No matter where you go in Thailand, from the bustling streets of Bangkok to the tranquil hills north of Chiang Mai, you’ll immediately realize why it’s called the Land of Smiles. There’s no wrong way to visit the country, but we think you’ll have the biggest smile on your face spending time on Phuket. The largest of the southern islands, Phuket is almost as varied as Thailand itself, capturing the best of both city and island living. Below we’ve highlighted just a few ways Phuket is sure to steal your heart.
Its beaches are the stuff of fantasy
Picture paradise and you’re likely picturing Phuket. As you watch an old-fashioned long-tail boat drift by on emerald waters while beachgoers of all ages enjoy the surf and sun, you’ll have a hard time tearing yourself away to enjoy the rest of the island. The west coast havens of Surin Beach and the larger Kamala Beach are your best bets for lazy days and spectacular sunsets. More active sorts may prefer the snorkeling hotspots of the Coral Islands, the Similan Island archipelago, or the cove of Laem Singh. More awe-inspiring than any of these, however, are the towering limestone karst islands of Phang Nga Bay. Kayaking around this otherworldly landscape’s secret caves and lagoons is what vacation dreams are made of.
Its diving is to die for
Sunbathing is all well and good, but if you’re more interested in what’s going on underneath the waves, you’ll be pleased to find a number of world-class dive spots around Phuket. The Similan Islands form an archipelago about three hours from the mainland, but the trip is worth it.
These offshore waters are rich with marine life, including moray eels, reef sharks, turtles, and a whole host of corals and fish. The aptly named Elephant Head Rock is a particularly popular dive choice. If you prefer to stick closer to your home base, there are also pleasant shallow dives among the coral reefs of the west coast beaches. For a convenient day trip, ask about tours from the dive shops at Kata or Patong.
Its cities are vibrant
Some would-be jetsetters might think Phuket is the name of a Thai city, and you’re not completely wrong. More accurate, however, is to call the whole island Phuket, and refer to its lively capital as Phuket Town. Should you ever tire of burying your toes in the sand, this central city is the perfect place to take a stroll and people watch. Wander through the boutiques, sample the street food, and try to take in every aspect of your surroundings. On Sunday nights, the energy is even more irresistible as the Lard Yai street market takes over the Old Town.
Its festivals are wild
Attending a local festival is one of the most exciting, rewarding ways to travel, and Phuket isn’t one to disappoint on this front. Every September brings the famed Vegetarian Festival to the island, and believe us – this is much more than a quiet celebration of meatless meals. For nine days every October, this festival rooted in Chinese beliefs fills the streets of Phuket with color. It’s supposed that keeping a vegetarian diet during the ninth lunar month honors the Nine Emperor Gods and purifies the mind and body. The unforgettable, and sometimes stomach-churning, sight of men and women piercing their cheeks with household objects is a daring testament to the belief that the gods will protect them. Other acts of faith you might see include fire walking, entranced parades, or climbing a sharp bladed ladder.
Its nightlife is downright sinful
There are plenty of places to unwind around the island, but when you want to pick up the pace, enter the fray of Patong. The bars in this heavily-touristed corner of Phuket are always packed. And, whether you love it or hate it, this is the corner of the island where you’ll find Thailand’s infamous go-go scene. If you’d like to grab a drink without being surrounded by the trappings of sex tourism, Phuket has plenty to offer on that front as well. The neighborhood of Bang Tao Beach has a fair number of bars serving up quality cocktails, and if you’re patient enough to seek them out, you can find an upscale joint or two in Patong.
Its temples are stunning
One of the best known views of Phuket is its resident Big Buddha. This massive, glittering statue can be seen from miles away, and the views over Phuket from its marble base are breathtaking, but it’s just one of the island’s many beautiful temples. When you want to get in touch with your spiritual side, you can’t miss visiting Wat Chalong. This glittering, spired structure in the southern part of the island is one of Phuket’s oldest, dating back a solid two centuries. Browse the paintings of the Grand Pagoda to learn the life story of the Buddha.
