Are you looking for travel tips on what to do in Phuket, Thailand?
As part of our city guides series, this week we interviewed Roger Gibson who has lived in Phuket for almost 2 years.
Roger shares with us his insider knowledge on things to do in Phuket, Thailand for those looking for the best places to eat, shop, explore, swim, and enjoy a cold beer as the sun goes down.
Take it away Roger.
Why visit Phuket?
I think Phuket is the most accessible of Thailand’s island destinations and it’s also the gateway to a great many of the world famous Thailand beaches, national parks and islands that come to mind when you think of Thailand.
Phuket island has a rich cultural history, especially in Phuket Town where I live. The locals there, they live at a more ‘traditional pace’ and there are many beautiful examples of Chinese Shrines and Temples.
You are seriously spoiled for choice for food options in Phuket with probably a greater variety of cuisines than anywhere else in Thailand, outside of Bangkok of course, from hawker stands, beach vendors, local noodle shops, great Thai and Seafood restaurants right up to the finest International Dining.
While the beaches and blue skies are a major draw, I think it is the range of activities on offer that makes Phuket such a great all round destination.
You’ve got Famous island excursions, world class snorkeling and dive trips, boat trips, Elephant Trekking, Jungle Safari, World Class Golf Courses, cooking classes, traditional Thai massage, Cabaret, go-carting, water parks, shooting ranges.
What to do in Phuket
At the northern end, this Phuket beach has become the ultra-hip place to hangout and you will find the trendiest bars and restaurants along this stretch of coastline.
Vibrant and Chaotic Phuket Night Markets
Stretch all the way along the beach road and just about every available space in-between. Browsing the colourful stalls of handmade crafts, souvenirs, clothes and dubious counterfeit items is an experience that is integral to travel in Asia and they don’t come much more full on than in Patong.
Colorful Nightlife in Phuket
Patong has an infamous reputation for it’s ‘colorful’ nightlife and everyone should experience the beer bars, discos and go-go bars of Soi Bangla (the main strip) at least once in their life.
Kata and Karon Beaches
For a more Phuket laid back scene I’d recommend Kata and Karon Beaches as some of the best beaches in Phuket.
There is still enough going on here to keep you interested and the beaches are some of the very best on the island. There are also some amazing viewpoints nearby, which you can visit by motorbike, car or Tuk Tuk.
Another area I like is Cherng Talay. It is a couple of beaches up from Patong and generally caters for a more discerning clientele in the high end resorts of Surin and Bangtao beaches, and of course the massive Laguna Complex of resorts.
Cherng Talay is a good place to rent a villa or apartment and it is a popular place with expats. The pace of life is very relaxed here and there are some great international restaurants, bars and beach clubs.
If you rent a motorbike or car while you are here, I’d recommend trying to find Laem Singh Beach. It is accessible by some very steep steps and is a very laid back bay with fantastic snorkeling around the rocks on the beach and has a great, relaxed vibe.
Quiet Phuket Beaches
Ao Yon, Cape Panwa, Banana Beach, Freedom Beach, Paradise beach and some completely deserted beaches like Mai Khao and Layan Beach.
Cultural sights on Phuket
I’d say the big 3 cultural attractions on Phuket island are Wat Chalong, Phuket Old Town and Big Buddha and as they are quite close together you could easily visit them all in one day.
Big Buddha, Phuket Island
Sat on his mountaintop is always awe-inspiring, it is huge and can be spotted from most places in the south of the island. It is even more impressive from the top and there are some brilliant viewpoints all the way up the mountain, not just from the summit.
The Wat, or temple, is one of the most recognizable symbols of Thailand and Wat Chalong is a shining example. It is the largest temple in Phuket and is richly decorated with beautiful colours and countless images of Buddha and icons from Thai and Buddhist mythology.
Phuket Old Town
Is a great place to be and really gives you a glimpse of what life was like on the island 100’s of years ago when the Chinese and Europeans arrived and started mining for tin.
There are many stunning examples of Sino-Portuguese architecture and Chinese shop houses, which are still to this day operating as traditional textiles, gold and printing businesses.
Nowadays, they are also home to quaint cafes and coffee shops, clothes boutiques and some lovely restaurants, guesthouses and local bars.
