If you’ve cringed at the thought of making your way to Thailand’s tourism hotspot of Phuket, then Patong is probably to blame. The island’s resort town and party centre is a constant reference for bad impressions. Although, this garish, hyper-boganised side of Phuket is a far cry from the rest of the island, with many locals containing the chaos and avoiding it, much like the Balinese have done with the comparable Kuta.
Beyond those stretches of nightclubs, bars and beaches, Phuket is a diverse and exciting island, whether you’re chasing luxury experiences or just want to relax while hopping between islands. Across several different trips, I’ve put together a list of my favourite experiences on and off the island.
Make Your Way Through Old Town
Phuket City is rich in colourful Sino-Portuguese houses dressing the area around Thalang, Dibuk and Krabi roads. The island’s unmistakable Old Town is where you can check out Thai street art, dabble in fun batik painting courses, and get your fill of shopping with local craft goods and fashion.
Said batik painting courses can be found at many of the cafes that dot these streets, where wax outlines are offered so visitors can simply dab between the lines and have their own unique gift to take home.
Another must is the Lard Yai Sunday Walking Market, which kicks off from 4pm along the main strip and is one of the most diverse, exciting and engaging night markets I have been to, anywhere. The multitude of Thai food, from various regions, will keep you busy for hours, coupled with an infectious energy worked up by street performers and the fact that all the shops are still open, even well after the sun has gone down.
Take the Edge off at Spa Anatara Layan Phuket
This five-star wellness resort located along Cape Panwa boasts one of the island’s best spas. Even if you’re not staying as a guest of the resort, head along for a truly elevated wellness experience that’s a bit more sophisticated then grabbing a quick and cheap massage from the many parlours scattered across the island.
Educate Yourself at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary
Not everyone is honest on such a large tourist-heavy island, which is why it’s hard to zone in on genuinely ethical elephant encounters in Thailand. Some that claim to be sanctuaries may in fact just be hiring their elephants from riding camps, so do your research and choose wisely.
Luckily, Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is one of the good ones, and they take plenty of steps to ensure guests are educated on why ethical animal tourism avoids harmful activities like riding and even bathing these gentle giants. The approach here is simply to observe elephants, many “retired” from gruelling days in the tourism industry or rescued from bad situations, just being elephants in an environment that’s lovingly open, undisturbed and vast.
You can feed elephants here, but other than that, it’s mostly exploring this magnificent land and watching elephants interact with their environment. For a more immersive experience, looking into their volunteer programs which will have you staying on-site and helping care for these incredible animals.
Have a Michelin Meal at PRU
As the first and only Michelin star restaurant (as of publish date) in Phuket, there is a considerable amount of anticipation when one sits down to a meal at PRU. An acronym for “Plant. Raise. Understand”, the restaurant offers either a six or eight course meal overseen by Dutch chef Jimmy Ophorst who maintains a deep respect for the local ingredients of Thailand.
In fact, the restaurant owns a large and bountiful nearby 240-acre farm which produces 60-70% of the fruit and vegetables used, as well as other produce – like eggs from free-range chickens – to really work up simple, flavourful dishes. One such is the signature and highly toured carrot that has been cooked over hot stones and buried on the farm in preparation. Served with fermented carrot juice and cured egg yolk, the carrot is caramelised and sweet enough to be the hero dish of the kitchen, challenging perceptions of this humble ingredient.
I use the carrot as an example because it best demonstrates the innovative ways Ophorst is using Thai produce to take PRU far beyond the typical dining experience. I can’t say as much for their cheese course though, which I’d advise you to stay away from – save room for the chocolate truffle dessert instead.
Enjoy Traditional Thai Food at the Blue Elephant
Quite close to Old Town is this remarkable site for the famous Blue Elephant brand. Renowned as a Thai cooking school that was actually starting in Europe, Blue Elephant has several outposts around the world, but it’s this one that is perhaps the most extravagant.
Housed in a 115 year old mansion, this elegant restaurant should be at the top of any dining list. During my visit it was, without question, the best lunch I had on the island with wonderfully fresh crab longan salad, flavourful butterfly pea flower dumplings, complex tom kha gai, and moreish sweet mung bean pudding. The kitchen uses high-quality local produce here, and the many layers of haute Thai cuisine are highlighted through several recipes inspired directly by the royal family.
After lunch or dinner, be sure to take a tour of the magnificent mansion, given it’s one of the most sightly houses on the island with immaculate gardens and lush dining rooms.
Breeze Through Phang Nga Bay
Making your way around the islands of vast and spectacular Phang Nga Bay is one of the quintessential experience of Phuket and, despite the oversaturation of its most famous “James Bond Island”, really deserves praise. The beautiful scenery of limestone rocks surrounding ripples chopped up by speedboats, spinning around floating villages and hiding numerous caves: nature at its most exquisite.
