ade-hued waves concealing rainbows of fish wash white-gold beaches wrapped in Phuketian heritage: Phuket (ภูเก็ต), Thailand’s dazzling largest island, is so diverse you may forget to leave.
The pearly white, palm- and casuarina-fringed beaches that ring Phuket’s southern and western coasts are the island’s key bounty. Each beach is different, from the northwest’s upmarket Surin and Ao Bang Thao (with their luxe resorts and, in Bang Thao, glossy beach clubs) to mellow, jungled Rawai on far south Phuket, or the infamous west-coast sin city of Patong, home of hangovers and go-go bars. So there’s space for everyone, whether you’re a flashpacking couple, a luxury jetsetter, a wandering budgeteer or a travelling family on the hunt for seaside fun.
Those tropical-island beaches are glorious, of course, but venture just a little beyond and you’ll uncover astonishing Phuketian cultural riches that many visitors zip right past. East-coast capital Phuket Town delights with its eye-opening museums, Peranakan cooking, Chinese shrines and historic mansions and shophouses done in characteristic Sino-Portuguese style. Major temples stand in Chalong and Thalang, while two national parks and a smattering of wildlife sanctuaries await exploration in the island’s northern reaches. Even a speedy trip up into the hills behind Kata to Big Buddha connects you to modern-day Phuket’s pulse.
Some of Thailand’s most magnificent landscapes lie hidden away beneath the Andaman’s glittering surface, and Phuket sits blissfully within day-tripping distance of both Ko Phi-Phi’s popular dive sites and the famed, national-park-protected, impossibly beautiful Similan Islands. A wealth of local dive schools will have you strapping on a mask and communing with denizens of the deep in no time. For those who don’t fancy diving straight in, snorkelling trips offer a tantalising taster, while kayaking expeditions into Ao Phang-Nga’s hushed hôrng (semi-submerged island lagoons) reveal awe-inspiring seascapes of towering limestone karsts.
On Phuket, as in other regions across the Land of Smiles, Thai cuisine takes on its own distinct character. Soulful, spicy, salty southern-Thai cooking collides with Chinese and Malay flavours and influences – so you get, say, Thai-style dim sum or roti dipped in curry for breakfast, along with local culinary creations like mèe pad hokkien (stir-fried hokkien noodles in a broth), mŏo hong (pepper-and-garlic-braised pork), mèe gaang pôo (crab-meat curry with noodles) and pàk miang (scrambled spinach-like leaves). You’ll also uncover a world of exquisite fusion menus, elegant international cuisine and freshly caught seafood.