A look at how Phuket has evolved and changed into a brand new tourist destinationby Dave Stamboulis
Phuket conjures up a lot of different images to travelers and lovers of Thai beach resorts. It’s been called the “Pearl of the Andaman,” paradise on earth, and more recently, a whole lot of other far less flattering names. While many think of Thailand’s southern tourist prima donna as just overdeveloped hedonism gone wild, they forget that Phuket is far more than just Patong Beach. Yes, Patong is an overdeveloped massive party center, but Phuket is a giant peninsula. It is home not only to fine white sand beaches but also plenty of quiet idyllic spots, offshore islands, as well as a wonderful Chinese colonial town, which is seeing an architectural and boutique-style renaissance. Throw in some great food and drink, and one of the world’s most bizarre festivals, and you’ve got all the makings of one amazing travel destination.
Most visitors come to Phuket to laze on the beach but even the most hardcore sand aficionados should spend at least one afternoon in Phuket Town. The peninsula’s main city had fallen into a bit of disrepair over the years, which was a pity as it is home to some lovely Sino-Portuguese architecture, atmospheric crumbling old mansions and manors, plus bustling streets that are home to Chinese shophouses. This was the former base of the tin mining area of Phuket (how the island became rich and famous long before tourism), full of narrow alleys, red light districts, and traditional shop-house culture. Thanks to the local tourism industry, all of these historic areas have been restored and done up into a photographer and nostalgia lover’s delight. Unsightly power lines that blocked just about every nice vista have now been buried underground, leaving rows of newly painted shops along Talang, Dibuk, Krabi, and Soi Romanee roads, right in the heart of the historic Old Town, which are now filled with tourists reliving the glory of Phuket’s past.
The governor’s mansion, built in 1903, had fallen into shambles, but the Blue Elephant (Tel. 076 354355, www.blueelephant.com/phuket/) Thai Restaurant and Cookery School has restored it to its full glory and turned it into one of Southeast Asia’s most romantic eateries. Not far from here visitors used to flock to check out the On On Hotel, a 1920s building with a beautiful facade that featured in the film “The Beach.” In reality the hotel had become a crumbling backpacker’s shanty, but it too has been completely restored into a boutique stay, now known as the Memory at On On (Tel. 076 363777, www.thememoryhotel.com), with lovely rooms showing off its old grandeur and charm. The historic Standard Charter Bank building, another victim of years of wear, is now being brought back to life as a museum of Baba Peranakan culture, which is a blend of the Malay, Chinese, and Thai cultures that flourished here during the mining years. To learn more about the mining history, make sure to visit the new Mining Museum (Tel. 088 766 0962), which displays old tin mining equipment and techniques, and details the history of tin and Phuket’s rise to prominence because of it. If the mine theme really takes hold of you, then consider splurging for a night or two at the Indigo Pearl (Tel. 076 327 006, www.indigo-pearl.com), a five-star resort designed by renowned architect Bill Bensley to recreate and celebrate the island’s tin mining days.
Don’t forget to stop in to Phuket during its other ode to the days of mining, the bizarre and macabre Vegetarian Festival. Every year for nine days the island erupts into a frenzy, during which time locals do purification rites, go into trances, and puncture their faces with crazy items like beach umbrellas and air conditioners as they march through the streets blessing all the businesses for the coming year and driving out the evil spirits. Other grisly feats include walking on hot coals, climbing bladed knife ladders, and bathing with hot oil. The event is usually held in September or October depending on the Chinese lunar calendar, and it is a truly unique spectacle.
