Made up of 33 islands, Phuket covers an area of 570 square kilometers (354 square miles) and has a population of about 322,000 residents. Phuket Island, the largest, is linked to the mainland by a bridge. The country's main source of income is tourism, though agriculture also plays a key role. The island is divided into three districts: Talang in the north, Kathu in the west, and Muang in the south.
This area provides a less expensive alternative to the west coast beach resorts.
To the east lies
The prominent southern extremity of the island,
Within the Muang District a number of islands can be found, including Mai Ton Island, with its natural environment, white beaches, and clear waters. Kaew Island is small, but has a fine beach and incredible coral in the surrounding water. One of the main attractions on the island is the giant Buddha statue at Wat Phra Kaew. Lohn Island is large and mountainous, while
Renowned in this district is
Among the major attractions in the vicinity are
At the northern end of
Covering the northern half of the island, this district has a number of attractions, including
Some of the most picturesque scenery in this area can be observed at the
Beaches on the west coast include
North of Bang Tao, near the airport is
Wherever you are in Phuket, there are limitless opportunities to immerse yourself in local culture and tradition. There is more than enough opportunity to relax and enjoy the beautiful beaches and unique environment.
There is a common misconception that the island of Phuket is a recent find—that backpackers stumbled across a tropical haven in the 1960s and it was only then that its history began. Nothing could be further from the truth, although records are scarce and much of the island's background relies upon the documentation of foreign visitors and archaeological finds from the past three decades.
The geographical location of Phuket ensured that it would be stumbled upon by traders from the West, traveling from India to the Far East and looking for an easier passage than sailing south through the then uncharted waters of Malaysia and Indonesia. Historical records tell of sailors visiting the island as far back as the 9th Century and antique charts show the island's position as far back as the 2nd Century (Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria produced a map featuring what looks like Phuket).
Although the island's coves and bays were frequently used as safe harbors from the storms so frequent in the Andaman Sea, it was not until the 13th century that the Thais discovered the island and began trading here. For the travelers from the West, they also provided food and shelter from the pirates so prevalent between India and Peninsular Malaysia at the time. Known as 'Junk Ceylon' the island was predominately populated by Mon-Khmers from Burma and the Chao Talay, now commonly known as Sea Gypsies and famed for their talents in fishing, diving and sailing.
The arrival of the Thais led to tin mining, a very lucrative trade as the tin veins were close to the surface and easy to exploit. As trade routes grew, the island blossomed and became famous as a pearl-fishing center (the Phuket Sea Shell Museum not far from Rawai Beach has many fine examples from this period). As news of these riches traveled to Europe in the 16th century, Dutch pearl traders arrived by the hundreds. In addition to tin and pearls, the Europeans sought precious rhino horn, colorful corals, ambergris and valuable bird's nests to that they would then trade with the Chinese. Phang Nga Bay to the northeast of Phuket is still an area famed for the quality (and cost) of its bird's nests.
The centuries-long threat of Burmese aggression came to a bloody conclusion in 1785, when a marauding force swept across the island in an attempt to take it for their own. Following the death of the governor of (then capital) Thalang, his grieving widow, Chan, and her sister, Muk, led a group of Thai forces and repelled the invaders. Disguised as men, their courage terrified the Burmese, who fled north after a seven-week insurgence. In recognition of their bravery, the sisters were honored by King Rama I and given the noble titles of Lady Thepsatri and Tao Srisuntorn. A bronze statue of the two, with swords drawn, was erected in the center of Thalang in 1966. The Two Heroines Monument is regularly visited by locals, who rub gold leaf on the base as both a mark of respect and as a way to seek merit. Just off the Heroines Monument is the Thalang National Museum, which has a wide array of local history displays and artifacts.
In the late 18th century, Captain Francis Light of the East India Company traveled to Bukhit (Malay for hill) to engage in commerce. He met and married a local woman, then declared the island a British outpost. However, as the island flourished, Bangkok ordered that Bukhit become part of the Kingdom of Thailand and Light retreated south to British colonial holdings in Penang and the Straits of Malacca. Had things been different, Phuket might have developed along the lines of Singapore.
The 19th century saw an influx of Chinese immigrants who were leaving the disintegrating Qing empire and who were attracted to the opportunities provided by the island’s rich resources. The Peranankan community, locally known as Phuket Babas are the descendants of Chinese immigration and influenced the architecture, religion and culture on Phuket, notable in the Sino-Thai flavor of many establishments in Phuket Town. Although there were no invasions at this time, fighting between tin miners approached unbearably violent conditions. The ending of hostilities is marked each year at Wat Chalong, the most sacred of the 29 temples on the island. In 1903 the first rubber trees were planted, beginning another lucrative business, and Phuket rapidly became the richest part of Thailand. Another Englishman, Captain Edward Miles, arrived in 1907 and proceeded to harness the power of local elephants to transport ore and other produce around the island. By 1910, Phuket had become the first place in Thailand to have paved roads and motorcars. In 1933, the island was declared an official province.
