife tourism (some of which could be questionable) and weed shops. But Phuket also has 5-star resorts, marinas, golf courses, water parks, adventure tourism, wellness retreats, monasteries and temples, surfing and fishing charters.

Somehow, they’ve managed to fit in pretty much all the tourism segments on a single island, along with all classes of accommodation options to match. I’m not sure if any other country would think this is a good idea. But Phuket has done it.

Tip: Thailand legalised cannabis a few months before I went to Phuket. Yet somehow, there was already a roaring business in all kinds of cannabis products by then. My masseuse told me that there was so much weed indulgence during a recent festival that some people were hospitalised. Since then, the Thai government is considering reinstating regulation on cannabis. If you’re from countries with severe penalties against drugs, make sure you take precautions to comply with your national laws.

Phuket is not cheap, but still great value

Thailand is known for very affordable, mass tourism. However, Phuket specifically is not as cheap as might be expected. It isn’t expensive, mind you. But it’s not the cheapest place in Thailand. In addition, it’s the kind of place where you probably want to take a tour around rather than just stay at your hotel for the whole trip. So you should probably budget for transport and tours. That said, if you’re specifically looking for a tourist destination with a lot of variety, then Phuket is great value.

In terms of payment methods, there are plenty of places that accept credit cards. But I ended up using cash more often than not, because we generally went for street food, and also because of ad hoc transport.

Street view in Kata, Phuket; looking across the road to the entrance gate of Beyond Resort Kata.
Phuket is a high density, urbanised island

Tour packages are everywhere

I guess a plus point for going to a place so heavily geared for tourism, is that tour packages are easy to come by. You will be spoiled for choice. There are brochures all over the place, including in the taxis. The tours also tend to have sub-options, catering for the amount of time the tourist might have to spare.

If you’re the type who can’t be bothered to plan, then this could be very appealing. If you are a planner, or conversely, easily overwhelmed by an over-abundance of choice, the level of options you face could cause analysis paralysis. As for me, I specifically focused on the scuba diving, and then just went with whatever others felt like doing.

Do prior research for wildlife tourism

One of the more obvious tour offerings relate to wildlife tourism. Most of them are related to elephants, but there is also a tiger park. These attractions are often also part of the most common multi-attraction tours. When you’re there, it feels normalised, and it’s easy to end up at these attractions without knowing beforehand if they’re ethical.

Personally, I wouldn’t have gone to any of them. But Jason really wanted to see elephants, so we took the brochures back and looked the places up on the internet rather than making our choice on the spot. I knew that Thailand – like much of continental Southeast Asia – had a strong cultural role for elephants, and is among the last to phase them out. So, while Malaysia for an example, no longer has a ‘retired’ elephant population, Thailand still does.

We picked an elephant sanctuary that seemed not to depend on tourism for its mission, which is specifically the rescue and phasing out of working elephants, and specifically discloses what money is spent on.

Taking a photo with a rescue elephant at a sanctuary in Phuket
Retired working elephant

Highlights of Phuket (that are not Patong)

We did go to Patong one night, to see Bangla Street. Tik and her American husband David are seasoned visitors, remarking that they were glad things were open again, albeit the crowds were not as lively as before the pandemic.

To be fair, it’s probably a thing to do, if you’re visiting Phuket for the first time. Bangla Street is actually pretty chill, considering the ‘activities’ that you could also do there, with lots of nightclubs and live music at bars like any other downtown nightlife scene. Tourists were wandering around like it was any other street – even with kids.

The adjacent streets are pretty normal, so I guess if you didn’t know beforehand, you’d turn into this street, be immediately assaulted by deafening music, dazzled by the neon lights and dazed by the occasional brochures thrust in your face to attend ping pong shows, before getting to the end of the street where all is suddenly normal again. However, if you’re hypersensitive to stimulation or a strong introvert, it could be a very draining experience.

That said, Phuket is not just Patong, and certainly not just Bangla Street. There are a lot of other things to do in Phuket, and here are the things that Weerachai recommended.

1. See the Big Buddha

The Big Buddha is a massive marble-faced Buddha statue on a hill between Kata and Chalong. The Buddha looks out towards Chalong, down a set of steps flanked by naga.

There isn’t much to do aside from the scenery, but it is a major landmark. There is no entry fee. Note that the site is a religious site, and a minimum standard of attire is expected.

Close-up of the Phuket Big Buddha looming over the hill.
Big Buddha of Phuket

2. Wat Chalong

Wat Chalong is a 19th century temple that people normally visit after the Big Buddha. It is the largest Buddhist temple on Phuket. However, Jason and I particularly wanted to spend time in Phuket Old Town instead, so we skipped this on our day tour.

