Phuket is one of the top tourist destinations in Southeast Asia and it is very well described. After spending one month here i have found that almost everyone knows about it as about beach destination, crazy bar fun and gateway to Phi Phi islands (which are cool, really). It’s a bit tricky to dig through the main buzz of Patong area and find the way to spend great time here trying something different. When i posted about my experiences in Phuket in Instagram, almost all the time a got comments like “OMG! I never could expect something like this in Phuket!”. That’s why i decided to write this ultimate guide about Phuket: how to spend great time here, not overspend and still have great experiences.
Great things to see and do in Phuket
I want to start with the most interesting thing and the main reason to come here: actual list of things to do in Phuket. This guide is mostly my personal favourite and probably i will miss some stuff like Lady Boy Cabaret (sorry, but though it’s really huge here in Phuket, but it’s ordinary touristy stuff) or bar street in Patong (though you can spend some nice time in Tiger bar, which looks really huge). Instead i will tell about my personal favourites.
That was one my personal “Top 3 things to do in Phuket” as the views here are really stunning and you will enjoy them a lot.
That’s the places i loved the most:
Prompthep Cape viewpoint is the most busy and popular, but absolutely stunning. Though get ready for the huge crowds there.
Right next to it is Windmill viewpoint, which is also very nice.
Karon viewpoint got a view to the 3 beaches including Kata Noi and Karon beach
Phuket city itself is usually overlooked by those who come to Phuket island. But that’s great news as it’s calm, not overpriced and moody. Filled with colonial architecture, charming houses, cool cafes and hipster mood it’s a very cool place to spend your afternoon if you give it a chance.
There is lot going on in Old Phuket town. Here are a list of my suggestions:
Have walk around and check your photography skills,
Search for the street art,
Check local market (but firstly, try to spot it),
Enjoy coffee, cheesecake or lunch in numerous hip cafes,
Walk inside the shops, cafes and hotels to check some of the interiors as they are really cool (no-one cares and wouldn’t tell a word if you just check them),
During the weekends one of the streets is turned into weekend market, which is nice to spend some time,
Have a haircut at couple of barber shops in Phuket town, they are good and cheap (think about 6$ for a haircut, could be really busy during weekends),
Phuket Indy Market is open Thursday and Friday on Dibuk Road in Phuket town, along the Limelight Avenue complex. Not huge, but nice, i had very good pad thai (it’s a Thai dish) there and prices are really nice,
Some upscale restaurants are located within the city with Blue Elephant is the leading one.
Beaches are basically the main reason to come to Phuket for most of the visitors. And for a good reason: they are really very nice.
My personal favourite were:
Kata Noi Beach, which is nice, relaxed and clean
Karon beach, which is the biggest beach on the island
Surin beach is reccomended by many people and a bit more posh and upscale
Rawai beach is the place to avoid if you are looking for a good swim, but it is filled with lots of seafood restaurants.
That’s really essential thing to do in Thailand generally: they mastered their massage skills so greatly that every time i come i try to have a massage course of 8-10 massages in a row. Many people told me that Phuket is a great place to have Thai massage. I don’t know why, but i really had one of the best massages here and it was a bit surprising as it was just some general place in shopping mall.
If you are not on budget, i can recommend you to spot some great upscale places as they provide exceptional value for money. If you don’t want to pay too much, i can recommend you the Montra massage, which i have visited literally 10 times. Not everyone there was good, but i had one brilliant male therapist, who is really GOD of Thai massage. I don’t know his name, but he is older than others and it’s quite obviously that he is very professional. Though be aware: he is doing really strong massages which feels more like therapy, than relax. Montra is a chain, i was in the one in Phuket Central Festival Mall on the last floor. They got different prices in different places and this one was 300 baht for hour of Thai massage and 350 baht for 1 hour oil massage. The same chain in Patong beach area costs almost twice more.
Khao Rang Hill
Rang Hill (or Khao Rang) is located in the middle of Phuket and said to be popular place among locals for it’s scenic restaurants, temple and viewpoint. Khao Rang is not very high, but i have read several recommendations, that it’s a nice place to spend some time and have a cocktail or dinner with a view to Phuket town. And it was good advice as it is located very convenient, just 20 minutes walk from the Old town, but brings cool and romantic ambience. Also it is mostly visited by locals as it isn’t any kind of famous tourist spot like other Phuket viewpoints i’ve been before.
