by Lee Cobaj from The Telegraph, December 17, 2019
If you're looking for a sultry Thai island that can do it all – family-friendly resorts to sleek luxury hideaways, SUPs to super yachts, beers in a hammock to cocktails at swanky beach clubs – you couldn't be better placed than on Phuket.
Thailand's largest isle lingers on the country's southwest coast, kissed by the Listerine-green Andaman Sea. The interior is a lush jungly tangle, its 36 beaches a paint chart of creams and golds, and there's a capital city – Phuket Town – packed with character and cracking good street food.
That's not to say it's perfect: large chunks of the island have been horribly overdeveloped, but those areas (such as Patong) are largely confined to the southwest coast and are easily avoided – leaving those in the know to lap up the rest of the island's many charms.
Hot right now . . .
Lee Cobaj, our destination expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to do and places to stay and drink this season.
In 2016, British conservationist Louise Rogerson opened the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, the island's first truly ethical camp for aged and injured eles. Now, she's launched a second equally impressive project: Treetops Elephant Reserve (00 66 81 477 2773) in the far south near Big Buddha Hill. The aims are the same: to educate visitors on the lives of elephants and the cruel practice of elephant riding, while allowing guests to walk with and observe the creatures up-close in their natural habitat. As life-affirming experiences go, this one is hard to beat.
One of Ibiza's hottest beach clubs Café Del Mar (00 66 61 359 5500) has bagged a spot on Kamala beach, a perfect bow of beautiful golden sands on Phuket's west coast. Like its Balearic counterpart it attracts a young fashionable crowd with beach cabanas, top-notch visiting DJs and raucous Sunday brunches. There's a minimum spend of THB3,000 (£77) Monday to Thursday and THB5,000 (£128) at the weekend, for two people sharing a double lounger. Cabanas cost more.
Who wants to live forever? Silicon Valley billionaires apparently, who've taken to investing fortunes in the quest for immortality. But Thanyapura (00 66 76 336 0000), Phuket's own version of the Olympic Village, offers a more affordable route to a longer life. Their new Health 360 programme features a detailed medical work-up, body composition scan, functional fitness test and lifestyle assessment (£128). Combine it with one of the sport retreat's super health and wellness programmes.
48 hours in . . . Phuket
It's more than likely that you'll be staying at a hotel close to the beach – after all, it's those pearly sands and jade-green seas that most people come here for. So work up an appetite before that big hotel breakfast by exploring Phuket's dramatic coast on a stand-up paddleboard – though in high season only, when the seas are at their calmest. Just after sunrise is when you can briefly see the island of old, when there was nothing other than lumbering water buffalo and the odd sleepy fisherman on the beach. Most hotels have boards you can use for free or for a small fee, while Skyla's Surf & SUP Club (Tambon Choeng Thale; 00 66 82 519 3282) offers guided sessions with instructors.
If it's low season and the waves are not calm, instead opt for an early morning beach walk (lots of the them are miles long) or a more strenuous hike up to Big Buddha in Chalong.
There's no need to eat yet, as you're going to spend the afternoon and early evening on an aqua-adventure with John Gray Sea Canoe (86 Soi 2/3; 00 66 7625 4505). Phang Nga bay is pretty well sheltered so the water stays calm year round, meaning tours can take place throughout the year, with hotel pick-ups from 11.30am onwards.
The eco-friendly boat company's 'Hong by Starlight' tour includes a lovely lunch of summery papaya salads and fat spicy noodles (as well as a splendid seafood dinner buffet) on its nine-hour exploration of Phang Nga Bay. But its not the food you're coming for, it's the spectacular scenery: glassy green seas, swooping brahmin eagles, gravity-defying limestone karsts, spooky sea caves, and hollowed-out islands known as hongs.
The boat drops anchor several times throughout the day, for kayaking and recces to empty beaches, but it's the last after-dark stop that really wows. You'll lie back in a kayak – so as not to scrape your nose on the rocks – and slide into the inky darkness of a hong. Once inside there's not a chink of light, until you dip your hand into the bioluminescent water, which lights up with every touch – like new stars being born in a distant corner of the cosmos. Dreamy.
John Gray's tour makes for a wonderfully exhausting day, so take it easy in the evening with a fashionably relaxed dinner at Bampot Kitchen and Bar in Cherngtalay(19/1 Moo 1; 66 93 586 9828). The menu features a bounty of fresh Thai ingredients with a Euro twist – such as prawn burgers on black bao buns, and beer-braised Chiang Mai chicken.