Where to eat in Phuket, Thailand
Budget places to eat in Phuket
I don’t think you can do much better than Natural Restaurant in Phuket Town. It’s a rickety wooden, traditional Thai shack with an eclectic jumble of plants, waterfalls, fishponds and strange artifacts sprouting out from all corners, including fish tanks made out of old TV sets.
It has an extensive menu of Thai food, probably one of the best I have seen in Phuket and the prices are very reasonable.
Also, for breakfast in Phuket Town, head to The Gallery by Pinky for Eggs Benedict or Norwegian Eggs (Eggs Benedict with smoken salmon).
Stylish places to eat in Phuket
In Phuket Town, a restaurant called La Gaetana is great fun and completely eccentric, serving the best in Italian and International cuisine.
There are only about 5 tables in the place, which is a good job as the ‘very’ personalized service from the Italian Owner is exceptional, including him personally adding the finishing touches to desserts at your table, custom made wine decanters and shawls for the ladies if they feel a slight chill from the air conditioning.
For more fine dining experiences in Phuket, check out 18 of the best fine dining restaurants in Phuket.
Where to drink in Phuket
The Brasserie, Phuket Town
I really like the Brasserie in Phuket Town. It is owned by a Belgian Family and has an amazing selection of Belgian Beers and a really cool European vibe going on. The food there is excellent and it has a separate oyster and champagne bar, which I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Where to stay in Phuket
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Best places for sunset in Phuket
Catch Beach Club, Surin Beach
The coolest place to enjoy a sunset cocktail with the other hipsters is Catch Beach Club on Surin Beach, where you can lounge about on comfy sofas listening to dubby beats and chilled out electronica, although it will set you back a few Thai Baht for the privilege.
After Beach Bar and Small View Point Restaurant, Kata Noi Beach
Sit next to each other on the ridge behind Kata Noi Beach and have stunning views over the Andaman sea, great seafood and a continuous stream of Bob Marley. It is easy to see why this is a popular, chilled out place to enjoy the famous Phuket sunsets.
Best Markets and shopping in Phuket
The prices at Naka Weekend Market on the outskirts of Phuket Town are generally cheaper than at the markets in Patong, but you still have to bring your best bartering skills with you. Many of the products here come from Bangkok.
Events and festivals in Phuket
Phuket Vegetarian Festival
The most bizarre experience I have ever witnessed in my life, bar none, is the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Don’t be fooled by the gentle sounding name, as this festival is more famous for its blood soaked, death defying acts than it is for it’s vegetarian food.
Spirit mediums in a state of trance cleans the soul by climbing ladders with rungs made of knives, walk barefoot across hot coals, perform brutal acts of self-mortification, piercing their bodies with hooks, skewers and various other sharp objects.
Some of the weirdest I have seen are cheeks pierced with AK 47 barrels and the long poles attached to ceiling fans.
The whole 9-day festival is accompanied by incessant rapid-fire explosions and clouds of smoke from Chinese Fire Crackers and is a full-on assault of the senses that leaves you wondering if you have in fact crossed over into a different realm along with the spirit mediums.
Songkran Festival, Phuket
One festival that you cannot miss is the Songkran Festival in April, which marks the beginning of the traditional Thai New Year. It is basically the world’s biggest water fight and is probably the most childish fun you will ever have in your life.
Loi Kratong (Festiveal of Lights)
Loi Kratong or ‘Festival of lights’ is one of the most important and traditional festivals in the Thai calendar, representing the close bond between Thai culture.
Loi means to ‘float’ and ‘kratong’ is a small lotus shaped float, traditionally made out of the trunk of a banana tree and decorated with folded banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks.
It is a very beautiful and serene occasion as thousands of these small candle lit boats float gently out onto the water and fire lanterns light up the whole of the night sky.
Best side trips from Phuket
Maya Bay is the most popular Island Tour from Phuket and is world famous as the location of the utopian beach in the movie The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio.
I recommend visiting in the Low Season as the bay is overrun with boats and tourists in Peak Season and loses some of it’s appeal.
Plus, in the Low Season, Maya Bay can only be accessed via the back entrance due to the heavy tides and this only adds to the adventure. The boat takes you into a small lagoon where you transfer to a canoe and paddle over to a spider web rope net attached to the side of a small rock face.
After that, you walk through a small jungle to arrive on the beach in much the same way the characters did in the movie. This way, you get to experience the same impact of this beautiful bay with its’ towering limestone cliffs as they did in the film.
