As Phuket reopens for tourism this summer, we’ve put together the checklist of things to do, see and experience in the beautiful Thai province.
To date, 2021 has been one big game of chicken. Us, the Wanderlusters of the World, versus the Travel Lords that reign almighty. The usual routine; restrictions ease, flights are booked, rules change, borders close. But, despite past defeats, we’re determined to make that summer vacation this year.
Because when the Tourism Industry of Thailand announced it would be reopening the province to international visitors as of July 1, we knew this was one destination we weren’t willing to back down on. We researched hotels, purchased tickets, bought new swimmies and stocked up on SPF, happily (naively?) daydreaming about far-flung adventures.
Why? Because Phuket has it all. Really, it does. Beautiful beaches and clear seas? Check. Authentic markets that delightfully ooze local culture? Of course. Scenic spots that mesmerise, nightlife worth missing bedtime for, and once in a lifetime wildlife experiences? You bet. Oh, and ever tasted Thai cuisine? We rest our case. So, when we do get there ahem, here’s how we’re going to fill our carefree days.
The best way to explore a new destination is by foot, and nothing says holiday mode like a leisurely walk along white sands. The nature of being an island – Phuket is Thailand’s largest, while a further 32 off its coast make up its homonymous province – this isn’t a mean feat. So why not tick off this holiday activity by strolling along Patong Beach, Phuket’s longest. Leave footsteps in the sand along the 3km stretch, and, should the urge arise, there are plenty of dining outlets and water sports opportunities along the beachfront.
THE TRICKEYE MUSEUM
Say ‘museum’ on vacation, and you’re bound to get mixed responses. But there’s no fossilised bones or browning scrolls here – head to the Phuket Trickeye Museum for optical trickery galore that the whole family will enjoy. Approximately 100 painted and sculpted scenes create illusions that will supersize or shrink museum-goers, place them between the jaws of a crocodile, or have them crossing a crumbling bridge over treacherous waters. Just clear up memory space on your phone before you arrive.
CLIMB TO THE TOP OF BIG BUDDHA
…Or, The Great Buddha of Phuket, the Phra Phutta Ming Mongkol Eknakiri, or Ming Mongkol Buddha, all names it’s also known as. The name might be a giveaway here, but this famous landmark consists of a 14-metre high concrete and marble structure depicting the figure in his famed seating pose. Nestled on top of the Nakkerd Hills between Chalong and Kata, you can view it from across the island – but that’s no excuse to skip the up-close experience. It’s free of charge and is equally impressive whether you marvel at it from below, or take the climb towards the 360-island view.
EMBARK ON AN ETHICAL ELEPHANT ENCOUNTER
Elephant tourism has earned a bad reputation in the last few years, with information about how these magnificent mammals are captured and treated more widely known.
But when you visit Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, there’s no need to do so with a guilty conscience, as it operates as a retirement home for working elephants to relax and roam, having been rehabilitated back into forest life. The up-close experiences keep ethics in check, from scenic drive-bys with feeding opportunities, to trailing a 500 metre-long canopy walkway above the elephants to watch them roam, forage, bathe and socialise.
SAMPLE STREET FOOD AT A LOCAL MARKET
Restaurants serving up fine fare are plentiful, but skipping the street food experience of Thailand when vacationing is criminal. Covid-19 (sorry, we had to bring it up) permitting, head to the Sunday Walking Street Market for a little bit of everything in an historic setting. Opt for modest but authentic Kor Jaan Market for foods the locals would snack on, and spend the evening at Chillva Market if you’re after a more upbeat vibe.
GRAB THE CLUBS FOR A GAME OF GOLF
Not a golfer? Hear us out. Phuket’s tropical climate, mountainous landscape, and leafy green aesthetic make it the ideal place to simply bask in the great outdoors – and a game of golf is a great way to do so for hours on end. Red Mountain Golf Club gives you a glimpse at the natural geology with red soil and granite rocks, Blue Canyon Country Club is set on 730 acres of land with lakes running through it, and Katathong Golf Resort & Spa is nestled between three misty mountains.
