Siam Island Hopper Guide to Phuket
From Sino-Portuguese architecture in Old Town to hidden beaches and authentic Phuket cuisine. Watch as Siam Island Hopper Episode 1 takes you on an insider tour of Phuket.
We know what you’re thinking. Phuket? That island pronounced Fook-et and filled with crowded beaches, luxury resorts, and hordes of middle-aged tourists? Well, it’s Poo-ket. And, think again.
It’s true the island has been on the tourist map for decades, but it still offers an amazing experience for the savvy traveler. There’s a lot more to the “Pearl of the Andaman” than bar girls and Bangla Road. (Although there’s plenty of that too.)
Phromthep Cape, Phuket’s most southern point.
Why do we love Phuket? Let us count the ways.
- First, it has something other islands palpably lack: history. The island has existed as an important settlement for hundreds of years. Unlike other Thai beach towns – little more than fishing villages when the tourism boom began in the 1970s – Phuket Town’s charming Sino-Portuguese shophouses were already standing a century ago, and there’s a level of sophistication in the air that you won’t find in the likes of Koh Samui.
- Secondly, Phuket offers far more in terms of sheer breadth of activities than any other Thai island. And while the likes of Patong and Kata/Karon may have long-since ceased to deserve the description “relaxing island getaway”, there remain plenty of pockets of tranquil beauty secreted across the island, if you know where to look.
- Third, Phuket happens to offer some of the best eating in Thailand – and in a country so richly endowed in the culinary sense, that’s really saying something. There are restaurants trading in cuisine from all over the globe on the island, some of them doing so very successfully, but if you explore the local flavours and aren’t afraid of a bit of spice, we think you’ll be blown away.
- And fourth, if you have the budget, Phuket also happens to offer some of the finest beach resorts on the planet, with the service, hospitality and setting that that implies. But if you don’t have deep pockets, you can still have a great time in Phuket – armed with a little local knowledge.
Where to eat
Few people think of Phuket as a foodie paradise, but that’s exactly what it is. We aren’t just talking about the Westernised restaurants that, appropriately enough, cover the West coast, although some of them are pretty damn good. The pizzeria Capannina in Kata, to give just one example, is legendary among local expats. It has grown over the years and reached barn-like proportions, but its wood-fire oven pizzas remain worth the trip to Kata alone.
Sino-Portuguese architecture and local cuisine in Phuket Town.
Still, we think you’re better off being more adventurous. Head to Phuket Town, where it’s almost impossible to have a bad meal at any budget. Most of the town’s population have at least some Chinese ancestry, their forebears mostly hailing from Fujian province. This Hokkien heritage has shaped the culture of the town in many ways, one of them being the food. You’d be well advised, then, to head to Mee Ton Poe at the clock tower junction in the centre of town for a bowl of Hokkien mee, a tasty dish of thick yellow noodles fried with pork, seafood and greens – yours for less than a couple of bucks. The establishment has been dishing up this quintessential Phuket Town dish in reliable form since 1946.
Phuket style dim sum at Phuket Pochana.
The traditional Phuket breakfast is neither the fry-up (despite what you might see heading down gullets in Patong), nor even the traditional Thai khao tom (rice soup), but dim sum. Phuket dim sum isn’t as refined as what you’ll find in Hong Kong, but it’s a hearty way to start the day, and it’s served with a spicy red dipping sauce that really gets the metabolism moving. Check out Boonrat Dim Sum, which has several branches, or Phuket Pochana, with its “Old Phuket” retro stylings, on Wirat Hongyok Road.
Seafood is, of course, key to the Phuket diet. There are a number of floating seafood restaurants a few minutes to the north of the town on Phuket’s east coast. Head to the small harbour of Laem Hin, from where you can take a boat ride to a winning dinner. All these establishments trade in excellent Thai-Chinese preparations of shrimp, sea bass, snapper and less common catches. If you need specifics, Laem Hin Seafood is a reliable bet. But if boat rides and sea-based restaurants all sound like too much for your hangover, you can enjoy similar cuisine of equal – or possibly even better – quality in Phuket Town itself. Head to Paknam Seafood at Nimit Circle, and make sure to order their legendary shrimp cakes and pla nueng manao (whole fish steamed in lemon and chilli).
Fresh crabs on display at Banzaan Fresh Market on Patong Beach.
Patong, although touristy, still has a number of good seafood options. Patong Seafood on Patong Road across from the beach has a nice view of the water. Go all out with grilled Phuket lobster dipped in spicy Thai seafood sauce. At Savoey Seafood, simply choose your seafood and how you want it cooked. White snapper is a Thai staple. Get it deep-fried with fish sauce and topped with spicy, sour mango salad.
