Phuket, an island paradise about the size of Singapore, is lapped by the azure water of the Andaman Sea. One road connects mainland Thailand to the island. Like a Muay Thai boxer, Phuket punches above its diminutive size, offering kicks, surprises, and thrills.
Backpackers flocked to Phuket in the 1970s, and premier resorts opened from the ‘80s. Today, Phuket is a tourist mecca with luxury stays, attractions, spas, and wellness resorts. It has 30 tropical beaches, an enviable food scene, vibrant culture, and smiles galore. The wider Province of Phuket has 32 smaller islands where Hollywood directors have captured paradise.
As one of the world’s top beach destinations, enjoy powdery white sand, azure-blue water, and sunsets framed by palm trees.
1. Patong Beach
Patong is Phuket’s best-known beach. It’s worth visiting but not a great place to stay as young tourists don’t come here for a quiet vacation. Rent beach chairs and umbrellas while enjoying water sports and people-watching. Street vendors offer cart foods such as skewers and Chang beer from a chiller box.
Bangla Road is the party street famous for its go-go bars and ladyboy shows. It wasn’t my scene, but I have girlfriends who have been with their partners, even to the ping pong bars. Join the moving throng soaking up the atmosphere. Take care of personal possessions and pay for drinks as you go.
2. Karon Beach
Karon Beach is 1.2 miles of soft, white sand sheltered by palms. It’s quieter than Patong but still developed. I stayed here on both of my trips to Phuket. There are several family-friendly resorts and a good selection of restaurants. The southern end gets busy with surf lessons, surfboard rentals, decent snorkeling, and beach volleyball. Karon’s nightlife is more laid-back compared to the go-go bar scene in Patong.
Karon Temple Night Market
Karon Temple Night Market is open on Tuesdays and Fridays. Try tropical fruits like mangosteen, passionfruit, dragon fruit, and small tasty Thai bananas.
A 10-minute drive from Karon Beach, Karon Viewpoint is one of the most photographed images in Phuket; sparkling blue sea, lines of white surf, white-sand beaches, a nearby island (Koh Pu), and the deep green of Phuket’s hillsides.
3. Kata Beach
South of Karon lies Kata Beach, one of the most visited beaches after Patong. Kata has a sandy bay, an ultra-blue sea, and pandanus plants overlooking a small island. After sunset, head to Kata Market, which works like a food court. Browse, pick your food, and find a table.
The beaches may be paradise but rarely are you alone. By visiting the smaller beaches, you’ll avoid the crowds.
4. Banana Beach
Banana Beach is a crescent-shaped beach with a beachfront restaurant. Trek downhill through a wooded area to reach it.
5. Nui Beach
A pick-up truck takes you to the beach from the car park for a small cost. Or you can trek 1.8 miles. The seascape swing has made this an Instagram hotspot. Instagrammers come for the shot but don’t stay long.
6. Ao Yon Beach
Ao Yon Beach is an archetypical tropical beach in Phuket, with palm trees, white sand, and shallow waters. The small beachside village gets busy on weekends.
One of the most memorable parts of visiting Phuket is off-shore excursions, mainly because Hollywood has emblazoned these settings on our collective psyche.
7. Phi Phi Islands/Maya Beach
The Phi Phi Islands are an archipelago of six islands about a 45-minute speedboat ride from Phuket. The islands house Thailand’s famous attraction, Maya Bay, the setting of the 1999 film The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In the movie, a backpacker finds a map showing a legendary paradise: a hidden lagoon with white sand, coral gardens, and incredibly blue water.
Director Danny Boyle chose Maya Bay, a remote cove on the western side of Koh Phi Leh, to depict this Eden. Take paradise and end up with bumper-to-bumper boats. Maya Bay was getting 6,000 tourists a day at one time. But in 2018, officials abruptly closed the bay, reopening in 2022 with restrictions. Tourists must now disembark on the island’s far side and walk on a boardwalk through the forest to the beach. Swimming is no longer permitted.
This popular day tour often includes snorkeling at the Loh Samah Bay coral reef and visiting the cheeky monkeys at Monkey Beach. Check the status of Maya Bay before booking a tour.
8. Viking Cave
Viking Cave is on Koh Phi Phi Le Island. Swifts make nests from their saliva. Workers scale bamboo scaffolding to harvest their nests for an expensive Chinese delicacy — bird’s nest. When I visited, you could enter, but now, tour boat operators stop near the entrance for you to grab a snap.