Of course planting your feet on the soft sand of Khao Phing Kan (said James Bond Island) is the most typical thing to do here, and it is worth doing. Although my favourite would have to be the floating Muslim fishing village of Ko Panyi.
Around 315 Muslim families live together in this community, which is best known for its fresh seafood restaurants and vibrant shopping walks. It gets quite packed in high season, so locals always bring out their wares and hand-crafted goods for sale. Plus, not many villages offer this kind of view while you’re dining on full-flavoured seafood.
The village is also famous for its – out of all things – football club. Panyee FC was formed by locals back in the late 80’s when a bunch of footy enthusiasts, inspired by the 1986 World Cup, decided to build a floating football pitch so they could practice. Documentaries have been made about how that one decision lifted the entire village out of poverty and unemployment, with Panyee FC going on to win seven consecutive regional championships and become one of Thailand’s most celebrated football clubs.
While you’re over at James Bond Island look nearby to find the bright red barge of Newfern Sea Canoe. Call ahead to book in, and let them take you canoeing around, through and inside the caves. It’s an incredible experience, with good service and plenty of photo opps. There will be someone taking care of all the rowing so grab a beer and relax. You can call New Fern Sea Canoe on 081-6778985.
Zip Through the Forest at Hanuman World
Feel like zipping through the lush forests of Phuket on 16 different ziplines? Make the trek to Hanuman World, an eco adventure park that’s lined with various treetop ziplines so you can fly around for a few hours. Afterwards, take a step up to the unique 800-metre “Roller Zipline”, which is like a normal one except with you swinging all over the place. Note that, even though it may feel like you’ll hit the line at times, it’s completely safe.
There’s a decent buffet with local food on-site for those who up an appetite after all that flying around.
Search For the Best Viewpoint
If sweeping views of Phuket’s lush landscape is something you’re after, take the short drive from Kata Beach to Karon Viewpoint. The famous lookout is one of Phuket’s most stunning, with stunning vistas that scan this side of the island. Or if that isn’t enough for you, drive a bit further to Promthep Cape, the best lookout on the island and a constant favourite for sunsets, in a country that’s famous for immaculate sunsets.
Climb Up to the Big Buddha
This 45 metre marble Buddha statue can be seen from just about anywhere south of the island. Although the best view is, of course, right in front of the ambitious structure. Once you’re all the way up those stairs and directly in front of the stunning statue, take a look around for pristine, all-encompassing views of the mountains and Andaman sea. It’s one of the best views in Phuket.
Visit Phuket’s Most Important Temple at Wat Chalong
Pray and/or pay your respects at the sacred Wat Chalong as you give yourself to an air full of incense and marvel at the gorgeous architecture of the temple, or those that surround it. Built in this location in 1837, the complex remains the most important and revered grounds of the island, so make sure you observe etiquette and, most importantly, respect any requests for proper dress code. That is, take your shoes off before you enter the Buddhist temple. Women are also required to cover their shoulders and wear clothes that cover their knees (a sarong will do).
Party at Baba Beach Club
As the first of this article’s three accommodation recommendations, Baba Beach Club is the most unique and is defined by its youthful spirit. It is, after all, modelled heavily from owner Wan Issara’s visits to Ibiza. As such, you’ll get Mediterranean vibes here, with a dash of Miami as the beachside resort coaxes guests into an idyllic atmosphere where music pumps during the day and peace washes over (unless one of their music festivals is on) at night.
Get Some Rest at OZO Phuket
If you’re on a budget, don’t settle for hostels or questionable Airbnb’s. The relatively new OZO Phuket located in the relaxed Kata Beach area balances cost effectiveness with pure comfort so incredibly well. It’s also family friendly too, so if you’re there with any young ones, they will certainly appreciate the well thought out kids water playground that sits alongside the adult pool.
Lap up the Luxury of Sri Panwa
If the name Sri Panwa sounds familiar then you’ve probably been browsing lists of the best rooftop bars in the world, or the most glamorous resorts in Asia. Sri Panwa boasts the reputation of both, with this legendary celeb-favourite skirting Cape Panwa for magnificent views, impeccable luxury, and a seriously refined and insular lifestyle scene that focuses on wellness, great food (their Japanese restaurant is the best choice here), and absolute privacy.
It’s worth saving up for a night or two, or even just visiting for said rooftop bar – the extraordinary flat-topped Baba Nest which eschews the traditional bar model for a water-ringed surface rising high in the sky, offering panoramic views of the Andaman sea. Note that there’s a capacity of 30 people at Baba Nest, so book well in advance (even guests can have trouble securing a spot if they aren’t organised).
The writer travelled to Phuket as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, OZO Phuket, Sri Panwa, and Baba Beach Club