Photo by Guille Sánchez on Unsplash

3. Watch a kickboxing match (muay thai)

This activity wasn’t part of my friend’s recommendations. However, after seeing the hype car going around a few times, I talked Jason into getting tickets (because I wanted to see it, but I didn’t want to go see kickboxing by myself). It was definitely an experience, though kickboxing is pretty violent if you’re squeamish about that. The earlier matches are fought between teen kickboxers, which could be difficult for some people to watch. As the matches escalate to more and more experienced fighters, the skill level increases quite obviously. All in all, I was glad I got to see it at least once.

Patong Boxing ring. The seats are mostly still empty, waiting for the event start time.
Kickboxing ring

4. Get a Thai massage

Of course, Phuket has a lot of massage places, and they’re pretty cheap. They’re also usually good, so this activity goes without saying and does not require recommendation. I went to get a massage just across the road from my hotel, and got an older lady masseuse who shared island gossip during the massage.

5. Eat Thai street food

Thai cuisine is among the most popular in the world. So you’d be missing out if you don’t go out to some of the restaurants and try some street food.

For Muslim visitors, it’s not difficult to find stalls with halal food. Phuket’s native population are Muslim Malays, and though the island is now part of Thailand in the present day, there are still native people living there. Not to mention, Thailand receives a lot of tourists from Malaysia, so it just makes business sense.

Lobsters in thanks with more seafood on ice at a streetside restaurant in Phuket.
Really, really fresh seafood

6. Watch the sunset at Cape Phrom Thep

Cape Phrom Thep is a popular sunset viewpoint at the south tip of the island. We planned to end our day with a swim at the nearby Yanui beach before heading to the cape for the sunset. Unfortunately, we were running late from Phuket Old Town, and the sky was overcast anyway. But it’s supposed to be a pretty good place for sunset views.

7. Go to Monkey Hill viewpoint

Monkey Hill was also recommended. This is a viewpoint on the east side of the island, on the town side. As suggested by its name, it is not only a viewpoint over the city, but also has a lot of monkeys. We opted not to go to this viewpoint as it didn’t fit our custom itinerary.

See a different side of Phuket

As regular readers of the blog would know, I don’t like being redundant. I don’t normally write a travel guide unless there’s something I discovered but other travel guides don’t mention. When I decided to go to Phuket, I learned something about the island that, in hindsight, is pretty obvious. Phuket, like the rest of the region in the south of Thailand, had been contested territory between Siam and other regional kingdoms for several hundred years, with Siam generally prevailing. But the people who settled there, were not all Thai.

Malay people of Phuket

While it’s unclear whether or when the island was settled by Pattani Malays from the peninsula, it would have partially fallen under Pattani or Kedah influence. Even the name Phuket is derived from the Malay word bukit, for the island’s hilly appearance. I mentioned it in the car at one point, and a doubtful Amy asked her aunt whether it was true. Tik casually confirmed that it was indeed the case.

If you knew what to look for, you will notice that many of Phuket’s villages are Muslim. In fact, there is a mosque at the north part of Patong and a Muslim cemetery. If you were a Muslim traveller, for example, it is not difficult to find a guide to bring you around specifically to tour Muslim communities in Phuket. However, this side of Phuket, and these experiences, are usually not found online in English.

Top floor wooden facade of a shophouse in Phuket painted yellow with green-tinted modern sliding doors to a narrow balcony with railings painted in white and featuring Malay carved motifs. The sliding doors are flanked by floral wood stencils. Above the doors is a stylised cross keris motif topped with a crescent and star. At the top of the facade is a lattice vent painted white.
House in Phuket with the symbol of a crescent and star, over a stylised symbol which could either be two crossed keris, the traditional Malay weapon, or possibly a rehal, the book stand for reading the Qur’an.

Phuket Old Town and its straits settlement history

Aside from its pre-modern history, Phuket also has a surprising straits settlement history (as in, a trading settlement along the Malacca Strait). This was why Jason and I particularly wanted to go to see its old town. I told him it was supposed to be just like Malaysia’s UNESCO Heritage cities of Penang and Melaka, which he is fond of.

There were actually three Straits Settlements – at least, British ones. They were Penang, Melaka, and Singapore, although the Peranakan community survives only in the first two. As a Malaysian, I assumed there were only ever the three British Straits Settlements. Imagine my surprise when I discovered there was a fourth straits settlement with very similar architecture and culture – it just wasn’t a British one!

