Anyone planning a trip to Southeast Asia confronts an embarrassment of riches.
This magical part of the world has enough beaches, sunset spots, temples and fiery food to fill several lifetimes of travel. Yet since we only have one, tough choices lie in store. Enter a pair of seasoned writers to make the case for their pick of two of the region’s most beloved hubs, Phuket and Bali.
Favor fabulous Phuket
Isabella Noble is a Barcelona-based travel journalist and the author of Lonely Planet’s Pocket Phuket guide. She has been spending time on this beautiful, often-misunderstood Thai island for almost a decade.
For anyone who loves Phuket – as I do – it’s a magical island that instantly defies its stereotypes without making any fuss.
Thailand bursts with dreamy, laid-back, palm-filled islands washed by gentle turquoise waves, yes – but Phuket combines all that tropical-paradise allure with the lively buzz, creative vibe and thrilling food scene of a dynamic urban hub.
Let’s start with those fabulous flour-soft, salt-white beaches. My favorites are in the north of the island, including sparkling Hat Surin, five mile (8km)-long Ao Bang Thao and wilder Hat Layan. Phuket’s three northwesternmost strands are a treat too: Hat Nai Yang, Hat Mai Khao and Hat Nai Thon all sit within the protected Sirinat National Park and have a blissfully relaxed, nature-first feel. On the island’s southern tip, mellow Rawai is another beachy beauty I seek out on every visit; it’s known for its rustic seafood restaurants, buzzing kitesurfing scene and powdery strands like Hat Nai Han. Blazing sunsets draw crowds to dramatic Laem Phromthep here, and there’s almost a mystical feel as everyone simultaneously gazes out as the sun drops into the jade-colored Andaman Sea.
Phuket’s vibrant food scene
Phuket also has one of Thailand’s most irresistible food scenes, born from the mingling of Southeast Asian and Chinese cultures over the centuries (known here as Baba culture). The arty island capital Phuket Town is the culinary epicenter. A tin-mining hub in the 19th and 20th centuries, today now filled with candy-colored Sino-Portuguese buildings, restored hôrng tăa·ou (shophouses) and hidden shrines that burst into life for the September/October Vegetarian Festival. I like popping into the Lock Tien food court, where Phuketian classics like mèe hokkien (Hokkien noodles) and just-made spring rolls are served at plastic tables, or grabbing flaky roti topped with a fried egg at the always-popular Thai-Muslim breakfast spots on Thalang Rd. Long-running Mee Ton Poe is locally loved for its noodle dishes; Kopitiam does Phuket-style Thai classics; and Raya prepares its popular coconut-crab curry in a tile-covered Sino-Portuguese house.
On the fine-dining side, try the contemporary-Sardinian delights dreamt up by superstar chef Alessandro Frau at Acqua; the elevated Phuketian flavors of Patong’s gorgeous, garden-laced Ta Khai; Cherngtalay’s elegant Suay for chef Noi Tammasak’s arty twist on Thai cuisine; or Michelin-starred PRU in northern Phuket. There’s plenty to enjoy on the local coffee scene, too, with hipster-style hangouts such as Phuket Town’s The Shelter Coffee and Bookhemian easily rivaling Chiang Mai’s famously cool cafe culture.
I’ve happily spent time in Phuket with my brother, my partner and many friends over the years, but also as a solo female traveler. Whether you fancy a beachfront yoga class, heading out on a diving trip, visiting Buddhist temples (such as 150-year-old Wat Chalong) or perhaps tackling muay thai, Phuket’s activity calendar has it, and all kinds of travelers can expect a warm welcome here.
A signature Phuket highlight is escaping into gorgeous Ao Pha-Nga Marine National Park, where kayaking or paddle-boarding is the most rewarding, low-impact way to explore this bewitching bay dotted with limestone karsts. Day trips to Ko Phi-Phi – where Maya Bay recently reopened with strict new conservation rules – are perfectly doable, too. And did you know there’s also great hiking in Phuket? Rewarding routes include the sweaty jungle-traversing climb up to the 150ft(45m)-tall Big Buddha in the Nakkerd Hills near Kata, as well as paths through the wild rainforests of northern Phuket’s Khao Phra Thaew Royal Wildlife & Forest Reserve (home to the pioneering Gibbon Rehabilitation Project).