I loved the view, loved the sunset there, loved the mood of a viewpoint with some local guy singing romantic songs and loved the places to sit there. Right on the hill there are 3 restaurants, which were empty before the sunset, but right after they became busy. I choose one of them and apart from nice drinks it brought me little surprise: the most spectacular view from the toilet as they had the glass wall there! I was confused, but still laughing!
Phuket is not the best place in Thailand to see the religious structures (Chiang Mai is much better for it), but if you want to see something, than What Chalong is the best choice among 31 of Buddhist temples in Phuket. It is not very old, less than 100 years, but looks nice and super photogenic. The Grand Pagoda dominating the temple and was build around 20 years ago. It contains a splinter of Lord Buddha’s bone, which was donated to the King of Thailand by Sri Lanka. Wat Chalong is about 8 km south of Phuket City. Travel along Chao Fah Nok Rd (Chao Fa West Rd) from the Central Festival mall, and you will see the temple on the left side of the road.
Phi Phi island
Visiting Phi Phi island tops the list of recommendations about things to do around Phuket and in Thailand generally. The main Phi Phi island is famous for the party mood, beaches and some scenic views. Right next to it is ex-secret island with «The beach”, which became famous after the movie. Now it’s super packed, but still it’s possible to have it for yourself early in the morning or after 4pm when all the tours leaves.
Phi Phi islands were really nice and spending there couple of days is good idea, so do it if you have time. Anyway, it’s still possible to do it as a day journey and not overpaying.
Skip the day tours (100$+ for it sounds unreasonable and usually they are very limited) and take a shedule ferry for 30$. To get this ticket simply come to the ferry port and you can easily buy it there before the departure (at least i got no problems in October,probably could be little tricky during top season). You can take 8-30 ferry on your way there and have the last one back to Phuket at 14-30. All the ride last around 2 hours. It will give you around 4 hours on the island itself.
2 hours ride was beautiful by itself and the ferry even made circles around the islands of Phi Phi archipelago, which was a nice surprise. 4 hours were enough to check the views, which were stunning, and enjoy some swimming.
Let me surprise you: most of the people thinks about Phuket only as a beach destination with nothing else to do, but nailing your suntan and drinking in bars. But there is much more here. Phuket town itself is included in UNESCO List of Creative cities for it’s gastronomy. Phuket city got it’s own culinary traditions, ancient recipes and very proud about this part of it’s heritage. I need to notice, that that the food here is really surprisingly good, though at first i haven’t realised that it’s such a big deal here. So don’t miss it!
Here is how you can experience it:
To experience classical Thailand weekend market you can check one, that is couple miles away from Phuket city close the the Central Festival Mall and the main road. It is food market with big variety and different prices: sausage is 20 baht, big Tom Yam is 250 baht. And they even got couple of bars there. Also there is a big section for the clothes and different stuff, which is nice to check. This place is quite touristy, i wouldn’t call it something super unique, but it’s nice to spend an hour and eat a bit of everything and for people watching.
Thai food is one of the most popular in the world is i said to be one of top 3 reasons why people come to Thailand. That’s the reason why cooking classes became very popular things to do while in Thailand.
Blue Elephant is probably the main and most famous restaurant within Phuket city. It is located in the Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion, a historic 105 year old house, former residence of the Governor of the city. The place is really well-known between gourmet food lovers around the world as it is part of the group of restaurants located around the world. But this doesn’t mean it’s a chain chain restaurant: each place preserves the heritage of the place and serves local food. So expect more local cuisine and season ingredients, which is the basics of any good restaurant.
Blue Elephant in Phuket also have amazing cooking classes to teach you how to cook real Thai food and basic technics. Some of the classes here are designed for professionals (like fruit Carving class – think flowers from watermelon), but some are made to give amateurs a good overview about cuisine in Thailand and learn to cook some essential local food. Read about my experience with it!
