Phuket, Thailand's largest island (360 sq mi/930 sq km—about the size of Singapore), is known as the pearl of the Andaman Sea. The island of Phuket (pronounced poo-KET
) is linked to the mainland by Sarasin Bridge and is home to the capital, Phuket Town, and several beach resorts, the most famous of which is Patong.
People seeing Phuket for the first time will be impressed with the island's beauty and the opulence of some of the hotels and resorts, but may be perhaps rather shocked by the uncontrolled development of some areas. However, the island has some excellent restaurants, and there are still plenty of beaches for snorkeling and other watersports.
Whether you are looking for a relaxing beach holiday with a little spa indulgence or an action-packed break of diving and sailing, Phuket has it all.
Phuket is Thailand's largest island. Located in southern Thailand, 521 mi/840 km from Bangkok, it lies off the country's western coast. Set in the Andaman Sea, Phuket is approximately 31 mi/50 km long and 9 mi/15 km wide and is linked to the mainland by Sarasin Bridge in the north. The renowned destinations of Khao Lak and Phang Nga lie just off the island to the north, Krabi to the east and Koh Phi Phi to the south.
The interior of Phuket is tree-covered and hilly with land rising to more than 1,640 ft/500 m. In the lowland areas, there are many rubber and coconut plantations, once an important occupation for islanders but now increasingly sidelined by tourism. Many coastal coconut plantations are now the sites of luxury resorts.
Phuket Town, the island's commercial center, is situated to the southeast of the island.
The west coast of the island has 15 beautiful beaches facing the Andaman Sea, including Patong, Karon, Kata, Kamala and Surin. The beach areas are often separated from each other by rocky headlands. The beauty of the beaches and quality of the sand means that most of the island's resorts and nightlife are located on this side of the island. The eastern coastline mainly comprises shallow bays and mangroves, is less attractive and has very few quality beaches, but it is the location of the Phuket Marina. Phuket International Airport is in the north of the island.
The island of Phuket has a rich and interesting history. The earliest known reference to Phuket dates from the third century when Greek geographer Ptolemy wrote about an island called Jang Si Lang, later referred to by the corruption Junk Ceylon. It became part of the Kingdom of Siam in the 13th century and was prized for its wealth of natural resources.
It was these resources, particularly tin and gems, that attracted the Dutch to its shores in the 16th century. However, they were not the only ones interested in Phuket's riches. In 1681, the French appointed a governor on the island, and the British, keen to establish a base close to the Straits of Malacca, temporarily settled on Phuket before moving on to the more strategically important Penang off the coast of Malaysia.
In 1767, an invading Burmese army sacked Ayuthaya, then the capital of Siam, before advancing southward with its sights set on Phuket. However, Capt. Francis Light, a British naval officer who had established an outpost of the East India Co., warned of the impending attack. Following a monthlong siege, the Burmese army was repelled, and the reunification of Siam began.
Over the years, however, it has been Dutch and Portuguese traders and the Chinese settlers they brought with them that have exerted the greatest influence on Phuket. Its naturally sheltered position in the Andaman Sea provided safe anchor for ships sailing from India to China. The tin-mining boom that began in the 19th century attracted thousands of Chinese laborers to the island. This massive influx of immigrants left its mark.
Today, the architecture of old Phuket Town is still dominated by the original Chinese influence. Many Chinese temples are scattered across the island, and the annual festivals, including the huge vegetarian festival, are part of Chinese culture rather than Thai. The island's long association with sailors also continues, and it hosts the annual Phuket Regatta, attracting world-class competitors from around the globe.
As one of Asia's most popular holiday destinations, Phuket continues to welcome visitors to its shores. More than 3.5 million tourists spend their annual holiday in Phuket, and the booming tourism industry and buoyant property market have brought the island huge prosperity. It boasts the highest per-capita income of any province in Thailand but is also one of the most expensive places to live. Phuket is also increasingly known as a location for second homes for wealthy businessmen and retirees, and the housing market continues to grow.
Despite having been badly affected by a major tsunami in December 2004, Phuket quickly rebuilt, and the island attracts hordes of tourists. The massive influx of tourists and long-term residents, however, has clearly had a detrimental effect on local culture, to the extent that Thais often refer to Phuket as koh farang—foreigner's island.
Certain areas—such as Patong—clearly suffer from overdevelopment and crowds of holidaymakers. The beachfront town serves as a startling example of the negative effects of tourism. Strolling down the crowded main street with its Western-style pubs and restaurants, and never-ending array of cheap tourist junk for sale, you could be at any down-market beach resort in the world. Much of this is the result of tourism authorities trying to increase visitors to the Land of Smiles and spending massive amounts of money promoting the country in a wide variety of markets.
