No question Phuket has long held a reputation for appealing to the young and restless party-hearty set. Being neither young nor much of a party animal, I headed to Phuket with some misgivings. But I came to find out although it lives up to its reputation in some ways, Phuket offers plenty of enticements for all ages and interests.
The Andaman Sea surrounds Phuket, Thailand’s biggest island, and its colorful history results from its position along one of the major trading routes between China and India. Tin and rubber barons built colonial mansions on the island, some of which still exist in Phuket Old Town. Today, most of Phuket’s income comes from tourism, and for good reason. The sea is warm and inviting, excellent opportunities exist for snorkeling and diving with a plethora of beaches, and resorts and hotels abound to fit every budget.
With so many properties to choose from, deciding on a home away from home in Phuket can be challenging. There’s a wide range of options — from super-luxurious and expensive properties like the over-the-top Andara Resort & Villas to budget properties with spartan guestrooms. In the end, I opted for the “just-right” Aquamarine Resort & Villa at Kamala Beach. Thai-owned and decorated in the Thai style, the resort sits on a hill affording lovely ocean views.
I like beaches, especially for walking, swimming and snorkeling, but I’m too antsy to spend an entire day under an umbrella with a trashy novel. So the fact that the beach at The Aquamarine is accessed by a hillside path and is actually across the road worked fine for me. With this and other caveats in mind, I started researching the many ways to fill my time in Phuket.
The most logical place to start was to find out what The Aquamarine offered in the way of activities. Spas are a given at almost any resort nowadays, but often there are other options as well. With the increased interest in both Thai cuisine and cooking classes, resorts have been quick to cash in and add cooking classes to their schedules. The Aquamarine is no exception, offering classes three days a week. Donning aprons, guests learn to cook such delicacies as spicy prawn and lemon grass soup, green curry and stir-fried mixed vegetables with oyster sauce.
For those who find art more appealing than cooking, there’s a batik painting class. Not only do you learn the art of batik, but also you can walk away with a one-of-a-kind, personally designed T-shirt.
Since I was not interested in spending my entire time in Phuket at the resort, I also looked for excursions that would acquaint me with other parts of the island. A friend told me about a speed boat trip to the Phi Phi Islands that includes a stop on Ao Ling, or Monkey Beach, where resident monkeys are so used to humans they wander around fearlessly, sitting on boulders and posing for photos. Besides the monkeys, Ao Ling, featured in the movie The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio, provides a good snorkeling spot where you can see both soft and hard corals.
If you happen to be in Phuket on a Saturday or Sunday, treat yourself to a visit to the Naka Weekend Market, open 4–9 p.m. You can find almost anything here from secondhand clothes to souvenirs to live animals. And, of course, all sorts of food to sample like buttered corn on the cob, spicy sausages, fishcakes and, for the really adventurous, deep-fried insects. After a perusal of the market, I stopped by one of the restaurants offering a happy hour special of two-for-one drinks. Understandably, these places are popular with the party-hearty set.
Perhaps Phuket’s most over-the-top attraction is Phuket FantaSea. The show features hundreds of cast members, trapeze artists, performing elephants and an elaborate and exotic storyline. Besides the show, enjoy a huge buffet and a theme park offering carnival-like games, shopping opportunities and more.
The Raya Restaurant in Phuket Old Town is an institution. Housed in a 90-year-old, two-story colonial Sino-Portuguese building, its slightly rickety look only adds to the atmosphere. The food is authentic Thai and first-rate. Specialties include crabmeat curry served with rice vermicelli, caramelized and braised pork belly, spicy Phuket prawns and deep-fried sea bass with shallots and red chilies in tamarind and lemongrass sauce.
My most adventurous experience in Phuket was a canoe trip through Phang Nga Bay. (You can book kayak expeditions with John Gray’s Sea Canoe.) The bay, made famous by the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, lies within a beautiful national marine park dotted with dozens of islands, limestone cliffs and caves. Always dramatic and beautiful, the area became even more fascinating when sea caves and hongs were discovered in 1990.
Hong is the Thai word for “room” and, in the case of these caves, amounts to an open-air, cliff-lined cylindrical tidal lagoon connected to the outside world only through stalactite-filled tunnels. Even for the non-claustrophobic, like me, lying flat in a kayak in order to float under a rock wall just inches above your nose brings you close to hyperventilation. You can only accomplish this feat when the tide is low, which had me trying not to think about what would happen if the tide rose and I was trapped in the bat-filled cave I was paddling through. But when I emerged into a secluded lagoon surrounded by sheer limestone cliffs with macaque monkeys swinging from the trees, I was too enchanted to worry. And that evening, after watching a fiery sunset from the beach, our re-entry into one of the hongs in the dark — the way lighted only by hundreds of bright stars, fireflies and the amazing phosphorescence in the sea — turned into my most memorable Phuket experience.
Phuket Info to Go
Thai Airways operates several flights daily from Bangkok (BKK) to Phuket International Airport (HKT), with flying time of about an hour. Other carriers fly to Phuket from various locations. Rental car services are available at the airport, and numerous shuttles and taxis are available. The airport bus, which goes to the downtown bus station, costs approximately $3. Expect to pay about $6 for a shared minibus to the beach or up to $23 for a private taxi, depending on the destination. Many of the upscale resorts on the island arrange for transfers if booked in advance.
Where to Stay in Phuket
Andara Resort & Villas Featuring huge, sprawling villas and world-class 5-star service, this is one of the chicest resorts in Phuket. Villas include private infinity pools, luxury amenities and stunning ocean views. 15 Moo 6, Kamala Beach, Kathu $$$$$
The Aquamarine Resort & Villa Thai-owned and decorated in Thai style, The Aquamarine sits high above Kamala Beach. Private villas are tucked among ancient trees, lush foliage and tranquil pools. 17/38 Moo 6, Kamala Beach, Kathu $$$$
Paresa Resort Paresa is one of Phuket’s most luxurious resorts. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Andaman Sea, stunning and cozy bungalows offer unparalleled views. 49 Moo 6, Layi-Nakalay Road, Kamala $$$$$
Restaurants in Phuket
Le Celtique Run by a French-Thai couple, Le Celtique serves French, Italian and Thai food in eclectic surroundings. Particularly noteworthy are the French country dishes like filet of sole in creamy lobster sauce. 89/90 Soi Samakae 4, Rawai $$$
Raya Restaurant A casual restaurant located in a 90-year-old Sino-Portuguese colonial building in Old Town, Raya serves tasty items like crabmeat curry, spicy Phuket prawns and braised pork belly. 48 Dibuk Road, Phuket Old Town $$–$$$
Suay Restaurant German-trained chef Tammasak Chootong serves up quality food at reasonable prices in a relaxing atmosphere. Specialties include braised beef in sweet green curry and fresh yellowfin tuna. 50/2 Takuapa Road, Phuket Old Town $$–$$$
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