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Phuket

Photo by Julie Miller

Phuket Itineraries

Phuket for Families

Paradise Lite - tropical beaches and a gentle introduction to Thai culture

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The largest and best-known island in Thailand, Phuket is a popular resort destination for families, honeymooners and first-time visitors to South-East Asia dreaming of a relaxing beach holiday with a taste of exotica. I like to think of Phuket as ‘paradise lite’ – a combination of sublime natural beauty and modern convenience, of barefoot luxury and urbane sophistication. Purists in search of an untouched nirvana, unspoilt by the trappings of modernity, may well despise it as over-commercialised; but for those whose idea of a true vacation is sun, sea, sand between the toes and big nights out on the town, Phuket delivers in spades.

Phuket has played host to foreigners for centuries, with European and sub-continental merchants plundering its bounties of rubber, ivory and timber since the first century AD. In the 16th century, the discovery of tin led to an economic boom, with Portuguese, Dutch and English colonisers and Chinese immigrants who worked the mines shaping the modern face of the island.


Paradise found in Phuket 

In the 1970s, however, backpackers discovered paradise; and as Phuket’s fabled beauty seeped into the mainstream, so tourism became the island’s mainstay, with over five million visitors a year now swamping its white-sand shores.

Devastated by the tsunami of 2004, Phuket bounced back with amazing resilience, rebuilding with a fervour that many considered unsustainable. But like a gangly teenager growing into its skin, Phuket has come of age, settling into an era of sophistication that once again makes it an attractive holiday destination.

Phuket is a large island with many moods and facets; and the location of your accommodation may dictate what sort of experience you have. If you’re longing for a romantic escape somewhere tranquil and remote, look to far-flung parts of the island such as Cape Panwa in the south, Bang Bao Bay on the central west coast, Mai Khao Beach in the north; or for a livelier holiday in the thick of the action, check out Kata, Karon or Kamala beaches. At these lovely west-coast towns, where jungle-clad mountains dip into shimmering, emerald bays, you can enjoy restaurants, bars and good shopping as well as palm-lined white-sand beaches – now thankfully sunbed free after a recent crackdown on illegal beach vendors.


Slice of real island life in Phuket

Meanwhile, the main city of Phuket Town – so often ignored by tourists – offers history, a gorgeous Sino-Portuguese streetscape and a welcome slice of ‘real’ island life; or take that one step further, shopping with the locals at Surin’s Muslim market. For a more tawdry taste of tourism, head to the bright lights (and its associated evils) at Patong; or to escape the crowds, drive to a mountain viewpoint, trek to Bang Pae waterfall in the island’s jungle interior or venture onto the mainland to Khao Lak.

To experience Phuket at its best, however, you need to get out onto the water; day trips are available to glorious Phang Nga Bay, the beautiful (but perhaps overloved) Phi Phi Islands and to diving and snorkelling hotspots in the Similan Islands.


When To Go

Phuket has a tropical monsoon climate, with warm temperatures year round, a ‘dry season’ and two distinct ‘wet seasons’.

Peak season in Phuket is between November and March, during which rainfall is low, the seas calm and the days mild and sunny, without the stifling humidity of later months. The average temperature is 22-32 degrees Celsius (75-90F); bearable during the day, comfortably balmy at night.

Naturally enough, prices rise during the Christmas/New Year period, and with the favourable weather conditions corresponding to Australian summer school holidays, hotel prices are at a premium.

The hottest months are April and May, with temperatures rising to 36 degrees Celsius along with stifling humidity. Afternoon storm clouds often bring no relief, with the temperature barely fluctuating at night.

One of the best times to visit Phuket is between June and August – still considered low season, prices and crowds are down, but there’s a good chance of sunshine and rain squalls tend to be are short-lived. Even when it does rain, it tends to be a refreshing tropical downpour, and doesn’t usually cut into activities.

The downpour returns, however, in September – the wettest month of the year. Flash flooding on the roads is a common problem, and storms often deposit junk on the beaches, leaving resort staff scurrying to remove unsightly debris. A big swell is good news for surfers, but can make boat trips a little dicey and dangerous.

The showers ease off in October and November – these can be great months to visit, before the Christmas school holiday crowds hit. Sea conditions have improved, the scuba season is officially launched, and there is a buzz of anticipation in the air as the resorts gear up for their peak seasons.

