Written by Olly
Phuket and the Andaman coast are Thailand’s headline act, a show-stopping collection of soft sand beaches, turquoise seas and jungle-covered islands so beautiful that you may well be tempted to ditch home and work in exchange for a new life in bare feet and fisherman pants.
Phuket is the region’s largest island, and for many visitors, a one-stop version of paradise. There’s something for everyone here, from the chilled-out beaches of Rawai in the south to the elegant luxury resorts of Surin and Ao Bang Thao in the northwest.
Khao Sok National Park, home to a 165-million-year-old rain forest laced with hidden caves
Phuket Town is the island’s historic centre, with colourful rows of wooden shopfronts built in an eye-catching architectural style known as Sino-Portuguese, from the days when the town was a thriving trading centre. This is also Phuket’s hipster capital, full of cool cafes and art galleries as well as a fine selection of cheap guesthouses.
If you’re looking for something a little more…lively, to the west of Old Phuket is Patong, home of hangovers and hedonism. Between the go-go bars and the banging megaclubs it’s a noisy free-for-all of sinful indulgence, which mightn’t be to everyone’s taste – but there’s so much else to do around the island it’s not that difficult to avoid altogether.
Uncover the highlights Thailand has to offer
As tempting as it is to stick to lolling around the beach nearest where you’re staying, getting onto a motorboat and exploring the surrounding islands is a huge part of the fun. You’re spoilt for choice, too: a popular option are the protected twin islands of Ko Phi Phi, each with their own character. Beachy Phi-Phi Don is the party island, while hotel-free Phi-Phi Leh is all soaring cliffs dropping into crystal clear waters lined with coral reefs.
The 42 islands of Ao Phang-Nga National Park are another popular choice, its massive limestone towers jutting out of the sea instantly recognisable by anyone who’s seen The Man with the Golden Gun. The most famous island is Ko Khao Ping Kan, aka James Bond Island, which is beautiful but you have to look beyond the snap-happy tourists and the hawkers selling shells and bits of coral that really should still be underwater.
The other big draw in the area is the Similian Islands Marine National Park, especially if you’re a keen diver or fancy snorkelling in the clearest aquamarine waters. Below water are a series of impressive gorges and a bounty of sealife, including manta-rays and even whale sharks. You should be aware that the islands are closed to visitors from roughly mid-May to October in an effort to protect the fragile ecosystem and combat overtourism, and the only accommodation in the park are basic bungalows and a campsite on Ko Miang – which need to be booked months in advance.
Accommodation elsewhere is rarely a problem, however – especially on Phuket, which has plenty of styles to choose from. The bedrock of island accommodation is the huge choice of good-value guesthouses, hostels and boutique hotels spread throughout the island: and if by chance you’re not staying right on a beach you can commute back and forth using the passenger pick-up trucks known as sorng-taa-ou.
There’s a great choice of midrange hotels and resorts in Rawai, Kata, Karon and Kamala beaches that are popular with families, package holiday visitors and – especially in Karon – Russian holiday makers, as evidenced by the huge number of signs in Cyrillic and the Russian
TV stations piped into each hotel room. The fanciest resorts are clustered in prime positions in the north of the island, around Surin, Ao Bang Thao, Hat Nai Yang and Hat Mai Khao.
If you’re looking for a break from the beach, just north of Phuket is Khao Sok National Park, home to a 165-million-year-old rain forest laced with hidden caves, stunning waterfalls and the world’s largest and smelliest flower – the very rare rafflesia kerrii, that looks a bit like Audrey, the flesh-eating venus flytrap from Little Shop of Horrors.
It’s also home to Elephant Hills, Thailand’s first luxury tented camp and a great place to interact with elephants. The all-inclusive experience covers meals, guided walks and a canoe trip downriver to its elephant camp, home to a dozen or so rescued elephants – which you can feed, bathe and hang out with.
This is also a great opportunity to learn how much harm human interaction has caused these majestic animals. From logging to the tourism industry, Thailand’s elephants have long been mistreated – whether it’s carrying heavy loads for long periods (including trekkers in those metal chairs) or the repetitive physical and psychological abuse they’re subjected to so they ‘learn’ how to perform for visitors in elephant shows. A visit here, or the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary in northeastern Phuket, and you’ll come away with a whole new perspective on how to interact with these beloved creatures. At a minimum, you’ll question the ethics of getting on an elephant at all, which still persists as a favourite activity for tourists.
Take a Break…in Dubai.
For many UK visitors to Thailand, a stop in the gulf states aboard a Middle Eastern carrier is now the norm. The biggest gulf airline is Emirates, which gives visitors the chance to spend a couple of days in Dubai. Home to the world’s tallest building (the 828m Burj Khalifa), one of the world’s most iconic hotels (the distinctive, sail-shaped Burj Al Arab) and an extraordinary nightlife scene that belies the otherwise conservative nature of most of the gulf, Dubai is a fascinating mix of tradition and futurism. It’s also one of the world’s premier shopping destinations, whether you’re buying exotic spices in a traditional souk or looking for the latest fashions in a giant mall designed like an Italian palazzo.