But hey, you came here to sit in the sun, right? Phuket does happen to be blessed by some fantastic sand, sea, and surf. While Patong Beach, as well as Karon and Kata beaches, are pretty built up, the recent government decision to remove the beach umbrellas and vendors from the beaches has them looking much like they did 30 years ago; lots of space and plenty of clean white sand. While there is still plenty of jet skiing and parasailing to be had here, those in search of a quieter slice of paradise will appreciate spots like Mai Khao, up in the north of the peninsula. Mai Khao remains under the protection of national park status, so it has not been developed and is a great place to escape the hordes. Freedom Beach, which is accessed by boat (extremely hard to reach on foot), yet near to Patong is another great swathe of white sand and turquoise water, which gets less trammeled due to the fact visitors have to charter a longtail boat out to it. Layan Beach is another hidden gem, and is now home to the swanky Nikki Beach Club (Tel. 076 681 161, www.nikkibeach.com/destinations/beach-clubs/phuket/), a local version of the fabled Miami Beach and St. Tropez seaside hideaway.
There are other great beaches just off the coast of Phuket that day trippers are flocking to looking for an island escape. Charming spots like Koh Bon and Koh Mai Thon have great snorkeling and beautiful beaches, and are only a short speed boat ride away. Even more spectacular, many Phuketizens now use speedboats to reach the fabulous Similan Islands, home to Thailand’s best diving, and a national park full of white sand beaches. Many operators also run live aboard dive trips out here.
Beaches and Phuket Town aside, there is still plenty more to do on the island. The latest and certainly most unique attraction to hit Phuket is Baan Teelanka (Tel. 084 456 5279, www.upsidedownhouse-phuket.com) better known as The Upside Down House. This is a three leveled, fully furnished, completely upside down house, where the sofas are on the ceilings, fish swim in upside down aquariums, and even the owner’s tuk tuk is parked upside down. Needless to say, the photo ops here are amazing, and whatever you think of it, it certainly is a nice alternative to temples and beaches.
Another place highly deserving a visit is the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (Tel. 076 260 491, www.gibbonproject.org). You may notice that we are not listing any of the tiger temples and elephant or monkey show attractions in this review, and there is a good reason for this. Many of them have come under heavy scrutiny, and have been accused of being unethical, treating animals miserably, and in some cases, being potentially downright dangerous. You can be your own judge if you want to check some of those places out, but the Gibbon Project is one endeavor that deserves support. Located in Khao Phra Theaw National Park (which is a worthwhile destination in its own right, home to waterfalls and rainforest canopies), the Gibbon Project seeks to stop the illegal use of white-handed gibbons for tourist shows and from sales in local markets, and rehabilitates them back into their natural habitat. You can visit the informative center here, see gibbons from a viewing platform, and even stay awhile and volunteer if you set it up beforehand.
While Phuket’s viewpoints can get crowded at sunset, there is good reason for this, as they offer stunning panoramic views out to sea, with great island vistas stretching all the way out to Phi Phi Island on a clear day. The most famed vista is the Promthep Cape viewpoint, located at the island’s extreme southernmost tip. Vendors set up stalls selling grilled chicken and papaya salad here, plus cold beers, and it is a pretty atmospheric spot for a picnic. You can stroll around on the walkways, even climb up to the lighthouse at the end of the cape, giving 360-degree panoramas of all of the Phuket surroundings. The Panwa Cape, on the southeastern side, isn’t quite as crowded, and also gives off fabulous views, plus there is a nearby viewing platform called Khao Khad Tower, where you can ascend several levels of stairs and take in all of the places you’ve just visited.
