INTRODUCTION TO PHUKET
Phuket is easily the most well known place in Thailand’s sunny south, and is the country’s second-most popular tourist destination after Bangkok. In fact, it’s the fifth-most visited place in all of East Asia, surpassing Seoul, Hong Kong and Bali among others. A whopping 9.3 million tourists make the trip there each year.
Phuket also happens to be the largest island in Thailand, and the province of Phuket is the richest in the country, despite also being the second-smallest. The island has a surprising amount of natural diversity, along with several large, touristic settlements (more on those later). As well as a mixture of native Asian residents, Phuket is also home to a sizeable expat community, most of whom have been lured there by the beautiful weather, big beaches and, of course, the local ladies.
The diversity doesn’t stop with Phuket’s nature, or even its people. It’s developed a certain reputation, which isn’t entirely positive: in some corners it’s seen to be a grimy tourist trap, in others it’s simply a party island. The island is large enough, however, and has enough variety, to be able to offer something for a range of visitors. I’ll be bringing you a series of articles looking at individual places in Phuket. Be sure to check them out to get the best idea of where’s right for you.
Phuket’s current cultural diversity, and its status as an international destination, is nothing new. The island has been a popular stop for foreign visitors for many centuries, although this was previously for trading reasons. Indian, Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese and British merchants all carried out business in ‘Junk Ceylon’ – as it was known – from the 16th century onwards.
Around the early nineteenth century, there was a boom in tin mining on the island. This made it into something of an economic powerhouse, and attracted thousands of Chinese workers; even today, there’s still a significant Chinese presence on the island.
Despite Thailand’s neutrality at the outset of World War II, the Japanese invaded in 1941, and Phuket Town was one of the places that was occupied. After the war had finished, the tin mining industry saw a steady decline throughout the second half of the 20th century (the last mine finally closed in 1992). Fortunately for the island, the tourist industry began to develop at the same time. The first bridge connecting Phuket to the mainland was built in 1967 (the same year that King Rama V formalized the island’s name as ‘Phuket’), and the first tourist bungalows were built in Patong shortly afterwards. Tourism began to boom over the next couple of decades, and quickly became the island’s premier industry.
Like many other places in the region, Phuket was struck by the tragic tsunami of 2004. Over 250 people died there, and significant damage was done to most of the popular tourist spots. Phuket’s recovery was remarkable however, and within a year they’d rebuilt almost all of the affected buildings and infrastructure.
HOW TO GET THERE
The quickest, easiest and most efficient way to get to Phuket is undoubtedly by air. Phuket Airport is the busiest in the whole country outside of Bangkok, with over 15 million arrivals in 2016 with a number of airlines servicing the destination. The airport is located in the north of the island, a fair distance from any of the touristic areas, but there are myriad ways to get to your hotel: local buses, shuttle buses, minibuses and meter taxis will all be waiting for you.
Phuket is also accessible via two road bridges, meaning you can travel there by road too. While this is a cheaper alternative to flying, it’s also a much slower option. Buses from Bangkok to Phuket, for example, take around 13-14 hours to arrive. If you’re planning on making that journey, I’d recommend taking the night bus; it takes the same amount of time, you’ll save on the cost of a night’s accommodation, and you should be able to sleep away a good chunk of those hours.
Buses to Phuket arrive at Bus Terminal 2, which is a few kilometers north of Phuket Town, on the island’s eastern side. From there you can take private transportation to your hotel, or take a quick ride over to Bus Terminal 1, and take a public bus from there.
It’s also possible to travel to Phuket by boat from other islands off Thailand’s west coast, including Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta. Boat trips will usually arrive at Rassada Pier, which is also in Krabi Town, meaning again you can use private transport or public buses from Bus Terminal 1 to get to your destination.
WHEN TO VISIT
The weather in southern Thailand doesn’t vary as greatly as it does in the north. Temperature-wise, Phuket is simply hot all year round, which is good news for you! It does get slightly cooler later in the year though, from around November to February.
Rainfall is again fairly consistent throughout the year, although it does increase from May to October. You’re still unlikely to lose whole days to rain, however, as you might in the north. If you haven’t read it yet, here is a general guide of Thailand’s weather.
If you’re looking to time your visit to coincide with a local festival, I’d recommend getting there in October, in time for the Phuket Vegetarian Festival.
I’m going to go into Phuket’s individual destinations in more detail in other posts. But first, I wanted to give you a general overview of Phuket’s different sections. For touristic purposes, you can divide Phuket up into three parts.
Relatively little attention needs to be paid to the eastern side of the island. The only notable attraction there is the charming Phuket Town, which certainly has the most authentic ‘Thai’ feel to it.
The western side, from around the halfway point downwards, is where the action is. Going from bottom to top, you have Kata, Karon and Patong – the three most popular destinations – then the less busy settlements of Kamala and Surin.
The north of Phuket is much quieter. This is where you’ll find probably the island’s most beautiful nature. The forests seem thicker, the land more mountainous, and there’s simply far less development there. You’ll also encounter the island’s quietest beaches here, along the western coast, including Nai Thon, Nai Yang and Banana Beach.
PHUKET – FINAL WORD
Places all around the world get simple reputations: this place is ‘a party city’, that place is ‘cultural’; this place is ‘exciting’, that place is ‘boring’, and so on. It’s a pretty lazy way to look at things. In reality, when people go into new places with an open mind, they might find something completely different from the place’s pre-canned reputation.
When it comes to Phuket, I’d basically ask you to throw any preconceived ideas you have about it out of the window. Are there ‘seedy’ or ‘rip-off’ parts to it? Sure there are, but you’ll find that in almost every big place. Some parts are loud, and some are quiet; some have great nightlife, others are almost always peaceful; some are built-up, others have been left to nature.
Phuket is big and varied enough that, whatever your travel tastes, I’m confident you’ll be able to find something there to suit you. The key for any good holiday is the same advice for any destination, plan on what you want to spend your time doing and chose where you are going to stay based on that and Phuket has the options covered well enough in that department.
If you are not sure of the different things to do while staying in Thailand, you can always check out the various tours offered by Intrepid Travel.