Phang Nga Bay
Surrounding the north and eastern coast of Phuket, is a magical place of such breathtaking natural beauty that James Bond Villain Scaramanga opted to build his secret hideout amongst the limestone outcrops and tiny islands, in the classic film The Man With The Golden Gun.
You can visit ‘James Bond’ Island by boat and depending on your tour itinerary you can also enjoy island hopping in the stunning bay, snorkeling, lunch at a floating Muslim fishing village and sea kayaking through spectacular limestone sea caves (hongs).
Raya Island, Koh Khai and Coral Islands
There are many beautiful islands close by to Phuket, which are less than a 30 mins boat ride away.
For a group of people (and depending on your budget), I’d recommend chartering a private Longtail boat, speedboat or maybe something even grander from Chalong, Rawai or Laem Ka beach.
Agree your own itinerary with your captain, but I especially like for snorkeling, swimming and beautiful white sand beaches.
Similan Islands National Park.
The most stunning island tour I have ever been on is to the Similan Islands National Park. It takes a little longer to get to The Similan Islands than it does on some of the other island tours, about 3 hours, but it is well worth the extra journey time.
The snorkeling and dive sites in this area are amongst the Top 10 Dive sites on the entire planet and the natural rock formations and jungle scenery are spectacular.
Best time to visit Phuket
Phuket is an all year round holiday destination, but I would generally say avoid peak season in January and February as the island beaches are overcrowded and unrecognizable from the paradise you can experience the rest of the year.
Green Season from May to October is supposedly the rainy season, but it is the best time to visit Phuket as the rates are lower and the beaches are less crowded. There is usually a daily downpour late afternoon/early evening, but most of the days are actually hot and sunny.
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Getting there and away
Air Asia offer cheap regular direct flights to Phuket from a growing list of destinations including Australia, NZ, Malaysia, Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, Japan and India. The advantage of having an International Airport in Phuket is that you no longer need to fly via Bangkok and from my experience, Air Asia is a good, reliable airline
If you need to you can book Bangkok flights as an option to get to Phuket.
Phuket Town has a main bus terminal and you can catch buses, including night buses from just about anywhere in Thailand. Boat or Ferry from Krabi, Koh Lanta and Koh Phi Phi are a good and inexpensive option, just don’t rely on them keeping to the schedule.
Travelling around by boat on the Andaman Sea is a wonderful experience and a highly recommended means of getting around all of the stunning island destinations
Best tip for saving money on Phuket
Visit in the Rainy Season
Traditionally around April to October. Phuket Island is a much more beautiful place this time of year and you can take advantage of some great weather, fantastic hotel deals and room to breath on the islands beaches.
Get the night bus to Phuket Town from Bangkok
If you are backpacking around Asia and working to a tight budget, you can get the night bus to Phuket Town from Bangkok or where ever else you might be in Thailand and save on the cost of a nights room rental.
Hire a motorbike
For the whole of your stay and agree on a good price with the rental company. This is the best way to see the Island and from my experience, Phuket is a much safer place to travel round by bike than other parts of Asia, but always wear a helmet.
Avoid Tuk Tuks and taxis
Especially in Patong as they are extortionate. Public buses between the beaches are non-existent, although hopefully this is something they may sort out in the near future. So, at the minute, hiring a motorbike to cruise round the beaches is your best option.
If you want to see Phuket Town you can get the public bus there and back from most major beaches for about 20 or 30 Thai Baht each way.
Don’t be afraid to eat the local street food
It is inexpensive, delicious and generally speaking you shouldn’t experience any major problems with food poisoning. BBQ corn on the cob on the beach is fantastic, especially when accompanied by a fresh fruit shake and bbq chicken. Will set you back less than 120 THB.
I love Phuket because
Of the stunning natural environments on my doorstep, the beaches, islands, national parks and marine landscapes, they are some of the best in the world and not many people get the opportunity to live and work in such beautiful surroundings.
Plan Your Trip to Phuket
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Flights to Phuket
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Tours in Phuket
BIO: To get more great Phuket related content from Roger you can follow him on various social media channels. Go follow him on Twitter, and he also writes a blog for his hotel Thavorn Beach Village and Spa which you can follow on Facebook and Google+
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Have you visited Phuket? Can you add to these what to do in Phuket tips? Please share in the comments!