Chalong Bay Distillery
Another surprise: Thailand got it’s own fine rum production and it’s surprisingly nice. Rum itself is made from sugarcane. Sugarcane is indigenous to tropical South and Southeast Asia and was brought to the other parts of the world including Caribbean from here. So basically Southeast Asia is home of this kind of spirits. The production of fine spirits here is not very huge and Thailand is mostly known for it’s cheap whiskey, but it is possible to find natural fine rum here.
Chalong Bay Distellery is known for it’s natural organic handcrafted production of rum. The production itself is located in Phuket in Chalong Bay area. They are open to the public and it’s possible to visit it to see how it works, try some rum and enjoy some cocktails. Apart from distillery tour, which includes some tasting and a cocktail, it’s possible to visit it for cocktail workshop or simply come to the bar to spend some time. Actually, the place itself is very stylish and hip, designed with lots of wood and surrounded by greenery, so it’s really nice to spend couple of hours there enjoying the atmosphere.
Go to the food hall in Central Festival mall
This one is probably the cheapest and safest option. And it is really very good. Food halls now are getting bigger in Thailand and usually provide a big variety of food for very nice price. They are made to make streets in Thailand a little bit less chaotic and mostly works for locals. The reason is that not many Thai people know how to cook or even have a kitchen at home, mostly people eat outside.
These food halls are really great. I used the one in Central Festival in Phuket almost every day and could confirm that it’s really good. My personal favourites were: Northern style curry soup with the beef, Spicy fish ball soup (be careful and ask for «not spicy» or «tourist spicy», it’s really very hot), Duck noodle soup with wontons. All of them are around 2$. But there is much more to choose from.
Food halls works everywhere in Thailand in a similar way: there are cash desks and first you need to take a special card and top up it there. You can put any amount of money and usually can get cash back easily. You don’t give cash directly to the merchant, they charge you from the card.
There is much more in Phuket like Big Buddha statue, Elephant sanctuary, white water rafting, hi-end show about Thai culture, Sea cave exploration, Thai boxing ring, Pearl farm etc, so there is a lot of things to do here and you easily will be bored. I haven’t seen everything during my month here, so i have a good reason to go back and see more.
How to get to Phuket
Phuket is very well connected with the world and doesn’t feel like an island at all: there is an airport, ferry and the road to the mainland, so it’s really easy to get here.
Intercity and public bus is one of the cheapest ways to take you to Phuket. Buses leave daily and directly to Phuket from Bangkok’s Southern Terminal Station. Both air-conditioned and non air-conditioned buses are provided, and of course the price is different. The overnight buses are the most popular choice since they are comfortable. The approximate duration is 12-14 hours.
Taking a train is also another cheapest way, but keep it in mind that there is in fact no direct train commuting down to Phuket. Take the train at main Hua Lamphong Train Station and get off at Surat Thani to take bus to Phuket. The overnight train is far more comfortable than overnight buses.
Taking a flight down to Phuket is definitely the most convenient way when it only takes approximately one hour (unless the flight is delayed). There are several domestic flights operating daily and directly from Bangkok to Phuket at Phuket International Airport. Phuket also offer direct flights to international destinations such as Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Penang, Singapore, Sydney, Moscow, etc.
How to get around Phuket
Same as almost for all the islands almost everywhere in the world getting around Phuket could be a problem. Public transport here exists, but very limited. Many visitors simply hire a motorbike. Good price for renting is about 250 baht for a day + fuel, but you need to search for it. So think about 10$ a day as the best option. The roads here are mostly fine. Motorbike is a good option, but it’s not for everyone. Personally I prefer to keep it safe and avoid motorbikes.
Public bus: There are couple of bus stations in Phuket town and it is the main hub for the busses, There is airport bus from domestic terminal (close to international terminal), which goes to Phuket town and also have a stop near Central Festival mall. From Phuket town there are busses to some major beaches.
Usually the busses are kind of Doe Suthep half open type and mostly they are fine. The price is 30 baht (around 1$). There are 4 main routes and the stops are possible to locate by pink signs. The most useful bus is from Phuket Town to Patong with the stop right next to the Central Festival mall. Basically that’s it: there is no map of routes and no schedule. Usually there is someone on the bus station to direct you and they understand the names of the places in English, but very little chance to find anyone who can help you with it in other places. Last bus usually goes till 5pm.