Heading a little upscale, we’d be remiss without mentioning Raya, a Phuket institution set in a renovated Sino-Portuguese mansion. Yes, Raya is in all the guidebooks, but there’s a reason for that. Several dishes are practically obligatory orders: mu hong, sweet-and-sour stewed pork belly; the creamy crab curry, with its absurdly generous hunks of crabmeat; giant shrimp in tamarind sauce; and – if you’re looking for something a little more challenging – stink beans and shrimp fried in shrimp paste.
Get your beach on
Of course, you don’t come to a place like Phuket to stuff your face – not exclusively, anyway. You come for azure waters, fine white sand between your toes and palm-fringed beaches. And despite the years, which have taken their toll on some of the island’s formerly world-beating beaches, there are still places that make you feel very lucky to be.
Your first move should be to head up the coast to the island’s northwest, where kilometres of pristine coastline stay relatively quiet no matter the time of year. At the north of Bangtao Beach is Layan Beach. Here, the island of Koh Kala serves as a wave break and the sea stays calm. The local restaurant serves good Thai food and rents out sea kayaks, an excellent way to while away a lazy afternoon.
Paddle boarding at sunset on Kata Beach.
Continuing down the coast, you’ll find the famous Patong Beach, the epicenter of tourist life and nightlife in Phuket. With all the convenience of a city, including Jungceylong shopping center, tons of hotels, restaurants and bars, this is the most developed area on the island. It’s the perfect place to play. And when the sun goes down, it’s the place to party.
Views of Nai Harn beach.
Nai Harn Beach is known as one of the better surf spots on the island (not that Phuket’s surf is up to much) and tends to get rather crowded during high season. Instead, head to the next beach to the south and you’ll find Yanui Beach. Less crowded than Nai Harn, it offers the same forest-fringed ambience as its bigger neighbour, with half the crowds.
Walking along Kata beach.
Alternatively, if you’re based in Phuket Town, rent a bike and head south. About 10 minutes south of the city is Cape Panwa, which boasts some of the island’s most beautiful coastline and best resorts. The beach of Ao Yon is seeing more development these days but remains one of the island’s most pleasant beaches, with calm and shimmering shallow waters hardly troubled by other souls.
Party like a Phuketian
Phuket loves to party, and if you’re the kind of traveller who is proud to have never made it to breakfast, you’ll fit right in. You’re never stuck for a place to enjoy a picturesque sundowner. Beautiful Surin Beach has some slick establishments that make a mean mojito. Catch Beach Club has fresh, tasty and perfectly cooked seafood along with an eclectic mix of house music and comfy beach beds for great drinking vibes.*
Catch Beach Club on Surin Beach.
The more down-and-dirty restaurants on the hill to the south of Kata Noi (you can’t miss them) make perfect after-beach beer spots. Ska Bar and Restaurant features a blend of reggae, hip hop and R&B and a great view of Kata Beach.
Perched on a hill overlooking Kata from a bit further away is After Beach Bar. Perfectly named, this restaurant has a great view and a thick menu of reasonably priced food. No wonder it’s been a favorite of locals and visitors for years.
Bangla Road in Patong.
The major nightlife hub on the island is, of course, Bangla Road in Ol’ Dirty itself, Patong. With its huge hooker-filled discos you’d be forgiven for giving it a wide birth, but not every establishment on the road is disreputable and if you’re not too prissy there are good times to be had. Seduction, with a capacity of some 3,000, is professionally run and has attracted big name DJs like Calvin Harris, Skrillex and Goldie in the past. Or get your dance on with hip-hop and techno until the early hours at Illuzion, another massive club.
Inside Illuzion nightclub on Bangla Road.
For a very different vibe, head to Phuket Town. Here, the scene is Thai in terms of crowd and spirit and makes a refreshing alternative to the more tourist-oriented joints. Bars come and go quickly in the city – local crowds are fickle and get bored easily, while the town’s older residents are liable to start complaining once the crowds and noise get out of hand. As of now, the current favourite for locals and clued-in expats alike is Hua Pan. Think retro stylings and live bands belting out everything from Britpop to ska and reggae. Nearby are Saxophone and Mahanakorn, if you want to turn your night into a crawl.
Sleeping it off
Needless to say, you won’t have trouble finding a bed in Phuket, which has everything from cheap flophouses to some of the world’s best resorts. Everything depends on your budget, and it’s worth putting a bit of thought into where you stay, based on the kind of vacation you’re looking for. For those tourists who aren’t bothered about being far from the action, Cape Panwa is the place to stay. If you can afford the Sri Panwa – beloved of celebrities the world over – congratulations. Otherwise, read on. Moving down the pecking order is the Radisson Blu Plaza Resort. We wouldn’t normally plug a large chain like this with two pools and a private beach in one of Phuket’s most pristine bays, it’s difficult to avoid staying here once you know what you’re missing.
