Phuket, Thailand was an ideal place to grow up. I walked my dogs to the beach in the afternoon to watch the postcard sunset. On the same beach, the nearby hotel would walk their baby elephant, Pookie, who, like my golden retrievers, liked to run from the waves and roll around in the sand. Before Phuket had a western supermarket, we bought all our food at the local outdoor market, where live chickens ran around and you could purchase half a kilo of tropical fruits like lychee and rambutan for a dollar. A lot has changed about Phuket in the 22 years since my parents moved us there, but underneath the new developments and ever increasing number of tourists its still the vibrant, beautiful island I know.
The Quiet Northern Beaches
Phuket is organized into beaches. Each beach and surrounding cluster of restaurants, hotels and hawker stands has its own distinct vibe. The Northern beaches, like Nai Yang and Nai Tan, feel to me a lot like the Phuket I grew up in. The stores set up along the beach road selling colorful sarongs or chicken satay are still just little wooden shacks and the bars and restaurants have roofs made of dried palm fronds. While there are still a healthy number of tourists, you won’t be fighting for a beach chair or a seat at the bar. Occasionally you’ll find a chain hotel or trendy beach club with a pool bar and big white umbrellas, but the closer you get to Khao Lak, the mainland province just above Phuket, the more you’ll feel like the island is still a cheap low-key place to hang out on the beach and drink out of a coconut.
The Bustling Central Beaches
The beaches in the middle, like Bang Tao, Surin and Kamala are a good mix of local life and tourist-centered entertainment. The Thai government just recently reclaimed Surin Beach and is attempting to preserve its natural beauty by removing and prohibiting beachfront development, making Surin one of the last truly untouched beaches in Phuket. The area surrounding Suirn is a main road and a little difficult to walk but there are plenty of restaurants, shops and hotels further back. Bang Tao and Kamala beach are a little more walkable with little local bars, international restaurants, massage parlors, bungalow style hotels, cheap tailors and other attractions.
The Crazy Southern Beaches
As you get further south things start to get more fun and more frenzied. Phuket is known for its crazy and sometimes seedy nightlife almost as much as for its beaches. The center of Phuket nightlife is Patong. The Patong beach road and particularly Soi Bangla, a walking street perpendicular to the beach, are lined with open air bars, many playing live music or featuring go-go dancers, as well as Phuket’s biggest dance clubs. Walking up and down Soi Bangla is an activity in and of itself as the street is full of hawkers, street performers, drag queens and adventurous tourists competing in bar games. Patong beach in the daytime is always packed with young tourists and has the same kind of party atmosphere. The beaches further south, Karon and Kata, are not quite as raucous but are similarly popular and fun, the kind of beach where you can rent a jet ski and go parasailing.
The Secret Beaches
I should note that by all accounts the Southern beaches are more popular because they are exquisitely beautiful. There are a few “secret” beaches I would particularly recommend. I’ll call them secret only because they are isolated, caged in by cliffs, and a little difficult to get to. The first is Lam Sing Beach, probably the easiest to access. You’ll spot the parking lot beside the highway between Surin and Kamala and then it’s a short walk down on wooden steps through rainforest before you reach the beach. The beach itself is pretty popular and well equipped with a restaurant and massage parlor right on the sand. A slightly better kept secret is Freedom Beach, which is most easily accessed by taking a long tail boat from Patong. It’s rarely crowded even in high season and so beautiful it looks like a movie set. Another isolated beach worth mentioning is Paradise Beach. Technically, it’s a public beach, but since the access road is on private land its difficult to enter without paying a small fee. The deal is that 15$ you get a van ride down to the beach and access to kayaks, paddleboards and other water activities for the whole day. If you stay all day that may be worth it, as Paradise is regarded as one of the most beautiful beaches in Phuket. However, since the beach is small, it can get crowded in the tourist season.
The Beaches on the Bay
Of course, the true secret beaches may not even be on Phuket Island. Traveling by boat is still relatively cheap, especially if you don’t mind going slowly. The little islands in the surrounding bay tower out of the water and many are still untouched and uninhabited. There are a few companies that run sea-kayaking tours of the caves beneath these islands. There’s also incredible snorkeling and scuba diving in the bay, with colorful coral and tropical fish. The beaches on these little islands are slices of tropical paradise. Many have only one family living there full time, running one tiny restaurant and renting beach chairs. The exception may be the most famous of these nearby islands, Koh Phi Phi, which despite being about 10km2 has its own hotels, shops and wild nightlife scene.
There are so many ways to experience Phuket. The open-air market with the chickens and cheap fruit is still there as it always has been, but we now also have two fairly luxurious Western malls. Even within the mall, on the third floor you can buy Prada shoes and on the first floor you can buy deep fried grasshoppers. A lot of people who visit to Phuket pick one area, one beach, and spend most of their time there. I’d recommend braving the traffic and getting out to explore.