It’s no wonder millions of people visit Phuket each year. If you’re in the market for the perfect beach vacation and don’t mind sharing your space with others, nothing can beat it. The landscape, with its hilly, green, forested interior and clean, sandy beaches, is awe-inspiring. The vibes of the beaches and their surrounding areas vary from spring break fun to secluded romantic getaway to family-friendly. The accommodations range from unbelievably cheap to unbelievably luxurious. The tourism infrastructure is solid, and anything you want—perhaps a spur-of-the-moment diving trip, a midday massage on the beach, or a bespoke suit made in 24 hours—is available with no hassle.
As if that weren’t enough, nearly all of the sweeping, inviting beaches face west, so picture-perfect sunsets are a given. On an island this popular and this built-up, there are no more absolutely deserted places, but the northern and southern parts of the west coast offer some surprisingly quiet, quaint, and relaxed places to pull up a beach chair and chill out.
Thailand’s largest island is about 48 kilometers (30 mi) long and 16 kilometers (10 mi) across. Imagine an elongated star with extra points and you’ll have a rough idea of what Phuket looks like from above. The points are promontories, rock formations jutting out into the ocean and separating the island into numerous individual beaches with curving coasts. The road system on the island is very well maintained, and there is both a coastal road that encircles nearly the whole island and large multilane inland roads. Off the main island, the Andaman Sea is littered with small islands and elegant rock formations jutting out from the sea. Many of the surrounding islands could be destinations in their own right, if not overshadowed by the main island.
Phuket and the surrounding areas rebuilt quickly after the 2004 tsunami, but the momentum from the redevelopment seems not to have slowed once all of the damage was repaired. There are new resorts and villas popping up in every corner, new shopping malls, bars and restaurants opening just off the beach and further inland, and more visitors coming every year to stay, eat, drink, and shop in those new places. If you want to experience some of what Phuket became famous for, hurry up and come now: Even the most remote beaches and islands won’t be the same in the next few years.
During prehistoric times, Phuket was inhabited by indigenous people sometimes referred to as Negritos, a group of hunter-gatherer pygmies who were, like many indigenous Southeast Asians, displaced and assimilated during waves of successive migration. Although no clear records exist, the last of the pygmy tribes was probably wiped out in the 19th century.
Although Phuket, then called Jang Si Lang or Junk Ceylon, shows up in some of Ptolemy’s maps and writings, the island’s history is largely unknown until about 800 years ago. Phuket’s main natural resource, tin, was mined by prehistoric inhabitants, but what is now known as Phuket didn’t come to the attention of the Thai people until the 13th century, when they arrived for trading and tin mining.
Word spread of the abundant natural resources, which included not only tin but also pearls, and by the 15th-16th centuries Thalang, as the island was then known, became a popular trading center, attracting the Dutch, Portuguese, and French. While Thailand has never technically been colonized, the Dutch set up trading posts in the region in the 16th century, and parts of the island were governed by tin traders under a concession. Phuket was even under the administration of the French between 1681 and 1685.
At the end of the Ayutthaya period, after the Burmese had sacked the capital city and were pushed back by General Taksin, they set their sights on Phuket and the surrounding region, invading the island and trying to take it over in 1785. The island’s governor was killed by the intruders, but Phuket did not fall, according to the story told by nearly every islander. The governor’s widow and her sister, both disguised as men, led a force against the siege and succeeded in repelling the Burmese after weeks of fighting. In recognition of their heroism, the two women were granted noble titles by King Rama I, and today there is a statue dedicated to them in the middle of the island.
After that dramatic high point in Phuket’s history, the island continued to be used primarily as a tin-mining area, and later for rubber plantations, attracting thousands of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century, many of whom remained and, with the Muslim fisherfolk who immigrated from what is now Malaysia, constitute much of the modern indigenous population.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that intrepid foreign travelers “discovered” Phuket’s beauty and began to visit the island to enjoy the mountainous rainforests and pristine beaches. Starting with some small bungalow developments on Patong Beach, the island has boomed into a world-class tourist destination over the past three decades. Urban Thais in their 50s and 60s will often laugh and reminisce about what the Andaman coast used to be like before travelers and developers realized it was a natural tourist destination, when they’d head down on motorcycles to the largely untouched island for some adventure. Fast-forward 30 years, and the dirt roads and simple local folks have since been replaced by an exceptionally sophisticated infrastructure with easily navigable roads, hospitals, shopping malls, and an international airport.
Nowadays Phuket’s “local” population is not just the Chinese immigrants and Muslim fisherfolk but thousands of Thais who’ve moved here to open hotels, restaurants, and other tourism-related businesses. The mining industry is virtually gone, but rubber tapping remains one of the island’s income generators. The island’s identity is tourism, attracting millions of visitors each year and accounting for the majority of the island’s revenues.
Planning Your Time
Phuket is filled with opportunities to relax on beautiful beaches, explore the stunning physical landscape, enjoy local foods, and pamper yourself in a bit of luxury. You can spend three weeks island-hopping, diving, hiking, and playing golf, or spend just a few days lying on the beach without even touring the neighboring areas, and you’ll still have something of value from your trip.
While it may be tempting to idle your days away in the immediate vicinity of your hotel, make sure to set aside at least one day to explore the surrounding islands by boat. The small islands you’ll pass on the way create scenery that’s enchanting and like nothing in North America. Off the smaller islands is some of the best scuba and snorkeling in the world.
If you’ve never dived before, Phuket is the place to start. There are numerous dive schools that offer PADI certification, and the courses are inexpensive and a lot of fun. Even if you’re not interested in diving, set aside a couple of hours to snorkel above some of the shallow coral reefs.
Find Your Way Around
Patong functions as the center of the most popular and developed part of Phuket, though it’s not in the middle of the island, but farther south. The northernmost part of the island, once almost totally ignored, is slowly becoming developed.
Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Phuket & Ko Samui.