The Rare Jewel of Thailand: Phuket

It’s known for sun, sea and sand — but let’s be honest, Phuket’s once-paradisiacal reputation has taken a slight battering over the years, as mass-market tourism has supplemented, and then supplanted, the backpackers.

Today, millions of tourists, be they Australian, South Korean, Chinese or Russian, flock to the small southern Thai isle for their beach holiday. If you, like the hordes, choose to spend your vacation in Patong Beach, then you’ll bear witness to all the hedonist clichés that have come to dominate life in that seaside town.

If, however, you’re willing to explore a little, and get away from the crowds, you’ll discover a different side to the island — one that the locals would prefer to keep secret. Too late — here, your insider’s guide to Phuket reveals where to go and why you need to head there now.

Must-see spots

Begin your discovery of the ‘other’ Phuket in the Old Town on the east coast. It was founded more than 100 years ago by Chinese immigrants, who made their fortune in tin mining (the island was once one of the world’s major suppliers of this metal). The industry’s declining importance saw a corresponding fall in the area’s fortunes.

Until recently, that is. The last few years have seen a resurgence in the district, as chic cafes, bars and restaurants have gentrified the area, drawing in locals and in-the-know tourists. The latest feather in the cap is the newly launched Sunday Market Walking Street, with traditional snacks, cultural performances and eclectic handicrafts. Think of it as the Old Town, reborn.

While there are many tourist activities that should be avoided at all costs, watching the sun go down off Promthep Cape, in the island’s far south, is as magical as it ever was. As local company Phuket Photo Tours can attest, the sunset hours show Phuket at its best.

If you’re looking for a little more action, join American John ‘Caveman’ Gray, also known affectionately in Thai as Ling Yai, or ‘Big Monkey’, on a kayak tour of Phang Nga Bay. He offers many trips, but the best is the Hong by Starlight, a truly magical, sometimes spiritual, night-time journey of fireflies and candles, before you motor home by moonlight.

Local flavours

Tucked down a nondescript street, in a quiet part of the Old Town, sits a small white house surrounded by a white picket fence. Welcome to Suay, the creation of owner and chef Tammasak Chootong. At his restaurant (the name means ‘beautiful’ in Thai), he serves up a range of culturally adventurous dishes, such as must-try Maryland crab cakes. Down in the south of the island, young chef Thames Kraitat has converted his family home into hip eatery Fish4Thought, where he serves classic spicy Phuket-style crab curry.

Near chic Surin Beach, celebrity chef Daniel Isberg’s new Gastro Bar presents his menu of rock’n’roll fusion cuisine, with dishes such as foie gras tacos with pear and mint chutney to the island’s well-heeled set.

Staying over

From private island resorts to celebrity-studded hotels, Phuket is renowned for its cocktail-and-palm-tree luxury.

Indigo Pearl impresses with its startling industrial design, featuring raw timber and brass rivets, against the backdrop of swaying palm trees. The hotel’s look is the creation of Bangkok-based design guru Bill Bensley.

Accessible by private speedboat, The Naka Island Resort & Spa is a stunning resort on an island all to itself.

The Memory at On On Hotel opened in 1929 and was the island’s very first hotel. Having undergone a decline in fortune over the years, the property has recently been reborn following a major renovation.

Ella is a charming bar, bistro and boutique hotel, which is setting new standards of cool in the otherwise rough and ready Patong.

Sri Panwa is a favourite of the stars. It is set in 12 hectares of rainforest, and recent guests have included musicians Snoop Dogg (aka Lion) and Rita Ora, who filmed a new music video together on site. Renowned celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is also a big fan of its restaurant.

My island home

You’ve most certainly heard of Koh Phi Phi Leh and its Maya Bay, the legendary filming locations for The Beach. You may have even been to James Bond Island, made famous by Roger Moore in The Man with the Golden Gun. The problem is — so has everyone else.

Instead, head east of Phuket to rural and rustic Koh Yao Yai, a sleepy backwater that is home to just 8000 people. Its charms, like its attractions, are simple but it’s the perfect antidote to overcrowded Phuket. The Koh Yao Yai Village Hotel is committed to eco-friendly practices, and offers a great village tour that takes in the many local rubber plantations, tropical rainforests and fish farms. It’s a glimpse of what life used to be like around these parts. You can even visit the centre where they train local coconut-picking monkeys.

Hidden cultural gems

The old part of Phuket Town is where Chinese immigrants chose to set up their own school called Thai Hua. The school has now moved to a larger campus, freeing up the original building to become the 13 exhibitions rooms of the Phuket Thai Hua Museum. For a slightly less refined, but no less rewarding cultural experience, make your way to the Phuket Art Village, where a loose collective of local artists has come together to build its own studios and galleries. For live music and a modern Thai buffet, look no further than the Lost Legends, where local musos bring the house down with their blues, soul and rock.

Don’t miss

Ka Jok See is a legend within its own lifetime. For more than 20 years, this nondescript building has hosted nightly parties that are packed to the rafters, despite the owner’s refusal to advertise. The formula for success is deceptively simple: have a drink, play classic tunes, and get everyone up and dancing with sing-alongs led by the in-house ladyboy band — this is Phuket, after all.

If it’s an escape you’re looking for, Australian expat Tim Campbell and Quintin Clover organise trips around the island through Stand Up Projects. You’ll paddle 150 kilometres over five days, camp in secret coves and on uninhabited islands, and have a once-in-a-lifetime story to tell. The most rewarding part is that some proceeds from every trip go to community projects — currently, the pair are building a school for the underprivileged children of Burmese migrants.

Living like a local

Thirty-something Alice Na Takuatung is a TV presenter, MC and seventh-generation Phuketian.

Where do you go for a taste of home? I like to head to the hole-in-the-wall Lock Tien Food Court (between Dibuk and Yaowarat roads) for true local food, such as the Phuket-style noodle soup and fresh spring rolls, washed down with a lemon shake.

Do you have a secret place you like to take visitors? That has to be the Khao Khad Viewpoint, not far from my home. Only the locals really know about it, but it’s one of the few places in Phuket where you have 360-degree views of the island — from Chalong Bay to Phuket City. And yes, you can see my house from there.

What is your favourite time of the year? Definitely the end of the year, also known as the ‘high season’, simply because there are more people on the island and plenty of things going on — more events also means more money for me.

Most memorable moment in Phuket? In 2004, I was about to catch a bus from the Old Town to Patong, when I heard the news that the tsunami had struck. I speak Danish, as I spent a year living in Denmark as an exchange student, so I rushed to Provincial Hall to see if I could be of any help. That first day I didn’t go home until 2am, helping tourists trying to find their relatives.

Words by Simon Ostheimer - Published in Voyeur October 2013
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 314,000
Time Zone GMT +7
Languages Thai
Currency Thai Baht
Electricity 220 Volts. Several plugs and sockets are used, but two pin flat (US type) or round (European type) are universal. Adapters can purchased from local stores
Share this article 
facebook Twitter Pinterest Google
Related Articles 
Phi Phi on a Plate
Tales of a Truffle Pig food and travel blogger, Hannah Lewis recounts her favourite dishes from her recent trip to Thailand’s stunning Ko Phi Phi Don. After a swift departure from Phuket and a bumpy....
Discover Phuket
Phuket is tropical paradise, home to palm-fringed white-sand beaches, world-class resorts, lush rainforests, warm blue seas and famous Thai hospitality.Flanked by the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean....
Untouched Thailand
One of Thailand's few remaining holiday havens untouched by mass tourism, Khao Lak offers the best of both worlds: a relaxing luxe escape and a touch of adventure...