Phuket is referred to as “pearl of the Andaman,” and is known by most as a popular beach destination off Thailand’s west coast. You know, that iconic photo of a deserted mossy mountain in the too-blue water… The tourist boom on the island began in 1970 with the opening of the ever-romantic Club Med, and the island’s popularity has increased exponentially ever since.
The island’s history is more than beaches, however! Once an important trading post in the Bay of Bengal, it was colonized in the 16th century by the British, Portuguese and French when tin was discovered in the region. Many Chinese then moved in to work in the tin mines. This mixing of cultures and religions, plus intermarriage, lead to a new, culturally-mixed group of people referred to as “baba.” Today, Phuket still reflects this diversity. Much of Phuket’s history is contained in Phuket Town. Full of architecturally interesting and historical buildings, many reflecting a stylish Sino-Portuguese style, Phuket Town was built on the aforementioned tin boom of the late 19th century. A walk through Old Town Phuket reveals these restored buildings, museums, cafes and even mansions formerly owned by tin barons (who are almost as cool as rubber barons). Most people do not stop in Phuket Town as they’re eager to get to the beach, but it’s definitely worth a day or two.
Bangkok to Phuket: Getting There
We took, you guessed it, a night bus from Bangkok to Phuket. About average in terms of how harrowing it was — and how much longer it took than scheduled — the ride was about 12 hours. We rode through the muggy night, stopping at a massive rest area for strangely voracious bus patrons to eat full meals at 1 am. As we pulled onto the island the sun was rising, beautiful colors coming through the trees and misty sky. Obviously, I did not sleep and was awake (and deranged) to view this site.
We were dumped in Phuket Town at the bus station and immediately accosted by taxi drivers asking egregious fares (600baht). When we inquired about a local bus, we were repeatedly told there were “no buses into town.” We must take a wildly overpriced taxi! Obviously this was suspect so I went inside the station to further investigate, at which time a woman stopped me from exiting out front telling me again there were “only taxis.” “Where are you going?!” she yelled. Of course, as I was being ushered out I glimpsed a local bus pulling in upfront. After 4 more attempted swindles and casual lies, we were able to board the massive local bus that “didn’t exist” and rode into town for a mere 15baht. We were dumped by food market, where we to another bus to take us to the beaches. It took a while (nearly 2 hours…) to go 6km, but for the price we couldn’t complain.
Phuket: Beaches and More Beaches
I have always wanted to visit Phuket. For no reason other than I saw that standard photo and became obsessed, years and years ago, before I’d traveled at all. By the time I made it here I’d been to many a pristine beach with many a grassy karst outcropping (see I even know what karst is)! Parts of Phuket are amazing, but let’s go ahead and say it was an “expectation versus reality” situation.
We choose to start at Karon Beach, which was described online as “plenty to do but not as crazy as Patong.” Seemed a good middle ground. When we arrived we were surprised to see all the signs were printed in Russian. We were even more surprised when people approached us and started speaking to us in Russian. It seemed quite random, but a little research told us it’s a popular destination for Russian tourists due to heavy investment in marketing and other efforts.
The beach itself is nice. A little crowded, especially at the south end, but a walk up north leads to less busy areas and a beautiful mountain. The sand is white and the water warm, and overall a very nice place to spend a few days. The main drag along the ocean road is bustling with standard tourist town places. We didn’t really go anywhere. Except to a minimart to buy beer which a nice local opened for us on the beach using his teeth — only after we spent 30 minutes attempting to pry off the beer caps with various items (a piece of driftwood, a seashell, our towels, a metal keychain…) and I incurred a minor injury and was bleeding. Why do we always forget the beer opener?
Located next to Karon, although not accessible via beachfront (there is a rocky outcropping), Kata Beach is smaller and the sand a different shade. There are some long tail boats out in the early morning and more beachfront establishments on the sand. It is comparatively calm and feels a tad more local, although it’s still quite crowded.
My highlight of Phuket, Freedom Beach is a remote beach a mere 1 hour hike up a windy mountain road and then down a steep rocky path. It is substantially less difficult or strenuous to reach than described online, but still requires a bit of effort. Of course, you can take a taxi or local bus here quickly, but staying within budget means walking. Plus, the reward of jumping into impossibly blue aqua-blue water is so much greater after the hike. You have to pay to get in which I believe is ridiculous (it is ridiculous), but as a beach-lover I did it anyway. In the budget, beach > food.
Patong Beach (& Bangla Street)
Patong is the famous beach in Phuket, flanked by the more famous Bangla Road. We didn’t want to go as wild crowds and wild parties are not our favorite pastime, but we thought we had to experience it. And so we did! Arriving at the beach was about as expected; super crowded, a tad dirty, and overrun with people drinking waterside. After this we decided to have some drinks on Bangla street, as that is what you do in Patong. The street bustles with bars and people and trucks with loudspeakers trying desperately to sell tickets to a muy thai show. At night things get crazier, with the addition of dancers, flashing lights and club music, as well as hundreds of people trying to sell you tickets to a highly-questionable “ping pong” show (you can look that one up). We choose one of the hundreds of bars offering the same happy hour specials on the same cheap liquor and settled in for 2 drinks before wandering the streets to people watch.
Most people don’t actually go into Phuket Town as they are eager to get to the beach. We are not most people, and were pleasantly surprised by how quaint the town was and all it had to offer. Initially built along a single street, Thalang Road, it now covers a much more expansive area.
I already described the history above, so hopefully you paid attention. There are museums, markets, buildings, shop houses, shops and even my favorite – some really nice street art. I’d say Phuket Town is one of the best towns in Thailand we visited.