How Much Time To Spend

Phuket tends to be a contained destination, with most visitors booking a week or two simply to chill in the resorts and explore the immediate vicinity.

If Phuket is part of your greater Thailand itinerary, however, I would suggest at least four days to relax, enjoy the beaches and water activities and do a spot of shopping.

A full week will allow you the option of day trips onto the water; while two weeks would give you a good grounding of the whole island, plus time to explore surrounding areas including off-shore islands and the mainland region of Khao Lak and the Khao Sok National Park.

High and Low Season

High season : November – March.

Low season : April – September

Shoulder season : October and November.

Weather and Climate

Phuket has a tropical monsoon climate, with warm temperatures year round, a ‘dry season’ and two distinct ‘wet seasons’.

Peak season in Phuket is between November and March, during which rainfall is low, the seas calm and the days mild and sunny, without the stifling humidity of later months. The average temperature is 22-32 degrees Celsius (75-90F); bearable during the day, comfortably balmy at night.

Naturally enough, prices rise during the Christmas/New Year period, and with the favourable weather conditions corresponding to Australian summer school holidays, hotel prices are at a premium.

The hottest months are April and May, with temperatures rising to 36 degrees Celsius along with stifling humidity. Afternoon storm clouds often bring no relief, with the temperature barely fluctuating at night.

One of the best times to visit Phuket is between June and August – still considered low season, prices and crowds are down, but there’s a good chance of sunshine and rain squalls tend to be are short-lived. Even when it does rain, it tends to be a refreshing tropical downpour, and doesn’t usually cut into activities.

The downpour returns, however, in September – the wettest month of the year. Flash flooding on the roads is a common problem, and storms often deposit junk on the beaches, leaving resort staff scurrying to remove unsightly debris. A big swell is good news for surfers, but can make boat trips a little dicey and dangerous.

The showers ease off in October and November – these can be great months to visit, before the Christmas school holiday crowds hit. Sea conditions have improved, the scuba season is officially launched, and there is a buzz of anticipation in the air as the resorts gear up for their peak seasons.

Events and Holidays

Thai New Year (Songkran) is celebrated between April 12-15 each year, heralding the monsoon. As a celebration of new life and the change of seasons, this fun festival involves splashing water, usually resulting in massive water fights and a general soaking. Guaranteed, if you step out into the street you will get wet – just be prepared, watch your camera and phone, and enjoy the chaos.

Phuket International Marathon
While the thought of running in the steam bath of June seems crazy, the marathon, half marathon and fun run held at the Laguna Resort attracts around 6000 competitors from all over the world, with associated events and festivities adding to the appeal.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival
Held over a nine-day period in October, this popular religious festival celebrated by the Chinese/Thai community is more than just a time to abstain from eating meat. Instead, it’s a celebration of the extreme, with festivities including fire walking, climbing blade ladders, throwing firecrackers and extreme body piercing. On a more sedate note, the Chinese temples are awash with the scent of burning joss sticks, there are colourful street parades and delicious vegetarian food is on sale at street markets and stalls set up outside temples.

Loy Krathong
Arguably the prettiest festival in Thailand, Loy Krathong – the festival of lights – takes place on the evening of the full moon during the 12th month of the Thai lunar calendar – usually mid-November. A homage to the goddess of water, it involves floating banana leaf floral offerings on bodies of water; hot air lanterns are also released into the skies.

Phuket Kings Cup Regatta
Held in December, this international yachting regatta (held under royal patronage) attracts the rich and famous to Phuket’s shores, with associated parties and events adding to the glamour of the race. Races run for a week off Kata Beach.

Phuket Old Town Festival
Following Chinese New Year in February each year, this colourful festival celebrating the history of Phuket Town sees  roads in the centre of the main city closed to traffic, with markets, cultural parades, Chinese dragon dances, live music and rickshaw rides.

What To Pack and Wear

Ah, the joys of being able to pack light for a casual beach destination! Swimsuit, sundresses, flip-flops, a pair of strappy sandals, shorts and t-shirts should suffice for ladies; perhaps a nice dress or two for evenings out, and a scarf or cover-up for visiting temples. Heels are unnecessary, unless you can’t live without them; and a light jacket or cardigan falls into the “just in case” category.

