Editor’s Note: CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
It’s hard to explain Phuket’s allure.
Perhaps the easiest way would be to compare it to a super-sexy but rebellious supermodel. The Naomi Campbell of the tourist trail.
Phuket’s beauty has never been in dispute. Its natural attractions are stunning.
What plagues Thailand’s biggest island is a reputation for petty crime, unsafe roads, aggressive taxi drivers, Jet-Ski scams and overdeveloped beaches.
Thai authorities promise they’re working to rebuild the island’s reputation as a family-friendly holiday destination by cleaning up these messes.
(Whether their efforts are cosmetic or concrete will play out in the months and years to come.)
But there is, of course, another, far more positive Phuket.
That would be the one that pulls in about a couple million visitors a year, including the world’s rich and famous, who come for world-class luxury resorts, spectacular diving, island hopping, beach bumming, dining and nightlife.
Too tempted to resist? Here’s a quick guide to the best of Phuket.
Trisara’s pool villas look like they pour right onto the treetops, with the Andaman Sea within reach.
A surprisingly child-friendly super luxury offering – the kids’ club is impressive – Trisara’s 39 villas represent no nonsense, non-gimmicky tropical cool.
Marble-tiled bathrooms and plenty of white paint make the one- and two-bedroom pool villas refreshingly bright and airy.
For larger parties, some of the 18 residential villas, ranging from two to five bedrooms, are put back into the rental pool, with the huge, four-bedroom oceanfront residence holding bragging rights thanks to a 30-meter-long private pool.
Sitting on the edge of the Cape Panwa peninsula, Sri Panwa is the coolest of Phuket’s luxe accommodation offerings.
The vibe on this best of Phuket resort is young and hip, lacking the stuffy air of pretentiousness found in many of the island’s top hotels.
If you’re particular about personal space ask for the adjoining villas, FS1/1 and FS1/2.
Looking to hold a big blowout?
The five-bedroom pool villa A5 is 2,000 square meters and has a 300-degree view of the islands off the cape.
Sri Panwa recently took delivery of a 14-meter speedboat that holds up to 20 passengers, which guests can charter to check out the nearby island, such as Koh Maiton, Phang Nga and the Similans.
The boat’s name is Free Willy, making it the perfect yacht for a stag party, no?
This artsy island retreat advertsises “the most luxurious private pool villas in Phuket.” We can’t say we’ve seen every private pool villa in Phuket but we’ve seen more than a few and these ones definitely make a case for themselves as top of the class.
Rooms come with neat designer touches and pillow menus.
The Coqoon Spa is a bit gaudy but fun. It looks a place where the truly special might convene for tribal council.
The whole place exudes tropical class – raw timber, brass rivets, swaying palms, lots of landscaped greenery – and there’s a nice Thai restaurant on site.
This mid-priced Phuket resort with a jungle vibe is on Ao Sane Bay, just north of Nai Harn beach in the south.
Bungalows are tucked hillside, leading down to a small private beach.
With plenty of natural charm and lots of tall old trees on a secluded hillside, those who associate Phuket with overdeveloped modernity will be surprised such a resort still exists on the island.
There are 65 rooms total.
For something rustic and natural, the deluxe rooms have thatched roofs.
For a newer and more contemporary stay there are also deluxe pavilion rooms – all of which have private terraces.
The modern and clean Chinotel opened in December 2010.
For a no-nonsense base in Phuket Town, there’s the Chinotel.
Its 24 basic rooms are compact, but have all standards such as LCD television, air conditioning and a minibar.
Set in a five-story townhouse – all rooms have a balcony/terrace – the higher floors (4th and 5th) that open up to Ranong Road enjoy views of Phuket Town above the power lines.
If a stronger (free) Wi-Fi signal trumps your desire for a non-obstructed view, stay in the lower half of the building.
This busy neighborhood is filled with wet markets open in the wee hours of morning till mid/late afternoon, so it’s a great place to witness how the locals really live.
Acqua is among the best of Phuket’s Italian restaurants.
It’s owned by chef Alessandro Frau, executive chef at Sheraton Laguna Phuket for four years before starting his own venue in 2009.
Expect it all.