Its museums are immersive
When you’re caught by the odd rainy day, Phuket isn’t devoid of indoor attractions. The Thalang National Museum is a great spot to learn about not just Thai history, but the history of Phuket island itself. Check out the ancient artifacts of the prehistoric Andaman people, or learn the story of the local heroines who staved off a Burmese invasion in the 1700s. For a more unique museum hopping experience, dive into the days when Phuket was a well-established tin mining town. Kathu’s Mining Museum presents a variety of models, including a recreation of an opium den, to immerse you in the daily life of yesteryear’s Phuket. At just 100 baht a pop, both museums are affordable ways to experience a different angle of island life.
Its jungle is lush
There’s never any need to fear straying off the beaten path in Thailand. Phuket’s interior may have lost much of its rich rural landscape, but there’s still a bit of jungle left to reward those willing to look. Your wanderings might take you to Bang Pae Waterfall, a favored local haunt. Cool off with a dip at the main drop, or lace up your boots for a hike in the surrounding hills. You can rent a bike or motorbike pretty easily, but if you’re not interested in going it alone, you can also join an ATV tour to explore the island with a group. For the best of inland and beach geography, make your way up north to Sirinat National Park. Its beaches fence in a striking mangrove forest. This is a prime spot for camping and, in the springtime, turtle spotting as the endangered leatherbacks make their way up the sand to lay their eggs.
Its wildlife is treated right
Being an animal lover in Southeast Asia can be a difficult balancing act. Attractions like elephant rides and tiger palaces can be tempting, but savvy tourists know these are often far from eco-friendly. So how do you get close to nature in Thailand? Phuket has an easy solution. The island is home to the Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Park, which is devoted to the conservation of many endangered species. One of the many highlights inside is the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre. Mature gibbons are often killed by tourist entertainers once they become too aggressive to turn a profit. Take a free tour of the park’s project to learn how they rescue these critters from captivity and safely return them to the wild.
Its views are jaw-dropping
Phuket is chock-full of unbelievably gorgeous viewpoints, making the island a dreamscape for any photographer, aspiring or professional. Head down to the southernmost tip of the island to Laem Promthep for a sunset you won’t soon forget. From the elephant shrine to the cape’s mod lighthouse to the secluded, winding fishermen’s trail, every detail of this Andaman Sea viewpoint is utterly enchanting. Perhaps you prefer canvas and brush to a digital camera? Traveling artists won’t be able to resist sketching the view from Kata-Karon Viewpoint. Gaze over the white sand beaches of Phuket’s west coast and capture that iconic Thai island postcard image you spent your workdays dreaming of.
Its food is sublime
Between the many markets of Phuket’s Old Town and the great bars and restaurants scattered across the whole island, Phuket is an excellent place to sample the best of Thai cuisine. Street vendors dish out tasty international grub ranging from traditional Thai to Chinese, Indian, and Malay cuisines. With slurp-worthy noodle soups, savory grilled skewers, and sweet stuffed roti pancakes all costing no more than 50 baht each, it’s no wonder Thailand is such a popular destination for travelers on a shoestring budget. The Naka Weekend Market, just outside Phuket Town, is an especially good place to try out each hawker’s fare. If you’d like to roll up your sleeves and get in the kitchen yourself, Pum’s Thai Cooking School is just one of many establishments offering lessons near Patong Beach. Tackle the basics in a half-hour or throw yourself in the deep end with a full-day workshop.
Its adventure is waiting
There’s no end to the adventure awaiting you on Phuket. Your day could be as simple as sipping a local rum on a tour of Chalong Bay Rum, the island’s only working distillery. Or it could be as bucket-list-worthy as navigating the cable wake boarding obstacle course at the centrally located sports complex Phuket Wake Park. Watch a round of the quintessential local combat sport Muay Thai, and if you’re feeling brave, seek out a training camp so you can hop in the ring yourself. Whichever path you take, Phuket is full of possibility.