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Learn more about Phuket and the surrounding region with dozens of travel guides in this site
Phuket, a big and diverse island – be sure you understand it before booking a hotel
Beach Beauty – the reason Phuket is Thailand’s top beach destination
Stunning tropical beach beauty – this one simple attribute propelled Phuket from a completely unknown island in the 1970s to one of the world’s top beach destinations today. And with more than 10 million tourists arriving annually, it’s Thailand’s single biggest attraction. The string of beaches lying sun-kissed in mountainous bays at the southwest corner of this island are the stuff of tropical dreams, with calm, clear water running over clean sandy bottoms, and (some) coconut palms casting shadows as they sway over the white coral sand. A spine of steep mountains rises directly behind the beaches, adding geographic drama to the tropical seduction below. Western backpackers discovered these amazing beaches in the early 1980s and the world took notice.
Today’s Phuket has many more attributes, including a few thousand hotels and scores of attractions, to keep foreign visitors happy. However, it is the allure of those amazing beaches that remains the foundation of the island’s booming tourist trade and worldwide reputation.
Even as the back-of-beach areas had their greenery stripped away and new jungles of concrete took root, the natural beauty of the beach’s sand and water has endured, helped by the annual rejuvenation of the monsoon waves, and in 2014, a little survival assistance from the Thai military.
Read more about the Famous Beaches of Phuket’s Southwest Coast, and see more photos of each.
west coast tourist beaches, east coast Thai towns
Virtually all of Phuket’s beaches are found along the west coast, where they face the deep waters of the Andaman Sea, and for five months each year, the pounding of monsoon waves. The east coast faces the calm waters of Phang Nga Bay and has only a few narrow, poorly developed strips of sand interspersed with mangrove swamps and forests.
Thus, all of the commercial tourist towns that have sprung up over the past thirty years naturally cling to the west coast beaches. The biggest, most vibrant and famous of these tourism-generated communities is Patong, which now calls itself Patong City, an apt description of this crowded mini-metropolis. Virtually all Thai communities are found on the flat lands of the east coast, bringing a very distinct divide to the island: tourist west coast, Thai east coast, with a steep mountain range holding them apart. Phuket Town, the island’s administrative and commercial centre, is distinctly east coast.
Despite its relatively poor beaches, the east coast also offers a number of oceanfront hotels and resorts, particularly in the Cape Panwa and Chalong areas. Many visitors prefer these parts of the island just because they are less touristy, and the faces on the streets are local. Cape Panwa is also distinctly quiet and green, with most hotels offering beautiful views out over nearby islands.
One of the first decisions a new visitor to Phuket needs make is this: East coast, West Coast, which is right for me?
active, crowded beaches – tranquil, peaceful beaches
The common belief that Phuket is over-developed or over-crowded can only be applied to the south end of the island, and even then there are tranquil corners down south, lie Cape Panwa. The southwest corner of the island with the famous beaches of Patong, Karon and Kata is certainly crowded in high season. However, the top end of Phuket belies all talk of too many people or buildings; here there are many kilometres of beach without a hotel or other structure in sight, and beach hotels so tranquil they would send some people into boredom.
The biggest example of tranquility is the 10 kilometres of sand at Mai Khao; it has a half dozen hotels and nothing else. There’s no village, shops or anything else man-made within walking distance of the resorts. But for those who want it, there’s endless kilometres of beautiful, unspoiled beach with few people. Other beaches that offer guests near complete tranquillity are Mai Thon, Mai Thon Noi and Layan. Even Bang Tao beach has several kilometres of empty sand at its northern end.
So remember, Phuket is a big island – 50 kilometres long – with a wide diversity of beaches and environments. Beach sports are available on some beaches. It’s critical that new visitors do careful research to find the beach to match their expectations. This website has a dedicated travel guide for every beach; check them out before thinking about hotels.
the developed, urban south end; lots of things to do and see
Yes, that ‘over-developed’ tag might be applied to the south end of Phuket, yet here we see that it attracts countless thousands of visitors yearly, many of them return visitors. So many people simply love the exotic vitality and strange cultural blends that Thai communities constantly throw at them. And of course the numerous cultural attractions, activities and things to see and do in the south of the island keep people occupied when they tire of the beach. The plethora of restaurants and bars, many overlooking the ocean, is a big lure. But for many, nightlife is the biggest draw of all, and this end of the island has it all.
the undeveloped north end, little to do and see
At the other end of the scale, Phuket’s north offers almost no man-made attractions, few cultural ones, no nightlife and few activities away from the beach and resorts. There are almost no restaurants outside the resorts, and not even a shop at many beaches. Definitely too boring for those who flock to Phuket’s south end, this do-nothing environment is perfect for thousands of couples seeking a chill-out holiday by a natural beach. And for quite a lot of families. However, it’s interesting to note that many couples who deliberately choose this quiet end of the island also head south for one night of bawdy fun in Patong’s infamous nightlife zone – and return to their beds in serene-land. Phuket offers big contrasts.
beachfront resorts of world class
Thailand has become famous for the quality of its hotels and resorts, and many on Phuket are either world class or world-beaters. Of course, one of the Thai secrets is something very difficult for most countries to emulate; graceful, heart-felt service. Hospitality comes naturally to the ever-friendly Thais.