Traditional, regional and modern interpretations of Italian food, including pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven imported from Italy.
If you don’t know your Gillardeau from your Fine de Claire, Alessandro’s always around and happy to share his passion for food.
Signature dishes include “yellow fin tuna and swordfish Carpaccio” and Catalana-style lobster salad.
Kan Eang @ Pier
Satisfying hungry diners for nearly 40 years, Kan Eang means “at ease.” And that it is.
An unpretentious restaurant beside Chalong pier in the south, Kan Eang serves Thai, seafood and international fare. But skip the international.
The catch is delivered live every morning by local fishermen, thus the most popular items on the menu are barbecue seafood.
Sold-by-the-weight catch includes fish, cuttlefish, Phuket lobster sashimi, tiger prawns and blue crab.
Chefs at Kan Eang use coconut husks instead of a standard charcoal grill as they’re aromatic and cook slower and all the way through so the seafood is not charred on the outside.
You’re eating on a raft floating in the middle of the island so you can guess what the specialty of the house is.
The menu changes to accommodate the seafood catch of the day, but consistent faves include barbecued lobster, steamed tiger grouper with soy sauce and steamed blue crab.
The atmosphere is low-key and informal – the “raft” is like a floating mini-pier (it’s made of weathered wooden planks) and tables sit beneath cute thatch roofs.
Baan Rim Pa
Baan Rim Pa’s lower level seats only 25, so it’s a popular spot for private parties.
Literally meaning “house next to the cliff,” Baan Rim Pa is on the rocky headlands north of Patong Bay.
An open-air dining institution open for more than 20 years and set in a two-story teak house, it serves a range of Thai cuisine.
Diners get to eyeball views over the entire bay as they listen to the waves crashing onto rocks below.
That is until pianist Tommy Doyle shows up to hit the grand piano on the main level’s Piano Bar from 7 p.m. nightly (except Monday).
If you tire of Thai food but don’t want to give up the view, Baan Rim Pa is adjacent to Joe’s Downstairs (modern cuisine) and Da Maurizio (Italian) – all part of the same restaurant group.
No tourist fare here. A Phuket institution, Raya House serves island specialties.
Open for 17 years, this converted two-story residence serves Phuket-style Thai food.
Owner Pa’Gularb (Auntie Rose), a former Bangkok Bank executive, started Raya House because all her friends told her that her cooking was delicious.
And they weren’t just being nice.
Her dishes are damn fine.
Auntie Rose still goes to the market and picks out ingredients herself and follows traditional recipes from her own family.
Anything with crab is pretty much guaranteed to be great – leading the way is her signature crab with curry and coconut milk.
This dish is so popular that it’s regularly ordered up (via cargo) by wealthy patrons in Bangkok.
Ka Jok See
Owner Khun Lek opened Ka Jok See (meaning “stained-glass window”) more than 10 years ago.
Today it’s one of the busiest restaurants/bars in town so reservations are recommended.
The place has bucket loads of atmosphere.
Set inside a gorgeous old shophouse with beamed ceilings, the photos on the walls are suitably aged and fight for space with quirky Thai art.
Later into the night things get a bit wild when Khun Lek turns Ka Jok See into a dance bar.
Seduction Beach Club & Disco
Seduction adds a bit of cool to an otherwise sleazy neighborhood.
For the most part, Patong’s Bangla Road is a sleazy night zone – even a tad depressing if you’re sober.
But there are a few quality nightclubs that keep things going till the early morning hours.
Seduction Beach Club & Disco is one such venue bringing in top international DJs (Paul Oakenfold has played here).
Three separate levels pump out different styles of music.
The first level beach bar plays R&B and hip-hop.
On the top level is the actual nightclub, where DJs spin house and club hits.
For the VIP set there’s an exclusive members-only open-air lounge on the top floor called BLOW.
We’re not sure what inspired the name. It’s windy up there?
Sanaeha Phuket is the place to experience live music as the locals do.
Recently renovated and expanded, this is where all the hip and trendy people of Phuket Town play.
Drink “Thai style” by ordering a bottle of whiskey to share with your friends.
The wait staff will keep the ice, soda water and cola coming as long as you keep emptying your glass.
The talented Joob and the Gang hits the stage at 8:30 p.m.