The mid-20th Century proceeded fairly quietly. Phuket remained remote because of the few boats to travel between the island and the mainland, so visitors were infrequent. In the early 1970s Sarasin Bridge was built, connecting Phuket to neighboring Phang Nga Province. Soon, travelers began to arrive by the busload from Bangkok, roads were cut through the mountains to the western Patong Beach, Kata Beach and Karon Beach, marking the beginning of the tourism boom.
Although much of Phuket's heritage takes time to find, the search is worthwhile. Down small side streets in Phuket Town you can stumble across a centuries-old Chinese door, a Sino-Portuguese building or a temple hidden behind a modern convenience store. The wild rhino, once so prevalent on the island, have long since disappeared, as have the crocodiles. However, Phuket and the surrounding areas are home to many wildlife and marine parks. The reserves on the Phi Phi Islands and Krabi are a short boat journey away and north of the island Khao Lak and Khao Sok National Park are idyllic retreats along the road to once-feared Burma (Myanmar). To the west lie the Surin Islands and Similan Islands, and to the northeast Phang Nga Bay features some of the most outstanding natural scenery in Asia. The small domestic airport became an international airport in the 1990s and infrastructure expanded rapidly. Phuket is now the leading island holiday destination in Southeast Asia and is still the wealthiest province in Thailand.
On December 26, 2004, the Boxing Day Tsunami, triggered by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake in the Indian Ocean, swept through the Andaman Sea, affecting everything in its path and causing one of the largest natural disasters in recorded history. The western and southern parts of Phuket including Patong Beach and the Phi Phi Islands areas were completely devastated and infrastructure was swept away along with more than 500 lives. Because Phuket’s emergency services were not greatly damaged, the island was able to begin rescue and recovery efforts immediately following the disaster. Since late 2005 with the help of generous international assistance and aid, most of Phuket’s roads, resorts and infrastructure has been completely restored.
There is hardly any activity that is not centered around fun on Phuket Island, be it indoor, outdoor, active or more sedate, whether it is day or night.
In the Water
Phuket is a major destination for scuba diving. The Similan, Surin and Phi Phi Islands, as well as some of the smaller islands and beaches, offer great dive sites, perfect for scuba or snorkeling. Many companies, including Coral Seekers, offer diving trips.
On the Water
This is a popular activity and anything from a dinghy to a yacht, with or without crew, can be chartered. The Andaman Sea provides great opportunities for big game fishing. Tours and charters are run by Surasak and Big Game Fishing.
Phang Nga Bay, with its incredible marine topography, is an idyllic, all-year sea canoe destination, boasting the Viking caves and mangroves. Trips are run by Santana Kanutouren and Sea Canoe. Near Kathu Waterfall there is water-skiing at Phuket Water-ski Cableways.
Hiking & Trekking
For those who enjoy walking, guided forest treks in the Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Sanctuary or Sirinat National Park are fun ways to explore Phuket’s natural beauty. Elephant treks along the beach at Kalim and up into the hills are another interesting way to get around. Tours can be booked through Kalim Elephant Trekking and Siam Safari Nature Tours. Horse riding can be enjoyed amid stunning beaches and lush, tropical scenery with the Phuket Riding Club.
Golf & Adventure Sports
Golf is a popular pastime on the island and there are top notch courses at the Banyan Tree Golf Club, the Blue Canyon Country Club, Loch Palm Golf Club and the Phuket Country Club Golf Course. For a family outing there is Dino Park Mini Golf. For those with a steady hand and good eye, target shooting with small and large-caliber guns and shotguns takes place at the Phuket Shooting Range. Nearby there is also paintballing at Top Gun's Paint Ball and bungee jumping at Tarzan Jungle Bungee Jump. Go-karting is another fast paced kind of fun at Patong Go-Kart Speedway.
Films & Live Performance
Movies are shown daily at Pearl Cinema in Phuket Town. Films are usually in Thai but some English titles can usually be found. Traditional Thai dance, also known as Khon, is performed in several locations across the island to the accompaniment of classical Thai music. Dinner shows featuring traditional cuisine and dance can be found at the Thainaan Restaurant and the Old Siam Nakalay. At Patong Beach, the Phuket Simon's Group's Cabaret features a stunning nightly show performed by katoeys or cross dressers. Muay Thai, or Thai boxing, is staged at the Phuket Town Stadium and the Vegas Beer Bar & Muay Thai.