If you're there on a Wednesday or Sunday, make your way to the nearby night market to eat coconut ice cream and shop for souvenirs, clothes, bags and sandals. Otherwise, make tracks to ThaiCarnation (37 Lagoon Rd; 00 66 325 565), a local jasmine-scented massage place that's popular with Phuket's expats. The set-up is simple, but the Wat Po-trained therapists are tip top – and there are few better ways to end the day than with a session of Thai-style stretching and pummelling. One-hour treatments from THB 460 (£12).
With its candy-coloured Sino-Portuguese shophouses, old European mansions and banyan-shaded streets, Phuket Old Town feels quite unlike anywhere else on the island. Its eclectic international history means this is where you'll also find some of the best street food in Thailand: Burmese curries, crunchy samosas, smoky satay, freshly baked roti, Hokkien noodles, dim sum, Malay-spiced rice wrapped in banana leaves... and much more. It's more than possible to explore the local food scene on your own – the vendors might not speak English but they're cheery and helpful, and the dishes are so cheap (often less than TBH 20/50p for a snack on a skewer) that it's not a big deal if you pick something you don't like.
Spend the morning exploring the area and be sure to walk around Kaset Market (Thavornwogwong Rd), a morning food market (open from 5am to 10am) where you can feast on herby sausages, grilled pork belly with sticky rice and plump shrimp dumplings.
You'll need to book weeks in advance for a slot at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary (100, Moo 2; 00 66 7652 9099), a pioneering elephant rescue camp with the A-list stamp of approval (past visitors include Leonardo Di Caprio, Britney Spears, Celine Dion and Coldplay). There are no harmful rides or soul-destroying circus tricks here: instead, the elephants, which have been rescued from logging, begging and tourist camps, spend their days happily plodding around the forest, noisily smashing down bamboo groves and flopping into mud baths.
Interactions are kept to a minimum to allow the animals to live as naturally as possible, but guests are invited to feed the eles with pineapples, pumpkins and bananas – as well as accompanying them on their strolls. Pack sensible shoes that you don't mind getting muddy, as well as plenty of sun cream and insect repellent.
Your walk with elephants ends at 5pm, giving you just enough time to make it to the beach for one of those spectacular Andaman Sea sunsets. There are a bunch of great places along the coast to catch sundown: Rock Salt (23/3 Moo 1; 00 66 76 380 200), The Boathouse (182 Koktanode Road Kata Beach; 00 66 76 330 015), Catch Beach Club (00 66 65 348 2017) – but the most jaw-dropping of them all is Baba Nest (88/5 Sakdidej Road; 00 66 7637 1000), the rooftop bar at Sri Panwa, a pared-back platform that appears to hover over the surrounding rocks and inlets. Sip on a lime and basil martini, or an orange creamsicle – with sake, orange, brown sugar and coconut milk.
There's little else in the immediate area, so afterwards take a 25-minute taxi ride to Suay (50/2 Takuapa Road; 00 66 87 888 6990) – a cool contemporary Thai restaurant with consistently delicious food. Go for Chef Tammasak's recommendations for the day: standout dishes include Isaan-style spicy tuna tartar, crab cakes with sriracha chili aioli, and lemongrass lamb chops.
Where to stay . . .
This tranquil beachside resort on Phuket's classy north-west coast offers jet-setter levels of luxury. A fabulous swimming pool sweeps along the beachfront, where you'll also find a well-equipped watersports centre and a range of daily complimentary activities. Each of Trisara's 37 villas have eye-popping Andaman Sea views and are so generously spaced apart that you can frolic in the buff all day long without fear of ever being seen. Huge terraces come with dining tables, oversized sunloungers and infinity pools. Elsewhere, there's a spa and a couple of excellent restaurants.
Double rooms from THB 26,000 (£580). 60/1 Moo 6; 00 66 76 310100
This stylish hangout's exterior is boxy, grey and utilitarian – but inside it’s as light and airy as a birdcage. The cavernous lobby features swaying lobster-trap lampshades, chaise longues hewn from giant monkey pod trees, and an art installation of Thai tables precariously stacked and strung with marigolds. COMO Point Yamu's 79 sleekly designed rooms are positioned around the hillside. All have sea views, large terraces and spa-worthy bathrooms, while suites come with private pools.
Double rooms from THB 9,200 (£212). 225 Moo 7 Paklok Sub District; 00 66 76 360 100
Sala Phuket is the laid-back antidote to Phuket's flashier southern resorts. Guests are greeted with warm smiles, cold towels and ginger elixirs in a zen garden dotted with pretty red parasols. Your shoulders will slump into relaxation mode immediately. Facilities include a beach-hugging infinity pool and a fun pool for little ones, a watersports centre, complimentary bicycles and a gym. Sala also boasts an excellent spa. Expect to go home a size larger: the food is fantastic, and breakfast is included.