Like most local bands, Joob covers Thai songs but throws in a few Western surprises.
The bar here claims its drink are “infused with tastes reminiscent of sun, perpetual summer and exotic Thai coasts.”
We’ll let them get away with a little over-the-top lyrical indulgence because the place is so damn cool.
It’s right on the beach, the drinks are good – even if we’d like a little more of that solar flavoring – and the beach parties draw good-looking crowds of happy people.
What with Phuket being Thailand’s biggest island, finding a beach to collapse on for the day isn’t a challenge.
Picking the right one is.
Here’s a rundown of some of the most popular, as well as a few spots the locals don’t want you to know about.
One warning: for the less-crowded beaches along the west coast, take care to heed the color of the flags in the sand (i.e. red = don’t go swimming).
Tales of tourists drowning in Phuket hit the headlines far too often.
There’s no such thing as a “quiet day at the beach” in Patong.
When bulldozers move into an island destination, it’s always the nicest beach that gets sacrificed first for development.
In Phuket’s case it was Patong, now the busiest tourist spot on the island.
While most locals heap a fair share of scorn on this place, action seekers will find everything they could want here.
There are shops along Thaweewong beach road, restaurants and the Jungceylon mall close by at the end of perpendicular “entertainment” road Soi Bangla.
What you lose in serenity you make up for in activities.
Jet-skis rip through the water (watch out for scamming rental guys who pretend to find damage you didn’t create) and paragliders launch from the shore while beach chairs and umbrellas stretch across the sand as far as your sunburned retinas can squint.
Small and relatively quiet, this lovely little stretch of beach north of Laem Singh and south of the Laem Son headlands has a more cosmopolitan vibe than Phuket’s other beaches.
The trendy Catch Beach Club is fun – it belongs to Twinpalms.
In-house guests are welcome to use the loungers, but if you drop in for just the day it will cost you 1,500 baht (price includes food, drinks, sun chairs and towels).
Away from Catch, less pricey beach massage beds and loungers for rent line the sand, and there are plenty of beachfront places selling cheap but quality Thai food.
Nai Yang is close to the airport so can be a bit noisy, but it’s a nice stretch of beach with plenty of beachside hut restaurants.
It’s also good for snorkeling as are there some pretty coral reefs off the shores.
On the north end is secluded Sirinath National Park.
It’s shady and lined with leafy trees, and usually only a handful of snack vendors will bug you.
Kata Yai and Kata Noi
The beaches of Kata are good for anyone who craves a bit of action, but is put off by Patong’s madness.
When the rain comes down the surf’s up.
Kata Yai is the place to ride waves between April and October.
Sure, it’s not Oa’hu, but the surf is decent enough that it can host the yearly Kata Surfing competition.
It also offers the best snorkeling off the shores of Phuket during high season.
“This is the only beach in southern Phuket that has coral right off the northern and southern points of the bay,” says John Williams, co-owner of Siamdivers.com.
“Tropical fish commonly seen are lionfish, schooling reef fish, parrotfish, butterfly fish, triggerfish and pipefish,” adds Williams, author of three dive guides including “Lonely Planet Diving & Snorkeling Thailand.”
Banana Beach (Haad Hin Kluay)
Between Bang Tao in the south and Nai Thon in the north (it can be a bit difficult to find), this popular-with-the-locals beach is close to hillside Trisara Resort.
It’s one of the most secluded stretches of beach on the island, with only one small bar/restaurant.
If you’re driving from the south, you can see the small beach through the trees — look for the orange “Banana Beach” sign nailed to a tree on the left, about 400 meters from the Trisara entrance.
Park and walk down the narrow steep-ish dirt path (not suitable for small children).
If it’s too difficult to find, get a round-the-island long-tail taxi man to take you on his boat.
White like washing powder.
The sands of Bang Tao attract many an upmarket tourist.
Bang Tao is a beautiful, long stretch of beach facing the massive Laguna Phuket complex with its cluster of upmarket hotels – Sheraton, Banyan Tree, Angsana, Dusit, Outrigger.
A 10-minute walk southward along the beach will get you to a small, practically deserted beach – though there’s also the newly re-opened blue and white Babylon Beach Club run by the Watermark group.