And nowhere does seductive beach hotels (or heavenly spas) like Phuket. You could go all out with a deluxe stay at one of Thailand’s top hideaways, such as Amanpuri, Trisara, The Surin Phuket or Rosewood Phuket. There are also fun, sociable hostels and design-forward boutique hotels (particularly in Phuket Town; Casa Blanca is a joy), along with mellow beachside guesthouses in places like west-coast Kamala.
Yet when I’m longing for this delicious island, I think of an early-morning stroll through Phuket Town, a plastic plate of steaming noodles arriving at a toes-in-the-sand beach shack, a soul-stirring swim in turquoise waves backed by rippling casuarinas. This is what Phuket is all about. No wonder it’s drawn people from all over the world for centuries.
It’d better be Bali
If Mark Eveleigh were ever told he could only travel in one country for the rest of his life, he’d choose Indonesia. This widely traveled journalist and author has written for numerous publications; his latest travel book is Kopi Dulu: 15,000km through Indonesia.
Overcrowded and overdeveloped? Or the world’s most beautiful island?
The fabled Island of the Gods, Bali certainly sees more than its fair share of tourists. The town of Ubud, a famous yoga haven and art capital, has its dedicated devotees – as does Uluwatu, with its sublime temple and adrenaline-pumping surf. Kuta was once party central, even if now the night owls are now heading to the beach clubs and cool cafes of Seminyak and booming Canggu.
Alongside five-star resorts such as Raffles and the Four Seasons that sprawl through tropical gardens and onto talcum-powder beaches, visitors can stay a host of exciting new designer places, like Lost Lindenberg and Nirjhara. And even as demand soars, you can still rent a simple, comfortable room with a private balcony overlooking a tropical garden for under $10 per night, breakfast included.
So, yes, tourism might be booming here. But on an island that’s over 10 times the size of Phuket, it’s still astoundingly easy to find an unspoiled corner.
Bali’s beguiling beaches
I’m a big fan of Thailand and have worked on many assignments (even books) in that wonderful country. But the colorful cast of gods and demons, ghosts and witches that play such a large part in traditional Balinese life fascinated me so much that they became central characters in my latest novel. Indeed, it’s the Balinese people that make the island uniquely appealing – not to mention one of the most culturally intriguing spots in the world.
Sure, Bali and Phuket both boast palm-shaded white-sand beaches that make visitors drool. But only Bali has a law that stipulates no buildings shall be tall enough to rise over those trees. Which means that even the most congested tourist centers here have been spared high-rise, Thai-style cityscapes.
In addition to the dreamy white beaches around Nusa Dua and the Bukit Peninsula, there are also romantic volcanic beaches where you can stroll for miles across a surface that shimmers like a black mirror without seeing another foreigner. If you enjoy dramatic wave-smashed coastlines (and some of the world’s best surfing) then you should stick to the southern coast; if you prefer tranquil reefs where dolphins, turtles and marine life gather then head to the sheltered northern coast.
An island of nature’s delights
When you’ve had enough of beaches, Bali’s volcanic highlands offer a smorgasbord of activities that little Phuket could barely dream of. The sunrise climb to Batur might be – justifiably – the most popular tour on the island, along with Ubud’s Monkey Forest. Inland, you can also cycle (25 miles downhill!), go white-water rafting or explore jungles and peaks on foot, by horse or even helicopter. In the unspoiled “wild west,” you can walk with pink buffalo or visit what might be the planet’s most photogenic traditional fishing fleet.
The arid hillsides of Northern Bali are planted with cashew, dragon fruit and (surprisingly) even vineyards. To the south, the slopes are dominated by the giant stairways of terraced paddies, in places running right down the ocean.
I fell in love with Bali some two decades ago, and my ideal writing retreat is on the remote western side of the island. Every time I get back I realize anew that West Bali might be the most achingly beautiful place on the planet. This third of the island remains almost entirely overlooked by visitors; even the islanders themselves are often astounded to hear that West Bali National Park has deserted beaches where wild deer trot through the shallows, and jungle-clad hills are home to hornbills, flying foxes and gibbon-like langur monkeys.
There are lots of places in the world with plenty to occupy you for a two-week vacation. Twenty years after my first visit to Bali, I’m still convinced that there’s enough there to keep me busy for a lifetime.