Double rooms from THB 4,600 (£103). 333 Moo 3; 00 66 76 388 888
What to bring home . . .
Don't leave Phuket without buying some local produce – such as purple butterfly flower tea, virgin coconut oil, and bags of herbs and spices. All are readily available at Phuket's street markets for a fraction of what you would pay back home.
When to go . . .
Phuket is said to have three seasons – dry, wet, and very wet – with temperatures hovering around 30C for most of the year. The high season falls between late November and late March, when the monsoon rains have passed and the Andaman Sea settles to a lake-like calm.
There are bargains and quieter beaches to be found in the April and May shoulder season, but be aware that this time of year is extremely hot and sticky and prone to sudden storms. Tropical rain showers become a daily occurrence from July to early November, and the sea whips up making it dangerous to swim anywhere along the west coast.
The long low season isn't a total write off though. I like this time of year for a wellness break as the island is far more peaceful, it's still warm enough to swim even if it does rain, and there are birds, butterflies and flowers everywhere you look. River rafting, kayaking and traipsing through the jungle in Khao Sok National Park is also a lot more fun at this time of year.
Know before you go . . .
Currency: The official currency is the Thai Baht (THB) – and while credit cards are widely accepted, cash is still the preferred method of payment. ATM machines have a service charge of THB 200 (£5) for every withdrawal from an international bank card.
Phone code: 00 66
Time difference: Six hours ahead of the UK in summer, and seven in winter.
Flight time: Direct flights from London to Bangkok have a journey time of about 12 hours; transiting through a Middle Eastern hub with the likes of Emirates or Etihad will add an additional two to three hours to the travelling time.
Costs: A 10 per cent service charge and 7 per cent government tax is often added to hotel rates and upmarket restaurant prices. They are shown as '++' on bills.
Safety: Phuket is generally a safe place to visit. However, it's smart to exercise caution if approached by strangers – whatever their nationality. There are a number of tourist scams, including motorbike and jet ski rentals who claim you have damaged the vehicles (never hand over your passport as security, and take photos before you depart), and taxi drivers who take passengers on unwanted shopping trips (and then get a commission cut from whatever they buy).
According to the World Health Organisation, Thailand has one of the worst road safety records in the world, with over 9,000 fatal road accidents per year (nearly five times higher than the number of people killed on UK roads). 74 percent of these fatalities are attributed to motorbikes. It is advisable not to hire a motorbike unless you have a full motorbike license, plenty of experience, and adequate travel insurance.
Foreign Office Advice: gov.uk
Emergency numbers: National tourist police hotline, 1155; Phuket tourist police hotline, 1699; British Embassy, 00 66 23 058 333.
Plugs and adaptors:Most four-star and five-star hotels have international sockets. Smaller hotels may require you to use a two-prong 220V adaptor.
Local laws and etiquette
- The King and Queen of Thailand are revered figures. Any criticism of the monarchy will cause great offence, and could result in arrest: foreigners are not above prosecution.
- Stand to attention if you hear the King’s Anthem being played. It is broadcast every day at 8am and 6pm, and at the beginning of every movie presentation.
- A Thai considers the top of their head to be the most sacred part of the body. Avoid touching the head of any adult.
- Be patient. A 'no worries' attitude permeates here, and there is little point in becoming frustrated as this usually only serves to slow matters down even more.
- Kissing and cuddling in public make Thai people uncomfortable, so save your PDAs for the privacy of your pool villa.
- The southern islands of Thailand are particularly prone to Dengue Fever, a mosquito-borne disease with no vaccine available. Pack plenty of repellent and use mosquito-avoidance measures at all times. Topless sunbathing is against the law in Thailand.
- From endangered slow loris being paraded on the beach in searing heat, to caged tigers being cajoled into cuddling strangers, Phuket has a shameful collection of Dickensian-style animal attractions. Many animal welfare groups have expressed grave concerns about the cruel ways in which many of these creatures are treated. Avoid encouraging the trafficking of rare animals by refusing to partake in any photo opportunities with wild animals, whether that be with touts on the beach or at a caged facility.
Lee Cobaj is The Telegraph's Phuket expert. She moved to Thailand's largest island six years ago and spent the next three years researching every grain of sand, far-flung island, and hotel of note. Lee now lives in Hong Kong but returns to her former island home every few months.
Experience Phuket with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels, tours and holidays in Phuket, tried, tested and recommended by our Phuket experts.