There’s also a wooden Reggae Bar that cantilevers on stilts over the incoming high tide, and two unassuming Thai restaurants — a great place to catch the sunset then retreat to the elevated restaurants and/or bar as the tide comes in over the sand up to the steps.
Shopping / Attractions
Water sports rentals can be found at all the main beaches in Phuket, be it jet-skiing, diving or snorkeling.
Though most visitors tend to head offshore for their fish-watching needs, during the November to April high season snorkelers can explore the coral right off the shores of Kata Yai beach.
But much of the fun of visiting Phuket includes hopping on a boat to check out all those incredible, development-free beaches on the surrounding islands.
A hired long-tail boat will take you around to a few islands, such as Koh Rang Yai, Koh Maphrao, Koh Ratcha and Coral Island.
You can also book an organized day-trip through your hotel.
Though there are quite a few operators, the itineraries and prices vary little.
For something really special, professional operators such as Siam Dive n’ Sail and Elite Yachting run live-a-boards and crewed charters.
The smiling Big Buddha stands 45 meters high at some 400 meters above sea level.
Phuket has plenty of Buddhist temples and Islamic mosques.
But none top the 45-meter-high Big Buddha.
Towering over southern Phuket, this white marble statue is famous for its great big smile.
The grounds offer fantastic views of the island and sea.
To get there, drive toward the Chalong Circle and head north on Chaofa West Road.
Access roads up to the Buddha are well marked.
Phuket FantaSea/Siam Nirimit
Phuket FantaSea is the island’s biggest performance show, featuring dancers, trapeze artists, elephants and other live animals in a 3,000-seat indoor theater.
Tacky and touristy as it is, even the locals can’t deny it’s actually a pretty entertaining way to spend an evening.
Prior to the show, FantaSea puts on one of the biggest buffets in Asia.
The food served in the massive hall isn’t awesome Thai fare by any means, but the place is beautifully decorated so it’s a nice way to fill up before the main event.
Another great performance show is Siam Nirimit, modeled after the successful Bangkok version.
This cultural stage event – with an optional buffet dinner – takes viewers through the regions and eras of Thailand by highlighting traditional songs, dance and martial arts.
If you’re with kids and trying to decide between the two, go for FantaSea.
Those with a strong interest in Thai culture will want the latter.
Phuket FantaSea/ Siam Nirimit, most hotels offer transportations and tickets, which start from 1,500 baht ($50), or book online.
Dinner buffet starts at 6 p.m.
Splash Jungle Water Park
When lying on the beach gets old, live out your battle fantasies in Splash Jungle’s Aqua Play Pool.
Splash Jungle Water Park is among Phuket’s top kid-friendly attractions.
Though slightly on the small size, it’s a clean, safe facility with a decent selection of fun waterslides, a play area for younger kids, a wave pool, lazy tube river and “hot spring.”
There are two onsite cafés selling the usual Western fare – burgers, fish and chips and a few Thai dishes.
Phuket Weekend Market
Think Bangkok’s Jatujak weekend market, but on a much smaller scale. (That’s a good thing.)
Open Saturday and Sunday from around 9 a.m. till late, the Phuket Weekend Market has plenty more than just touristy items.
There’s food, clothing, jewelry, home decor, antiques, secondhand goods, plants, pets and probably even a kitchen sink or two as well.
Old Phuket Town
Far from the beaches, the traditional Phuket and its unique culinary and historical story can be found in the old quarter of Phuket Town, which dates from the end of the 19th century.
There are plenty of hip shops, cafés, restaurants and bars, including the batik shops along Thalang Road run by ethnic Malays and Indians.
The area is also filled with Chinese temples, crumbling mansions, cultural museums and a nunnery.
Phuket Heritage Trails, which specializes in walking tours of the Old Town, is one of the best ways to get a full view of the area.
Phuket Indy Market
Calling all hipsters. Open Thursday and Friday on Dibuk Road in Phuket town, along the Limelight Avenue complex, the Phuket Indy Market attracts a young Thai crowd.
There’s secondhand stuff, some food and handmade original art.
For refreshment, there’s a beer garden, which for better or worse has live Thai music.