When people think of the island of Phuket, they tend to think of two things: the beach and the colourful nightlife of Patong.
While both are undoubtedly part of the Phuket experience, there’s also plenty on offer away from the bars and beachfront — including a range of rich cultural experiences, stunning heritage architecture and absolutely sensational food.
Located in the shimmering Andaman Sea off southern Thailand, Phuket’s mountainous terrain also lends itself to a wide variety of outdoor activities. However, for most visitors, the main aim is to do as little as possible.
Enjoy this Phuket travel guide.
Phuket for history lovers
Phuket Town’s historic past is reflected in its Sino-Portuguese-style architecture.
Phuket was renowned for centuries as a rich source of tin, and mined extensively in the 19th century by Chinese migrants. Phuket Town’s distinctive architecture is thought to have been modelled on that of the British colony of Penang. The well-preserved shop fronts and merchant stores are definitely worth seeing. Take a stroll back in time and enjoy the bustling surroundings.
Top cultural experiences in Phuket
Look beyond the four walls of your resort and you’ll discover a very cultural Phuket.
Tap into the island’s spiritual side at Wat Chalong — the largest and most popular of Phuket’s twenty-nine Buddhist temples. Long sleeves and pants are recommended as a mark of respect, and shoes should be removed before you enter. The temple is open daily from 7am to 5pm.
From Wat Chalong, you can’t miss the 45-metre-high Big Buddha. Head up to the statue’s hilltop possie for stunning views of Phuket Town, and Karon and Kata beaches.
Phuket holds several festivals throughout the year, but two of the most interesting are the Vegetarian Festival and Songkran. The Vegetarian Festival is fairly ‘out there’, and involves nine days of firewalking, body piercing and the like, in an effort to cleanse the mind and body.
Songkran is the celebration of the Thai New Year. In the spirit of cleansing, renewal and, let’s face it, cheeky celebration, people take to the streets with buckets and water pistols to drench one another. No-one is excused from the water fight — tourists and police officers included!
You might want to try your hand at Muay Thai boxing during your stay. The sport has deep cultural significance. There are nightly jousts in Patong, and tourists can take lessons. Yes, there will be pain, but there will also be bragging rights!
For a bit of light-hearted cultural fun, head to the Phuket Trickeye Museum. It features a collection of mind-bending scenarios that are just screaming out to be photographed and posted on Instagram. Who doesn’t want to sit in Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at night or be able to walk a tightrope without ever leaving the ground?
Great places to eat in Phuket
Phuket’s culinary scene is extensive and ranges from cheap and cheerful street eats to ritzy resort fine dining.
Here are just a couple of the highlights.
Swing by Suay Restaurant in Phuket Town. It’s an absolute gem. The décor is tasteful and refreshing, the staff are friendly and helpful, and, most importantly, the food is spectacularly good. Try the apple salad with crispy fried catfish cigar, and the Maryland crab cakes with mango chutney and sweet chilli aioli.
Also in Phuket Town, The Blue Elephant is housed in the gorgeous Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion. It offers a set menu, which will give you a broad introduction to both classic and modern Thai cuisine.
A cooking class is a great way to take a little piece of Phuket home with you. A full-day class will equip you with the know-how to prepare several traditional Thai dishes. And the best part is, you get to eat the fruits of your labour at the end!
Where to shop in Phuket
Phuket is not a shopping mecca by any stretch of the imagination, but there are plenty of opportunities to part with some baht.
Your main options are shopping malls and markets. The big name in malls is Jungceylon in Patong, which is home to over 200 retail outlets along with a bowling alley, gaming arcade and cinema complex.
There are markets in operation across the island. The pick of the bunch is probably the Phuket Town Weekend Market, which operates Saturdays and Sundays from mid-afternoon to late evening.
Ways to relax in Phuket
Phuket’s golden beaches are caressed by the warm waters of the Andaman Sea.
The key to deciding which Phuket beachfront locale is right for you depends on what sort of holiday you want. Patong is party central (and you don’t want to be located too far away if you’ll be travelling into town regularly). Karon and Kata are great for families, while you can really get away from it all in Rawai and Nai Yang.
You can get even further away from it all on the captivating Phi Phi Islands, located roughly half way between Phuket and the mainland. It’s possible to visit the islands on a day trip, and a speed boat transfer is one of the fastest options. See the spectacular white beaches made famous by the film version of The Beach with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Do you have any tips to add to our Phuket travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Samantha Wasson is a Sydney-based freelance writer and former educator. She lived in Vietnam for three years and has travelled extensively in Asia, Europe and the United States, with a brief sojourn in Africa. Travel highlights to date have included studying German in Freiburg, volunteering at an elephant rehabilitation project outside Chiang Mai, and travelling by motorbike through the Mekong Delta. A lover of literature and travel, Samantha subscribes to Augustine of Hippo’s observation that ‘the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page’.