Pro Tip: Stay overnight at Phi Phi Don for an early start before the hordes of day-trippers arrive.
9. James Bond Island & Phang Nga Bay Tour
Phang Nga Bay is a group of islands between the mainland peninsula of southern Thailand and Phuket. It has rugged limestone rock formations that rise from the ocean like buns from an oven. Tours often include kayaking inside sea caves (guides do the paddling) and a trip to Koh Panyee, a floating fishing village with a school and a mosque.
Koh Tapu is known as James Bond Island after featuring in The Man with the Golden Gun as the villain’s hideout. The beauty is staggering even though shared with others. Climb the steps for the best vantage point.
Pro Tip: Arriving by speedboat makes you feel like you are in a James Bond chase scene. On the Phang Nga Bay tour, you’ll get in earlier than the crowds on the slower, cheaper tours.
10. Koh Yao Yai
Hollywood hasn’t discovered all the gems. Koh Yao Yai is a sleepy island 30 minutes from Phuket by ferry. Explore the quiet villages, kayak, and snorkel. Family-run restaurants offer seafood dinners.
Phuket isn’t just a beach holiday. Culture abounds here.
11. The Big Buddha
Constructed in 2004, Big Buddha is one of Phuket’s most important religious symbols. The marble-crafted statue is 147 feet tall and offers 360-degree views over Phang Nga Bay, Kata Bay, and Kata Noi Bay. Sunrise and sunset are idyllic times to visit. Park in the car park or hike up. The most challenging trail is 3.5 miles up Chafoah Road. Muay Thai boxers use this as a training track, but tourists can stop at scenic restaurants along the way. The easier 1.5-mile route begins opposite Baan Karon Resort on Patak Road.
12. Phuket Old Town
Phuket is a city in the southeast of Phuket Island. The quarter, Phuket Old Town, is studded with Colonial (Sino-Portuguese) architecture painted in bright colors. Many Colonial-style mansions are now boutique hotels, museums, and house museums.
Phuket Old Town was the first Asian city recognized as a “City of Gastronomy” by UNESCO in 2015. The town was on the ancient trade route between China and India, resulting in culinary influences from China, Europe, Malay, and India.
As well as excellent street-food stalls, Phuket Old Town has a concentration of restaurants housed in Colonial buildings. Blue Elephant is a beautifully-restored governor’s mansion, offering delicacies from southern Thai and royal culinary traditions. It also offers cookery classes. Raya Restaurant is housed in an old Sino-Thai mansion; try the gaeng pu bai cha plu (fresh crab meat in coconut milk).
Pro Tip: Join a Phuket Old Town Food Tasting Tour.
Phuket’s accommodations suit all budgets. On my last trip, I was on a stopover to meet my brother who was backpacking around Southeast Asia. I saw first-hand how a few dollars could buy him a reasonable stay. It was not my style, however.
Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort
I stayed at the Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort, built in the 1980s with spacious rooms they keep updated. The location is a secluded tropical bay between Karon and Patong. I rarely return to hotels, but I’ve stayed here for both of my visits to Phuket because of its lagoon-sized swimming pools where I’d wallow for hours. Having a private beach means not being hassled by touts or paying for sunbeds and umbrellas. While I love staying at resorts, I would much rather eat at local restaurants. These were 15 minutes away from Le Meridien, though I found constantly calling taxis an inconvenience.
Amanpuri Phuket is the mothership of the Aman Brand. Situated on Phuket’s west coast, on a private headland overlooking the Andaman Sea, Amanpuri was built in 1988 and is home to the brand’s first Holistic Wellness Centre. Annual closures every June means the hotel remains up to date and the Thai-style traditional rooms are immaculate. Forty spacious guest pavilions, and 40 villas surrounded by lush gardens and elegant dining venues, open onto a central swimming pool. A sweeping stone stairway descends to a secluded white sand beach. A buggy awaits those not wanting to do steps. The impeccable service is about anticipating your every need.
Noku is one of Phuket’s newest resorts with views over Chalong Bay. To celebrate its first anniversary, Noku has specials on 3-night stays for 2023. The resort has 91 spacious villas and lofts designed around a reflective swimming pool. There’s an emphasis on wellness with individual spa pavilions, massages, an infrared room, steam saunas, and a yoga room. The hotel provides complimentary shuttle services to nearby beaches, Phuket Old Town, and shopping malls.