Jade-hued waves concealing rainbows of fish wash white-gold beaches wrapped in Phuketian heritage: Phuket (ภูเก็ต), Thailand's dazzling largest island, is so diverse you may never want to leave.
The pearly white, palm- and casuarina-fringed beaches that ring Phuket's southern and western coasts are the island's key bounty. Each beach is different, from the northwest's upmarket Surin and Ao Bang Thao (with their luxe resorts and, in Bang Thao, glossy beach clubs) to mellow, jungled Rawai on far south Phuket, or the infamous west-coast sin city of Patong, home of hangovers and go-go bars. So there's space for everyone, whether you're a backpacking couple, a luxury jetsetter, a wandering budgeteer or a travelling family on the hunt for seaside fun.
Those tropical-island beaches are glorious, of course, but venture just a little beyond and you'll uncover astonishing Phuketian cultural riches that many visitors zip right past. East-coast capital Phuket Town delights with its eye-opening museums, Peranakan cooking, Chinese shrines and historic mansions and shophouses done in characteristic Sino-Portuguese style. Major temples stand in Chalong and Thalang, while two national parks and a smattering of wildlife sanctuaries await exploration in the island's northern reaches. Even a speedy trip up into the hills behind Kata to Big Buddha connects you to modern-day Phuket's pulse.
Some of Thailand's most magnificent landscapes lie hidden away beneath the Andaman's glittering surface, and Phuket sits blissfully within day-tripping distance of both Ko Phi-Phi's popular dive sites and the famed, national-park-protected, impossibly beautiful Similan Islands. A wealth of local dive schools will have you strapping on a mask and communing with denizens of the deep in no time. For those who don't fancy diving straight in, snorkelling trips offer a tantalising taster, while kayaking expeditions into Ao Phang-Nga's hushed hôrng (semi-submerged island lagoons) reveal awe-inspiring seascapes of towering limestone karsts.
On Phuket, as in other regions across the Land of Smiles, Thai cuisine takes on its own distinct character. Soulful, spicy, salty southern-Thai cooking collides with Chinese and Malay flavours and influences – so you get, say, Thai-style dim sum or roti dipped in curry for breakfast, along with local culinary creations like mèe pad hokkien (stir-fried hokkien noodles in a broth), mŏo hong (pepper-and-garlic-braised pork), mèe gaang pôo (crab-meat curry with noodles) and pàk miang (scrambled spinach-like leaves). You'll also uncover a world of exquisite fusion menus, elegant international cuisine and freshly caught seafood.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Phuket.
Beautiful 8km-long Hat Bang Thao is one of the longest, dreamiest beaches on Phuket. This slice of pearlescent sand is just asking for you to laze around on it and do nothing, with midrange bungalows at the south end and luxury resorts (including the Laguna Phuket complex) in the middle. A couple of beach clubs dot its southern and northern tips.
Founded in 1934 and formerly a Chinese-language school, this flashy museum is filled with photos, videos and English-language exhibits on Phuket’s history, from the Chinese migration (many influential Phuketian families are of Chinese origin), the tin-mining era and the Vegetarian Festival to local cuisine, fashion and literature. The building itself is a stunning combination of Chinese and European architectural styles, including art deco, Palladianism and a Chinese gable roof and stucco, plus a British-iron gate.
Built in 1903 with tin-mining riches, this beautifully preserved Sino-Portuguese mansion should make any antique- or architecture-lover's must-visit list. Others might find the four-poster steel beds done up in Victorian lace a bit gaudy. But the historical details of the atrium foyer – with its arch-framed koi pond, fresh-hibiscus bowls, gorgeous Italian ceramic tiles, blue-and-white-shuttered windows and vintage black-and-white family portraits – make visits incredibly rewarding. It's still lived in by the sixth-generation descendants of original owner Phra Pitak Chinpracha.
One of the island's most important Chinese shrines, this red-washed, elevated complex is dedicated to Tean Hu Huan Soy, god of performers and dancers. It’s also the major base for serious (read: violently pierced) participants during Phuket's Vegetarian Festival. Originally located on Soi Romanee, the shrine dates back to 1911 and was relocated to its current position after a fire; today it houses a 21st-century firecracker tower. Yellow-and-red-signed vegetarian restaurants line Th Ranong nearby.
A handful of Chinese temples pump colour into Phuket Town, but this restored shrine, tucked away up a 50m alley now adorned with modern murals, is particularly atmospheric, with its Taoist etchings on the walls and the vaulted ceiling stained from incense plumes. The altar is always fresh with flowers and burning candles, and the surrounding Sino-Portuguese buildings have been beautifully repainted. The shrine is said to have been built by a local family in 1889.
For a bird’s-eye view of the city, climb (or drive) up Khao Rang, 2.5km northwest of Phuket Town's centre. An overhanging viewing platform opens up 270-degree panoramas across the town to Chalong Bay, Laem Phanwa and Big Buddha. It’s at its most peaceful during the week. There are a few restaurants and cafes up here, as well as monkeys. Wat Khao Rang is worth a look along the way. It's about an hour's walk.
Branching off Th Thalang, in the heart of the Old Town, this small, vibrant street flaunts some of Phuket's most gorgeously revamped Sino-Portuguese architecture. Once home to brothels and gambling and opium dens, it now hosts a smattering of boutique cafes and guesthouses, and is a favourite photo spot. It's particularly beautiful at night, when Chinese lanterns cast a soft glow.
Chalong, 9km north of Rawai, is home to Phuket's only working distillery, launched by French couple Marine Lucchini and Thibault Spithakis, who bonded over booze – rum, in particular. Upon arrival for the 30-minute tour, you'll be awarded a mojito concocted from their delicious product. The distillery also hosts two-hour cocktail workshops (Monday and Thursday; 1700B). Book ahead, mostly if you need directions: it's 3km northeast of Chalong Circle; turn right (east) at Phuket Zoo signs, then it's signposted shortly after.
High atop the Nakkerd Hills, northwest of Chalong Circle, and visible from half the island, the 45m-high, Burmese-alabaster Big Buddha sits grandly on Phuket's finest viewpoint. It's a tad touristy, but tinkling bells and flags mean there's an energetic pulse. Pay your respects at the golden shrine, then step up to the glorious plateau, where you can glimpse Kata’s perfect bay, Karon's golden sands and, to the southeast, the pebble-sized channel islands of Ao Chalong.