For men, tie and jacket are generally not required, though a pair of long pants is recommended for dining in fine restaurants. Joggers or sturdy walking shoes are handy for jungle treks; while reef shoes are recommended for keen snorkelers and divers.

Note that Thailand is a surprisingly conservative country. Most Thai people swim in shorts and t-shirts, and do not wear bikinis, even at the beach. Even for tourists, the wearing of swimsuits beyond the beach or resort pool is frowned upon.

While singlet tops and shorts are acceptable day wear, visitors to temples and palaces are expected to conform to local traditions, covering shoulders and knees. Forgetful visitors, however, are well catered for, with fishermen pants and scarves often available to borrow or hire.

A good investment is a sarong, which can double as a wrap for getting between hotel room and beach, and a cover-up for temple visits. Sarongs are light, dry quickly and pretty – the perfect beach accessory.

If you run out of clean clothing, take advantage of cheap laundry services available in village shops. Washing costs as little as 50 baht per kilo, returned neatly folded and impeccably clean. And as a last resort – go shopping!

Sun hats, mosquito repellent and sunscreen are necessities; if you forget to pack them, however, you’ll be able to pick these up in the supermarkets or street stalls. You’ll also be able to pick up toiletries and basic medical supplies from supermarkets or pharmacies if you forget any essentials.

If you are travelling in the wet season, a fold-up umbrella will be useful; otherwise, do as the locals do, and don a cheap plastic poncho – guaranteed to make you as wet underneath (from sweat!) as you are on top!

If you’re travelling with an infant, you’ll be able to buy disposable nappies at large supermarkets such as the Big C or Tesco Lotus; pull-up nappies specifically designed for swimming, however, are hard to come by so make sure you bring a supply. Wipes and baby food are also readily available, though if you have a fussy eater, you might want to pack baby’s favourite brands in your luggage.

Toilets can be a challenge in Thailand; while you’ll find Western-style thrones in hotels, resorts and shopping centres, some restaurants and bars still have squat toilets, flushed with bucket-scooped water. There is often no toilet paper available, so it’s useful to carry your own supply of tissues. Also note that toilet paper and sanitary items should not be flushed; place them into a rubbish bin provided in the cubicle.

For the above reason, a supply of Wet Ones or sanitized hand cleanser are also useful items.

Thailand uses 220 volt, two-pronged flat pin power adaptors that coincide with European and American plugs. Australian travellers should remember to pack a universal adaptor for charging phone, laptop and camera batteries.

What it Costs

For most Western visitors, Thailand represents great value for money, with the exchange rate favourable for major currencies. The Thai baht is relatively stable (though government shifts, political strife etc has seen a recent decline in value) and often reflects fluctuations of the US dollar.

At the time of writing, US$1.00 is equivalent to 35 baht; while the Australian dollar buys 25 baht (at its lowest point in several years).

Being the most popular tourist destination in Thailand, Phuket tends to be more expensive than other parts of the country, with accommodation, transport and food all above the national average.

For travellers on a budget, you may be able to pick up basic accommodation for around 1200 baht a night – this would buy guesthouse accommodation or a cheap hotel room with basic amenities.

Mid-priced hotel accommodation – three or four star – can be secured for around 2000-3000 baht a night, which would buy a comfortable room in a modern hotel with swimming pool in a beach resort.

For more opulent accommodation, budget for around 4,000-6,000 baht a night. The most exclusive hotels – such as Trisara Phuket Villas and Residences, Sri Panwa and Banyan Tree – may sell for as much as 13,000-19,000 baht a night.

Most visitors pre-book their accommodation online, with great package deals available through airlines and travel agents.

It is possible to eat cheaply and well in Thailand; you can easily fill up on street food at a market, for instance, for around 150 baht, including drinks. A simple meal in a sit-down beachfront restaurant is generally priced around 150-300 baht, while resort hotels and fancy restaurants may cost double that.

Using the price of a beer – a traveller’s staple – as an example, a large bottle of Chang beer purchased in a supermarket or 7-11 will cost you around 50 baht; at a street bar, it might cost between 80-120 baht, while at an upmarket club, it may cost as much as 200-300 baht.