TREK THROUGH UNTOUCHED RAINFORESTS
The beauty of nature is all around in Phuket, but if you want to see it at its finest, head to Khao Phra Thaeo National Park. The only untouched rainforest on the island, it is home to towering trees, creepers and climbers. But it’s not just the plant life that draws in visitors here; wildlife includes mammals such as langurs, mouse deer, wild boar, and gibbons, as well as over 80 species of birds and 120 species of reptile. Plenty to spot as you hike through, whether you follow the trailing routes, climb the 442-metre peak, or explore the park off-track.
ESCAPE RAINY DAYS AT JUNGCEYLON
It was the name used for Phuket island for over 100 years, and now Jungceylon is the moniker of a supersized shopping and leisure centre. One of the biggest in the region, 200,000 square metres of space is filled with branded and boutique shops, international restaurants, a fast-food court, and entertainment options. There’s a soft play zone for little ones and a movie theatre and bowling alley for all-aged family fun – and don’t forget to catch the daily light and water show, too.
ZIPLINE THROUGH THE JUNGLE
If you’re an adventure seeker keen to immerse yourself into the greenery, then ziplining through the foliage is one great way to do so. Head to Flying Hanuman to be elevated 40 metres above a jungle landscape spanning an 80,000 square metre plot. A self-proclaimed eco-adventure, preserving the trees and the wildlife is crucial to the park’s original design and ongoing upkeep.
OBSERVE THE PAINTINGS AT WAT CHALONG TEMPLE
Of the 29 temples in Phuket, Wat Chalong (officially Wat Chaitararam) is the biggest and arguably, the most revered. So if you’re only adding one temple visit to your holiday agenda, make it this one. For centuries, locals have made their way to this historic landmark daily to say their prayers, with some citing it as a place where miracles and healing happens. There’s plenty to be absorbed as you wander around, but the grand pagoda – said to contain a splinter of Buddha’s bone – is a must-see, as you can take time observing the intricate wall paintings depicting his life story.
DON’T MISS A SIGNATURE CABARET SHOW
The province is no amateur when it comes to booming nightlife. In fact, it’s one of the most popular nightlife destinations in Thailand -with bars, evening markets, beach parties and festivals a regular occurrence in pre-pandemic times. Although it’s not clear if bars and entertainment venues will reopen come July 1, what is for sure is that an evening cabaret show is a must, if they do. Simon Cabaret Show is the one to see, as there are three performances per evening, and the show is family-friendly.
TAKE A DAY TRIP TO JAMES BOND ISLAND
Named and famed for its appearance in the 1974 movie, The Man with the Golden Gun, James Bond Island is one of the most striking of the 33 islands that make up the province. Koh Tapu (as it is referred to by locals) is 20 metres tall, with a diameter stretching from four to eight metres as its limestone cliffs rise from the sea. Guided day trips include everything from kayaking and snorkelling opportunities, to simply cruising the waters for the perfect picture opportunity.
SNORKEL THROUGH CLEAR SEAS AT PARADISE BEACH
Phuket is famed as a snorkelling destination, with manta rays, leopard sharks, turtles and much more available to gawk at through goggles. Even if you don’t spot the big guys, the creatures and corals that lie within the Andaman Sea are still worth the trip. Options are endless, but if you are a relative beginner, we suggest Paradise Beach. The reef is just 100 metres offshore, and the beach stretch is managed by Paradise Beach Phuket Club, meaning seachopping jet skis are off-limits and helping hands are never far.
TAKE A TOUR THROUGH OLD PHUKET TOWN
You don’t need a guide to step back through this historic neighbourhood, but strolling through the streets with a clued-up local is the better way to learn a thing or two and support the local tourism industry. Observe the Sino-Portuguese architectural influence, spot the colourful street art, and sip on tea in charming cafes. Once you’re done there, seek out the area’s Chinese shrines and Thai temples.