In Phuket Old Town, we went to the Phuket Museum. The Phuket Museum itself is housed in the former Standard Chartered Bank, the first foreign bank permitted to operate in Phuket. You can’t miss this Sino-European building with its bright yellow colour. There I learned that Phuket’s economy boomed in the 19th century with the discovery of tin. Siam granted mining concessions, attracting migrants from the region. Many were Peranakan people who moved over from nearby Penang, which is why Phuket’s old town looks so much like the old towns of Penang and Melaka.

But there was so much mining in Phuket, that in 1940 Prince Narisara Nuwattiwong wrote that the land was ‘bumpy with mines’, and it was difficult to find even a single tree. This seems to be an attribute of the Industrial Age – a lack of restraint. Luckily, the situation was still reversible.

Walking down a street in old Phuket.

Underwater Phuket

Phuket’s own coastline isn’t exactly the best for underwater life. However, it is near to other islands which are better for snorkelling and scuba diving, such as Racha Yai and Racha Noi, as well as Phi Phi (although I personally think that Phi Phi is a bit too far). It also has one of the best wreck dives in Asia, the King Cruiser wreck. So if you’re already in Phuket, you don’t have to move to another island to dive. You can just go from Phuket.

The caveat is if you’re prone to seasickness, as all these locations require a boat trip. This is especially the case if you’re going diving in the monsoon season between May and October (which we did). The sea can get quite rough, as in ‘tip you from one side of the boat to the other’ rough. Even with taking the seasickness pills, I still hurled on my second dive day. In hindsight, I should have just brought my full wetsuit for warmth so that I can eat a lot less breakfast.

Scuba diver approaching a thick school of fish. The image is in silhouette against a blue background looking up to the light overhead.
Diving in Phuket

Visiting Phuket in the low season

We visited Phuket when the travel industry hadn’t quite fully recovered yet. On top of that, we went during Phuket’s monsoon season, which is around May to October on Thailand’s west coast. The advantage is that you can get incredible deals. I stayed for a week at a nice resort, and the entire trip only cost $750 including the flights and all the diving.

On the other hand, the sky is more frequently overcast during the low season. This isn’t necessarily a problem unless you’re specifically looking for a beach holiday, since Phuket caters for a wide range of tourism styles. It doesn’t really affect scuba diving either, except that some dive sites may not be available, and the sea is rough en route to the dive sites.

Additionally, Phuket is prone to flooding following the heavy rains in this season. Though the floods recede soon enough, it could affect your tour plans, and airport transfers. Plan accordingly.

Boats and yachts at Chalong Pier in Phuket. The sky is overcast with a wide rainbow.
On the other hand, overcast skies have the potential for rainbows

Carbon offset information to Phuket, Thailand

Return flights from Kuala Lumpur to Phuket produces carbon emissions of approximately 533 lbs CO2e. It costs about $5 to offset this. 

I guess Phuket is popular for a reason! Did you know that you could do more things than beach & nightlife in Phuket?

6 Responses

  1. Meghan says:

    So glad to hear that there’s a lot to do in Phuket and ways to avoid the touristy, crowded season. I know that Monsoon season could mean a lot of rain and flooding, but sounds like it could also mean fewer tourists and better prices!

    • Teja says:

      Yes, better prices and fewer people during the off season for sure. Of course, being so soon after the pandemic made the island unusually uncrowded when I was there. It was almost surreal, to see an island so full of accommodation options and tourist offerings, but with relatively low levels of visitors. Not even Patong was crowded, which surprised Tik and David. I imagine it must be heaving again by now, in peak periods.

  2. Sonia says:

    Sorry you had to go through that negative experience with what you thought was an airport limousine. Your advice on airport transfers is spot on.

    • Teja says:

      I don’t know why they do it. I wonder if enough people actually sign up for tours this way. Personally, I felt trapped, since I’d just arrived and they’re already trying to sell tours before taking me the rest of the way to my hotel. That’s absolutely not the way to sell to me.

  3. anukrati says:

    Isn’t monsoon season inconvenient to travel around the island? I have been hearing so much about Thai street food that I wish to take a trip only to experience the taste. Which dish did you like the most?

    • Teja says:

      I guess it depends on how bad the rains are. We didn’t find it troublesome. It was easy to get rides from the hotel and from streetside. We went to Patong to a dance club one night, and took a tuktuk back to Kata around midnight, no problem. We also hired a car with a driver to go around the island. The one caveat is if the rains are heavy enough that it floods, usually the Phuket town area. Then I hear the island gets gridlocked, so keep an eye on that for your return travel day.
      I’m not sure I have a street food recommendation, since we get much of it in Malaysia anyway so it felt normal to me. I do remember the banana crepe stall we stopped at for a snack. Actually, there were all kinds of crepes at the stall!

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