Prices tend to be a little higher in peak season (November-February); you may be able to negotiate a cheaper price for accommodation during periods of low occupancy.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in local currencies.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $xx per person
$$ => Tickets $xx-xx per person
$$$ => Tickets $xx per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $xxx for a double
$$ => Rooms $xxx for a double
$$$ => Rooms $xxx for a double

Eat
$ => $1-xx per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $xx-xx per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $xx per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $xx per person
$$ => Tickets $xx-xx per person
$$$ => Tickets $xx per person

Currency Converter

At the time of writing, US$1.00 is equivalent to 35 baht; while the Australian dollar buys 25 baht (at its lowest point in several years).

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Fares vary according to season; the cheapest time to fly to Phuket is during the wet season in September.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

There is no shortage of ATMs at the airport, in shopping centres, in 7/11s and at service stations, all of which take standard Cirrus bank and credit cards. The rate tends to be comparable to money exchange counters, without the inconvenience.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Tipping is not mandatory in Thailand, but a welcome gesture in the hospitality and transport industries where wages are typically low. Taxis are all metred, and no tip is expected; perhaps round up to the closest 100 baht if you are so inclined.

In service industries, such as massage parlours, a small tip is much appreciated – perhaps 50-100 baht on top of the advertised price, placed in the hands of your therapist.

In hotels, tips are not expected for porters, housekeepers etc; once again, it’s up to your discretion if you leave a small reward for their services.

In restaurants, it’s customary to add a 10 per cent tip to the total of the bill; even small change is appreciated.

Transportation

Phuket International Airport is located in the central north of the island, a good 40-minute drive from the southern hubs of Patong and Kata Beach.

Inquire whether transfers are included with your accommodation; most resorts offer shuttle transfers, pre-arranged for an added fee.

An airport bus service offers transfers to Phuket Town for 100 baht per person or 120 baht to Patong, with trips available every 45 minutes.

Shuttle services to other destinations are also available in a mini-van – expect to pay around 150 baht per person for a shared ride, with bookings made at airport counters in the arrivals hall.

Taxis are hideously expensive in Phuket, with a notorious taxi ‘mafia’ said to control the industry and stifle competition. While taxis are metred, many drivers like to negotiate a flat rate between destinations – make sure you know what you’re in for when you get in, or ask for the meter to be switched on.

A 100 baht levy is placed upon taxis leaving the airport; expect to pay around 500 baht to Phuket Town, 650 to Patong, 700 to Kata Beach, 800 baht to Kamala Beach.

If you like to arrive in style, ‘limousine’ services – in modern, private cars – can be booked at the arrivals hall, with fixed prices listed at the counter.

Uber has commenced high season services in Phuket, with a flat-rate fare of 950 baht from the airport to anywhere on the island (a good option if you are staying in more remote beaches like Cape Panwa. In its first six months in business, Uber Phuket clocked up over 10,000 trips, employing 300 local drivers and servicing clients from 40 nationalities. Check out Uber_Phuket’s Twitter page #saferidephuket for special deals and offers.

Once the cheapest, most iconic form of transport in Thailand, the smoke belching, three-wheeled, two-stroke tuk-tuks are now extinct in Phuket, replaced by open-sided four-wheeled red vans. Rates are negotiable and subject to the whim of the driver – expect to pay more if it’s night-time, raining, busy or extremely slow. Although they are still somewhat of a novelty, they really aren’t much cheaper than metered taxis (with a one kilometre trip setting you back at least 100 baht), and aren’t particularly safe either.

No tuk-tuks are allowed to enter the airport grounds.

Songtheaws, traditional open-backed blue buses with two bench seats to carry passengers, are available for hire between Phuket Town and the main tourist beaches along set routes – simply flag one down, and negotiate the rate, with fares ranging from 15-50 baht a trip.

Getting There

Phuket is particularly popular with visitors from China, Russia (though numbers are starting to dwindle along with the Russian economy), Australia, the UK and the United States. It is also of great appeal to Scandinavian and German sunlovers.

The national carrier Thai Airlines flies from 33 countries to Thailand, including 12 destinations in Europe, four cities in Australia and Los Angeles in the United States. All flights to Phuket are via Bangkok.

For Australian travellers, Phuket International Airport (HKT) is an appealing 9-hour hop north of Sydney (daily) or Melbourne (three times a week), with direct flights on Jetstar. Virgin Australia offers direct flights from Perth.