Live music venues throughout the island include the spacious Timber 'n' Rock, a great rock 'n' roll venue, and Gitano's, which caters to all musical tastes from blues and soul to golden oldies and also jazz. In Patong Beach there is a piano bar at Baan Rim Pa, country and western at Pow Wow, plus jazz, blues and even opera at Da Maurizio.
Well known throughout the whole of Thailand and a cultural must-see is the huge FantaSea at Kamala Beach. The beachfront at Patong also features a carnival-like boardwalk full of amusements.
Museums, Aquaria & Galleries
The Phuket Sea Shell Museum near Rawai Beach probably houses the world's most valuable collection of seashells, while the Phuket Aquarium at Panwa Cape is an interesting place to learn about the environment and protection of marine species in Phuket. The Thalang National Museum details some of the history of Phuket with ancient artifacts. Major exhibits include a depiction of the famous battle on Phuket against the Burmese invasion of 1785.
There are many spa and massage centers all over the island, ranging from simple beach massages to the herbal steam saunas used centuries ago as a method of healing. These include the Island Herbal Sauna, the Panwa Gardens Herbal Sauna where foot reflexology is performed by blind masseurs and the Banyan Tree Spa. Traditional spa treatments are a specialty at Hide Away, which features the only Thai massage school on Phuket.
Phuket Island is a great place to shop for goods, including pewter products, pearls and hand-dyed batik. The main shopping areas are Phuket Town and Patong Beach. Other areas to explore include Kata Beach, Karon Beach and the Canal Village Shopping Center.
More and more visitors plan their holidays to coincide with one of the many festivals that take place here each year. “High Season” is the most active time of the year, with events such as Patong Carnival and the Phuket Vegetarian Festival drawing crowds in October and November. The huge sailing competition King's Cup Regatta takes place in early December and in the spring there are big celebrations surrounding Chao Lay's Floating Boat Festival and Songkran, also known as Thai New Year.
Over three million tourists visit Phuket Island annually. A good road network enables easy exploration from Chalong Bay and Rawai Beach on the east coast, round Cape Prom Thep at the southern-most point and up to the western shoreline, which includes Nai Harn Beach, Kata Beach, Karon Beach, Patong Beach and Kamala Bang Tao. North of Phuket Town, roads branch off to Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Sanctuary and the many eastern bays, westward to Nai Yang Beach and across the mountains to Kamala and Patong beaches.
The center of Phuket Town is best explored on foot. Sino-Portuguese buildings fill the streets, some dating back over a century, such as the San Jao Chui Tui Temple. Follow along Ranong Road past the traffic circle to dip into Radsada and admire the arts and crafts, hand woven silk and cotton textiles, pewter and jewelry. A visit to Phuket Town Central Market allows a real insight into Thai life. A heady mix of aromas, sights and sounds envelop the stalls, which sell a variety of foods, perfect for picnics in the park atop Rang Hill (Khao Rang), which offers great views over the town and the islands beyond.
Along the road from Phuket Town to Chalong Bay are several interesting stops, including the incredible Phuket Aquarium, Wat Chalong, Phuket's most beautiful monastery, Phuket Zoo and Phuket Sea Shell Museum, said to have the largest shell collection in the world. Chalong Bay is not suitable for swimming, but its pier is the departure point for many dive and boat tours. Take the coconut palm-fringed road from Chalong Circle to Rawai Beach —one of the most beautiful on the island. There are a number of restaurants here and many locals choose this spot for weekend picnics. To the east, Laem Ka Beach is excellent for swimming, while to the west is Prom Thep Cape, the island's southern-most point.
As an international destination,Patang Beach sees a culturally diverse stream of visitors year round. The cosmopolitan atmosphere is complimented by a myriad of shops, food stalls, restaurants, pubs, nightclubs and spas catering to one region of the world or another. Along the beachfront road is the Famous Old Dutch, a northern beer establishment from top to bottom. Down the stretch is the King’s Fashion Tailors where you can have a suit of clothes or anything else you fancy tailor made. Or head down to World Gems to be dazzled by the selection of stones from around the world. Continue to sample international fare at La Boucherie which features a simple and elegant French menu. Finally take a short ride up to Hide Away, which offers relaxing massage next to a waterfall at Phuket’s only Thai massage school.
The North Side of the Island
Surin Beach is a remote and peaceful spot on the north side of the island. Nearby Kamala Beach is where you will find FantaSea, a cultural theme park with lots of shopping and excellent dining in the Canal Shopping Village. During the fall and winter, giant sea turtles come to Nai Yang Beach to lay their eggs. If you are lucky, you might spot one. This beach is also not far from Wat Phra Tong, an important Buddhist monastery, and Wat Phra Nang Sang, which boasts the three largest Buddha statues in the world.