Thai hoteliers and developers have learned well from many of the world’s best architects who started coming here in the 1990s. Many of the hotels before that time were square and boxy, with little windows looking out onto desolate gardens. Today the island boasts so many beautiful resorts that act as delightful, lush refuges from the chaotic street development outside.
Many top international chains are now represented in Phuket, some with more than one property: Marriott, Hilton, Holiday Inn, Westin, Anantara, Banyan Tree, Outrigger and others, are now all Phuket residents.
While almost all of the old backpacker bungalows have disappeared from the island, there is still a huge range of good 3- and 4-star resorts in all corners of the island. Families find a wide range of beach resorts enticing them with excellent facilities, swimming pools of differing depths and special prices for children. Bang Tao Beach has the biggest range of family friendly hotels.
beware, just 5% of hotels are true beachfront
Phuket is Thailand's most famous beach destination, with over 1,000 hotels, resorts and guesthouses on the island. But be warned, if booking a beach vacation here, for surprisingly few of these are really on the beach. Many people have been disappointed to find a busy road between their hotel and the beach, particularly on the most famous beaches clustered along the island’s southwest coast; Patong, Karon and Kata.
Yet some people leave Phuket disappointed, often because their 'beach hotel' was not even within sight of the water, or because the atmosphere of their beach was simply wrong.
the big beaches clean-up of 2014 transformed Phuket’s beaches
The big beaches clean-up of 2014 instigated by then-new military government transformed Phuket’s beaches. The legal rationale behind this dramatic action was the removal of all illegal privates businesses operating on public land. But what really stirred the men in uniform were the gross and destructive excesses of business on the sand; big restaurants had cast huge concrete foundations right in the sand; beach lounges were clogging up some beaches; illegal concessionaires running beach umbrellas were chasing away visitors who refused to pay to remain in ‘their’ zone of the beach; restaurants were draining sewage and waste directly into the beach. The list went on. So the military moved in, creating an island-wide scream from those being tossed out of their livelihoods, and sparking a nation-wide debate.
The public backed the move, and most people looking at the beaches today agree that the move was needed to save Thailand’s beaches from the decay that was setting in.
Visitors who know Phuket from the ‘old’ days sometimes bemoan the fact that they can no longer enjoy all the services right on the beach that they could in the past. True. But look at today’s photos of the beaches, and those that we show from before the clean-up.
saw most beach lounges and umbrellas removed from the sands, and all commercial establishments like restaurants and shops. Today the only such establishments are those where private land is available to the back of the sand. All sandy beach in Thailand is public land, and legally there is no such thing as a ‘private’ beach. While quite a few hotels do boast of a ‘private’ beach, this is by virtue of limited or no access to those on the outside.
Patong, the island’s most famous attraction – due to wild nightlife
Interestingly, the single biggest attraction on this island of famous beaches has neither sand nor water; it’s a vibrant little street full of wild nightlife with pretty girl hostesses and outlandish lady-boys, Patong’s famous Soi Bangla. This evening walking street has become so famous that most group tours of Phuket, be it little old ladies or married couples, include a walk down this street. It’s likely that the majority of all visitors to the island take at least one stroll through Bangla during their visit. And while many do little more than walk and gawk at the titillating bodies swirling or gyrating around them, many couples settle into one to the open-air street bars for a few drinks and a chance to absorb the free-wheeling atmosphere. Single men are more likely to disappear behind dark doors in the little alleys. See more about Patong’s famous, wild nightlife.
day trips and activities in a beautiful and diverse region
Phuket lies in region of vast geographic beauty and interest – and that gives visitors a whole range of interesting day-trips and other excursions to make. Most famous of the geo wonders is adjacent Phang Nga Bay; Phuket forms the protective, western side of this bay. The Phi Phi Isalnds are almost as famous, and are part of the same bizarrely-shaped karst formations that appear throughout the region. Both of these are easily accessed by day trip, for which there are many choices. Beware, if planning to visit Phang Nga Bay, of the many cheap, cattle-truck tours marketed under the name of James Bond island tours.
Also beware of the pitfalls of taking a one day return trip to the far-off Similan Islands. They don’t always turn out happily, and don’t take young children or grandparents on them.
Renting a car and driving yourself is a great way to go in Phuket, and even better for touring neighbouring provinces like Phang Nga. The roads are good and quite safe.
see Phuket as it used to be in the 1980s
For those interested in a look at how things used to be, I have a page showing my historical photos of Phuket’s beaches beginning in the 1980s. It’s interesting, an sometimes sad, to see how tourism has transformed the island.