The Memory at On On Hotel in Phuket Town.
Until relatively recently, finding good accommodation in Phuket Town wasn’t easy. A traveller faced the choice between some decaying Chinese hotels and a couple of damp backpacker guesthouses. In the last few years, a wave of renovations has improved the situation. The On On Hotel, in business since 1929, had latterly fallen into disrepair and, suitably grungy, was chosen as a location for scenes in the Leonardo Dicaprio movie The Beach. It received a new lick of paint in 2012 and has been rebranded at The Memory at On On Hotel. It remains very affordable but has added “pleasant” to its resume. A little more upmarket is Casa Blanca, still a bargain by the standards of much of the planet. This newish hotel offers elegant rooms in the heart of the town, as well as a Phuket Town rarity: a swimming pool.
If you want to be where the action (read: nightlife) is, an upscale – but reasonably priced – stay in Patong is your best option. Baan Laimai Resort does the trick, with spacious pools and a pleasant open air restaurant. You’ll be adequately protected from the hectic neighborhood, but the food, bars and shopping of Patong will be on your doorstep.
But while hotels and resorts remain obvious ports of call, if you’re travelling in a group then hiring a villa – whether through Airbnb or one of the many local property rental sites – may be your best option. There ain’t no party like a private pool party. Alternatively, for the rugged and frugal of budget, you can’t beat sleeping under the stars. And Mai Khao Beach, a long stretch of still-pristine coastline in Phuket’s northwest, offers the chance to do exactly that. Phuket Camp Ground, a short drive away, allows you to rent tents by a pleasant lake. Think low bills, stars and barbecues on the beach.
Phuket may not have the waves of places like Bali and Sri Lanka, but that hasn’t stopped the island making a grab for the surf dollar. Surf House Phuket offers perfect waves, all day long, all year round. For those not familiar with flowboarding, here, water is pumped at high pressure up a sloping pool, simulating the experience of riding some pretty awesome surf. A divider separates the real surf dudes from the beginners, who can learn to surf by holding a guide rope. The venue also features a terrace bar, making it a suitable place to while away an afternoon, whether you want to hit the surf or not.
Catching waves at Surf House Phuket.
While there’s nothing you could call a “mountain” in Phuket, it’s a hilly island, as anyone who’s experienced the madness of going “over the hill” to Patong will attest. There are a few places where you can enjoy impressive views of the whole shebang, often with a beer in your hand. Khao Rang offers great views of Phuket Town, a couple of good restaurants, and picnic benches for beery afternoons. Much less well known is Khao Khad Viewpoint in Cape Panwa, which can usually be enjoyed solo and offers similar panoramic views of Chalong Bay.
Zip lining through Phuket’s jungles at Flying Hanuman.
Test your fear of heights with zip lining at Flying Hanuman. You’ll satisfy your adrenaline needs for the day (or the year) and get a great view of the Phuket jungle. And there’s a 40-meter free fall for the really brave.
In Phuket Town, the Trick Eye Museum is worth a visit, particularly if you’re nursing a hangover. In a twist to the usual art museum set-up, here visitors don’t just stare at paintings, they actually become part of them. These cunningly rendered trompe l’oeil images will send you off with a bunch of cool photos to add to the beach shots.
Phuketians celebrating the Vegetarian Festival.
If you can make it to Phuket in mid-October, then you must. This is when the island’s Vegetarian Festival takes place – an event approximately 1,000 times less lame than it sounds. Also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival or simply “thessakan kin je” in Thai (“eat vegetarian festival”), the Veg Fest is surely one of the world’s weirdest happenings. Over a nine-day period, Phuketians pay respect to Chinese warrior gods by wearing white, abstaining from sex and booze, and eating only vegan food. What makes the festival famous is its processions of ma song, devotees who, according to local belief, enter trance states, become possessed by dead warriors and become impervious to all pain. The ma song take part in long processions through the towns of the island, proving their invincibility by committing gruesome acts of self-mutilation, including sticking outlandish objects through their cheeks, slicing their tongues with axes and walking on hot coals. It’s gruesome, yes, but serves as a glorious annual reminder that Phuket is a lot weirder and more interesting than you think.
*Editor’s Note: As of April 2016 the beach clubs on Surin Beach, including Catch Beach Club, have been demolished to make room for Rajabhakti Park, expected to be completed at the end of 2019.
Photography by Guy Houben
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