Actually, these busses works mostly for locals. Once i was trying to get from Patong area to Phuket town at 5pm and when the bus came, he told he that he finished and there will be no other bus today. But the nest day i saw the bus at 6pm, which was full of locals. Everything is done for tourists not to use it and taking a taxi or tuk tuk instead. It’s really a big pain here.
The main alternatives are: greedy taxi drivers near the main spots or at the taxi stops (which are very little). They got kind of «official» rates which starts from 20$ and obviously a rip-off. Bargaining doesn’t work as they obviously got a taxi mafia there.
Grab taxi (you a need an app) is advertised everywhere as the best solution and good prices, but it’s not true, only advertisement. Prices starts at least from 10$ for 5 km ride.
The cheapest alternative happened to be simply getting your car right on the street, bargaining in this case works well. Once i had a car from Central Festival area to Kata Not beach for 200 baht (7$), which is extremely good. But it’s all a matter of luck. Many locals who owns a car are ready to drive you, some taxi drivers on their way are happy to get a little bit more cash, so there is a chance. But getting back after dark is not that good. Almost all the time i had troubles with it and literally had to walk along the highway few kilometres, so plan you return transportation.
One of the best solutions is to hire a car for a day. I haven’t done it as i don’t feel that i need it, but it’s very good and you can see a lot of places in Phuket island from my list above during one day. Probably that’s the best solution if you got a reliable driver and agreed on good price.
Where to stay in Phuket
A place to stay in Phuket is really a bit confusing are as there are lots of different areas with absolutely different mood and prices.
My main advice is to avoid Patong area: it is really super touristy, overpriced and not interesting, though the beach is nice. Unfortunately, Patong is the victim of development. You can always get there for a day, but i highly recommend you to avoid it as it’s a tourist trap and you would have no other choice, but to spend a lot there for the very average stuff.
According to what i saw and experience:
Phuket town could be nice place to stay if you are on a budget and like hipster mood. There are some local buses to the beaches, the area is not expensive and there are things to do there at night. Also it’s a great place to get to the ferry to the islands.
I rent an apartment at the AirBnb for a month, which was the best choice for me. The condo was located next to Central Festival Mall, which got almost everything i need for some daily needs like grocery store, massage, food hall and even decent dentist. It got a pool, little gym and was reliable comfortable. Though getting out of there without motorbike was a pain sometimes.
The area around Kata Noi Beach was relatively calm and ok if you want to stay not far from the beach. It feels that there are lots of different options from some posh resorts with villas and private pools to some basic guesthouses. Ans as i mentioned before, i loved that beach.
The area around Cape Panwa, Surin beach, Bang Tao beach is upscale area with lots of party and fashionable resorts, which are nice for a fun holidays.
Mai Khao is 11km-long beach which is still undeveloped and protected as it is part of the Sirinat National Park. There are several resorts around and an airport. The rest is just long and beautiful beach.
As i stayed for a month, i rented an apartment in one of the condo near Central Festival mall. I loved this option as i got everything around. The main downside was the troubles with the transportation. Every move when i need a transportation was an adventure and a game of luck.
For the last two days i stayed in Renaissance Phuket Resort and Spa to experience another side of the island around Mai Khao beach. I never spend a lot of time in places like this, so this is definitely an experience of it’s own kind. From the moment i entered the resort i was surrounded by attention and everything was nicely set with lots of great details. Definitely experience of it’s own.
When to go to Phuket
I was in Phuket in October which is said to be absolutely off-season time to come because of rains. On the first half of the month there were several rainy days in a row and sometimes it was rainy for couple hours a day, but generally 70% of the time i was fine. High season starts in late November and last till March. During this time the days are mostly sunny with low chance of rain. But the downside is that it’s far more crowded and the prices are much higher. April is the hottest time of the year. From May to June there is high chance of rain, though it’s already not too hot. July and August is good time with lower chance of rain. September and October statistically are the wettest time in Phuket.
What to avoid in Phuket
Two words: Patong beach and greedy taxi drivers.
So generally Phuket is nice place to spend your holidays any time of the year. For most of the people it is just beach destination, but there is much more of things to do here and you can spend your holidays in any way you like: from suntan to cooking, from admiring architecture to enjoying views and beautiful nature, from checking markets to relaxing during massages. Just give it a chance and find what you loved most personally!