The effects of overdevelopment are also being felt in other once-idyllic spots on the island. The local authorities' failure to curb the growth of tourism also has led to many serious environmental problems. The island regularly suffers from a water shortage, the dumping of raw sewage into the sea spoils more and more beaches, and the overfished waters no longer provide good catches. The building of resorts and condominiums on cleared hillsides has caused water runoff problems, and landslides are common during the rainy season.
The government is strongly enforcing zoning laws that keep buildings a certain distance from the beach and under a specific height, which should help to protect the beaches despite growing development.
Although the vast majority of people go to Phuket for its glorious beaches and warm waters, the island offers a wide variety of sightseeing options. The excellent infrastructure means that traveling around the large island is easy, and you can visit several interesting sights for a full and rewarding day.
The public transport network leaves a lot to be desired, but hiring a car or motorcycle is easy and less expensive than using local taxis. The roads are good, so consider renting a Jeep or flag down one of the songthaews (trucks that serve as buses) that constantly ply the routes (you'll squeeze in among locals). The mature tourist industry on Phuket also means that many tour operators provide half- or one-day tours that take the stress out of finding your own way around.
The beaches are obviously a big draw for most people, but it would be a mistake to confine a trip to Phuket to the coast. The interior of the island has much to offer. For nature lovers, there are national parks and waterfalls where you can enjoy the fabulous tropical environment and go trekking and bird-watching. Visitors to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center can learn about these wonderful creatures and make a valuable contribution to their survival.
Phuket Town is a fascinating place to explore on foot and provides insight into the region's rich culture and history. Many of the original but once-run-down Sino-Portuguese buildings have been beautifully restored to their former glory and reflect the wealth of Phuket's tin-mining past. The town's beautiful temples are also a colorful reminder of the strong influence exerted by the immigrant Chinese population.
The majority of the island's huge Muslim population lives in the serene Surin village close to Surin Beach. In addition to finding food stalls selling halal food, visitors to the area will see some of the most stunning mosques in the country, including Phuket's largest mosque, Ban Thao.
With its party atmosphere and increasing number of tourists, one would think Phuket is the perfect place for casinos and other gambling dens, but gambling is illegal throughout the country. Anything you find of that type will be strictly behind closed doors or just across the Thai border.
Of the six main beach districts that offer evening entertainment, Patong is the most renowned and the most vibrant. However, it is not for everyone and is often used as a stark example for the decline of Phuket. Bangla Road and Soi Sunset are packed with bars and Western-style nightclubs, while Soi Seadragon is home to raunchy entertainment in the form of Thailand's ubiquitous go-go bars. Kata and Karon beaches are smaller versions of Patong, and Rawai at the southern tip of the island is lined with dozens of small and medium-sized bars. In comparison, Nai Yang Beach in the north of the island provides a quiet and relaxed spot for unassuming beachfront dinners or upmarket resort restaurants.
For family-oriented nightlife, Phuket also provides a range of activities that includes bowling, English-language cinemas and child-friendly restaurants. Families staying in the resorts may find it unnecessary to leave the confines of the property. Also, if parents want a night out together, many resorts provide excellent child-care services.
Thailand has often been described as a food culture, meaning that food is more than simply sustenance; it is also the center of almost every aspect of social life. Indeed, you only need to wander down virtually any street to realize just how true that statement is. Almost everywhere, enterprising vendors have established regular pitches on the sidewalks, many specializing in one particular dish, while others are able to turn their hand to a bewildering amount of dishes.
Yet they all have one thing in common: The food they serve is cheap, tasty and ready in minutes—the very definition of fast food. Whether you are looking for a quick alfresco breakfast, a full-blown lunch, a tempting in-between-meals nibble or something to soak up the alcohol after stumbling out of a nightclub, the street vendors have it all, almost 24 hours a day. Dining at the roadside or in a cheap and cheerful noodle shop is an essential part of any visit to Thailand. Do not miss the night market in Phuket Town, on Ong Sim Fai Road near the bus station.
Phuket also offers a fabulous choice of restaurants, including traditional Thai cuisine and seafood barbecues. The wide range of international cuisine includes Italian, French, Mexican and English pub fare. Don't forget to check the upmarket resorts, too: They are home to some truly wonderful restaurants.
Phuket may not have many designated vegetarian restaurants, but most of the restaurants in the city have a variety of vegetarian dishes or dishes that you can ask to have without meat—few people can cook vegetables, sauces and spices like Thais. They also have vegetable dishes such as the famous Morning Glory. Fruit and excellent tofu are available everywhere. Vegans can be assured that Thais rarely use dairy products.
First-time visitors to Phuket are often surprised how big the island is (31 mi/50 km north to south and 7 mi/12 km east to west). Deciding where to dine is usually dictated by the beach area where you are staying.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the price of dinner for one, not including tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than 400 baht; $$ = 400 baht-800 baht; $$$ = 801 baht-1,200 baht; $$$$ = more than 1,200 baht.
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