MORE TO CHOOSE FROM
sri panwa —
sri panwa Phuket is a seriously stylish resort made more seductive by the breathtaking views of the Southeastern Andaman Sea, and making it a consistent award winner. The 60-villa resort – with its interiors that embrace the essence of Tropical Contemporary design — integrate its natural surroundings with the modern comforts of luxury living. The entire resort is meant to satisfy those in need of occasional glam-fun escapes. Address: sri panwa Phuket, 88 Moo 8, Sakdidej Road, Vichit, Muang, Phuket; Tel: 076 637-1000; email: email@example.com
Amanpuri Phuket, a flagship property of the Amanresorts, was designed with much thought and concern about its surroundings indeed. The trademark Aman mixture of authentic architecture, supreme comfort and impeccable service remained largely unaltered since the resort’s opening in 1988. Contemporary and yet very Thai, an amazing example of Asian tropical resort design that has been imitated but never equaled. Address: Amanpuri, Pansea Beach, Phuket; Tel: 076 324 333; email firstname.lastname@example.org
Iniala Beach House —
Situated on the beautiful golden sands of Natai beach facing the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea, Iniala Beach House comprises three absolute beachfront villas and an amazing penthouse. Each villa has a dedicated team including a driver, butler, chef, spa therapist and a housekeeper. One the real luxurious new addresses when you are visiting Phuket. Address: Iniala Beach House, Tel: 076 451 456; email: email@example.com
Royal Phuket Marina —
Royal Phuket Marina is strategically located along the center of Phuket’s eastern seaboard, on the doorstep of Thailand’s famous Phang Nga Bay. The marina is Thailand’s first world-class ‘luxury lifestyle marina.’ Developed over 30 hectares (190 rai) of prime land, right next to Phuket Boat Lagoon in Koh Kaew, it has 350 berths for yachts of up to 35m- long and 400 luxury waterfront villas, penthouses and condominiums. The marina ranks among Asia’s premier boating hubs. Address: Royal Phuket Marina, 68 Moo 2, Thepkasattri Rd., Kohkaew, Muang, Phuket // Tel: 076 360 811; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Boat Lagoon Resort —
Right next to Royal Phuket Marina in Koh Kaew is the Boat Lagoon Phuket, which was the island’s first marina complex fully operation since 1994. It is surrounded by a group of condominiums, the Boat Lagoon Resort, serviced apartments and restaurants, shops and offices. Short- and long-term accommodation is available overlooking the marina. Address: 22/1 Moo 2 Thepkrasatri Rd, T. Koh Kaew, A. Muang, Boat Lagoon / Paklok, Phuket
JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa —
Set 15 km north of Phuket airport, JW Marriott Phuket introduces guests to a realm of indescribable beauty, flawless service and thoughtful touches. Daydream by spectacular pools or venture beyond the doors of one of the finest Phuket resorts for an exhilarating day of elephant trekking, diving off the Similan Islands or exploring the wild on a safari. Elegantly appointed guestrooms have wooden floor and Terracotta tiles, lustrous silks, and balconies with garden, pool or sea views to provide the ultimate indulgence. The resort also has 11 restaurants and bars, in addition to Ginja Cook, the premier culinary school where you can learn the intricacies of fine Thai cooking. The resort’s award-winning Mandara Spa will ease you into total relaxation with extraordinary Western and Asian treatments. Address: 231 Moo 3 Mai Khao, Talang, Phuket // Tel: 076 338 000
Acqua Phuket —
Kalim Beach, just north of Patong, is turning into something of a gastronomic hot spot, and Acqua, a modern Italian restaurant owned and operated by Sardinian-born chef, Alessandro Frau is one of the hottest dining spots. See our separate review on the Wine & Dine pages. Address:322/5 Prabaramee Road Kalim Beach //Tel: 076 618 1
Ka Jok See —
For fun fine dining in Phuket town, visit Ka Jok See. It is one of Phuket’s most low-profile restaurants, and yet very popular, because of word-of-mouth recommendations. The restaurant, packed every night, serves mostly Thai food, and draws many local celebrities. Address: 26 Takua Pa Road, Phuket Town (off Rassada Road, past Michael’s bar) // Tel: 076 217 903
SEE & DO
Phuket offers tour for every budget, interest, and group size. Here are some of them: Phi Phi by Speedboat – Technically, Phi Phi is part of Krabi, but Phuket tour operators offer lots of daytrip tours to this beautiful island as well to other islands and islets situated in between. Other popular daytrips from Phuket takes you to Koh Hong, an intriguing island in the middle of the Andaman, Similans (the famous diving spot), Surin, and other hotspots. There is also the Phuket Island & City Tours, especially designed for first-timers and Safari Tours, if you want some soft eco-tourism adventures. By the way, do find time to watch a Phuket Fantasea Show. And these are but a few.