Cheap flights are also available with budget airline carriers Tiger Airways, Scoot and Air Asia via their South-East Asian hubs; while Thai Airways has flights via Bangkok.

There are no direct flights to Phuket from the US; you’ll need to fly via Bangkok and/or other Asian hubs, serviced by airlines including Thai, China Southern, Emirates, United, Korean Air and Singapore Airlines.

Fares vary according to season; the cheapest time to fly to Phuket is during the wet season in September.

Getting Around

Phuket International Airport is located in the central north of the island, a good 40-minute drive from the southern hubs of Patong and Kata Beach.

Inquire whether transfers are included with your accommodation; most resorts offer shuttle transfers, pre-arranged for an added fee.

An airport bus service offers transfers to Phuket Town for 100 baht per person or 120 baht to Patong, with trips available every 45 minutes.

Shuttle services to other destinations are also available in a mini-van – expect to pay around 150 baht per person for a shared ride, with bookings made at airport counters in the arrivals hall.

Taxis are hideously expensive in Phuket, with a notorious taxi ‘mafia’ said to control the industry and stifle competition. While taxis are metred, many drivers like to negotiate a flat rate between destinations – make sure you know what you’re in for when you get in, or ask for the meter to be switched on.

A 100 baht levy is placed upon taxis leaving the airport; expect to pay around 500 baht to Phuket Town, 650 to Patong, 700 to Kata Beach, 800 baht to Kamala Beach.

If you like to arrive in style, ‘limousine’ services – in modern, private cars – can be booked at the arrivals hall, with fixed prices listed at the counter.

Uber has commenced high season services in Phuket, with a flat-rate fare of 950 baht from the airport to anywhere on the island (a good option if you are staying in more remote beaches like Cape Panwa. In its first six months in business, Uber Phuket clocked up over 10,000 trips, employing 300 local drivers and servicing clients from 40 nationalities. Check out Uber_Phuket’s Twitter page #saferidephuket for special deals and offers.

Once the cheapest, most iconic form of transport in Thailand, the smoke belching, three-wheeled, two-stroke tuk-tuks are now extinct in Phuket, replaced by open-sided four-wheeled red vans. Rates are negotiable and subject to the whim of the driver – expect to pay more if it’s night-time, raining, busy or extremely slow. Although they are still somewhat of a novelty, they really aren’t much cheaper than metered taxis (with a one kilometre trip setting you back at least 100 baht), and aren’t particularly safe either.

No tuk-tuks are allowed to enter the airport grounds.

Songtheaws, traditional open-backed blue buses with two bench seats to carry passengers, are available for hire between Phuket Town and the main tourist beaches along set routes – simply flag one down, and negotiate the rate, with fares ranging from 15-50 baht a trip. If you are planning to explore the far reaches of the island, or travel beyond Phuket, renting a car may be a viable option, and certainly cheaper in the long run than hiring taxis.

Note that in Thailand, you drive on the left-hand side of the road (as in Australia and England); traffic can be manic, so driving is not for the faint-hearted.

There are two car rental counters at Phuket International Airport with major international companies such as Avis, Hertz, Eurocar and Budget represented. You can also book cars through the Concierge desk at most hotels, though these are often ‘mom and pop’ businesses with only basic insurance offered – check the fine print to make sure you know what you’re in for; and also check the vehicle for any pre-existing damage.

To rent a car, you just need to present your passport and hold a valid driver’s licence. Rentals are priced from around 1000 baht (AUD$38) a day for an economy-sized vehicle.

Pre-booking before departure at sites such as driveaway.com.au may end up being more economical – do your research beforehand.

Motorcycles and scooters are available for rent on every street corner: but be warned, this is a dangerous undertaking, and not recommended unless you are a licensed, experienced rider.

Thailand ranks third in the world for road-related deaths, with 38 fatalities per 100,000 people and one death every half hour. Phuket is one of the worst offenders, its winding roads claiming many an inexperienced rider. The death toll is, quite simply, horrifying, with accidents a daily occurrence.

For those who insist on risking their lives, motorcycles are available for rent from 200-300 baht a day, which does not include damage insurance.

Always wear a helmet (legally they must be worn, though the law is often not enforced) and dress appropriately with shirt, jacket and closed shoes – you don’t want to wear gravel scars on your legs, arms and torsos for the rest of your life!

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