By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
While the 2004 tsunami destroyed much of the Phuket’s infrastructure, much of the island has now been rebuilt. Visit in the high season from November to March for the best weather, with temperatures hovering at a breezy 30 degrees centigrade. While the low season remains hot, there is often a high wind, making beach lounging hard.
Avoid the overly developed 3km-long Patong Beach, perhaps Phuket’s most famous stretch of sand. Known in Thai rather poetically as “the forest filled with banana leaves”, Patong is now a party town, thronging with cheap cafes, restaurants and clubs, and attracting thousands of backpackers and European holiday makers on package deals.
For those wanting a more serene time head to Phuket’s third longest beach, Karon Beach, which, although still ringed by resorts, has a large, colourful coral reef. Alternatively, the palm-lined Kata Beach (popular with families) lies a few minutes south.
For the ultimate luxury stay at the newly opened Kata Rocks (186/22, Kok Tanode Road, Kata Beach), which launched last December. The resort – perched on the rocks overlooking the ocean – features a series of airy and modern Sky Villas, which boast luscious private infinity swimming pools. There is also a shared 35-metre pool for laps, a concierge free buggy service, a gym, the option for a private chef, and the Infinite Luxury Spa, which includes a sleeping pod and his and her bathtubs.
If staying at Kata is a little too pricey, then make sure to book a blow out meal at the oceanfront Kata Rocks Restaurant and Bar. While an Enomatic wine dispenser gives a choice of 24 wines by the glass, chef Laia Pons dishes up a mixture of gourmet Mediterranean and Thai food. For breakfast, do not miss the innovative and mouth-watering Tom Yum Eggs Benedict and, if visiting to watch the sun go down, few things beat the signature passion fruit mojito cocktail.
Meanwhile, Boathouse Wine & Grill (182 Kotanode Road, Kata Beach) is another top international restaurant situated right on Kata Beach. The Thai-French fusion menu includes delicacies such as beef tenderloin with toasted brioche and truffle sauce, foie gras pasta, rock lobster soufflé and wild mushrooms on crisp baguette, as well as a range of Thai dishes. For something a little more local and a tad more affordable, go to Natalie’s Restaurant and Bar (20/2-3 Th Kata), where Thai favourites and an abundance of seafood dished up from ice and grilled to perfection are served in a cosy setting. Then there’s the cheap and cheerful After Beach Bar (Hwy 4233, Kata Beach) Located up a hill and clinging to the rock face, it not only has panoramic sea views but is awash with Bob Marley tunes, lending it a chilled out reggae air.
One good way to explore the island is to hire a moped. From Kata Beach drive to Nai Harn Beach, home to the Royal Phuket Yacht Club (Mueang Phuket District). Continue through a tunnel under the yacht club car park to discover the small, hidden and discreet Ao Sane Beach on the island’s southwest coast. It remains one of Phuket’s most untouched gems.
If you’re looking for adventure, take a trek through the Chalong highlands on the back of some of Thailand’s gentle giants – its elephants. Siam Safari Nature Tours offers elephant treks, while international travel tour site Viator has itineraries that include junk cruise tours, elephant rides, Thai cooking demonstrations, and snorkelling.
Water-junkies can island-hop around Phuket on myriad speedboat tours, where you can snorkel in coral reefs, visit pearl cultivation farms, and perhaps spot some dolphins. Families also might like to visit the Phuket Butterfly Garden and Insect World (71/6 moo 5, Soi Paniang, Yaowarat Road). The butterfly farm first opened in 1990 and, following revamps, now boasts an outdoor tropical garden with roughly 8,000 butterflies and a pool where children can feed the fish. Alternatively, there is the Phuket Aquarium (Mueang Phuket District), replete with an underwater tunnel where you and the kids can gawk at everything from giant eels to scary sharks.
Phuket, however, is not just about azure waters, adventure holidays, tourist sites and lounging on the beach. For a taste of real Thailand make sure to visit the provincial capital Phuket Town (hotels such as Kata Rocks offer comprehensive private tours with a guide). The city of roughly 91,000 people was once an global trading hub, with visitors passing through from far-flung China, Portugal and India, some of whom stayed. The crumbling Sino-Portuguese architecture – crammed with boutique coffee shops, galleries, and shops – is slowly being revamped and gentrified, with artists, entrepreneurs, and baristas moving in and sprucing up previously run down decaying villas. It not only gives the city a palpable sense of soul but is a reminder of the island’s rich trading past.
As this is Phuket’s cultural centre and local arts hub, there is plenty to do – much of it not touristic. Start a walk around the town with the late 19th century Shrine of the Serene Light (Saan Jao Sang Tham), one of a handful of active Chinese Buddhist temples where people still worship and incense still burns. The bright, garishly coloured temple – stuffed with Buddhist deities – also has Taoist etchings on the wall. Afterwards visit the throbbing day market (Th Ranong), a hub for locals to sell street food and groceries, ranging from raw meat to dramatic displays of vegetables and dried noodles. On the weekend there is also a popular night market, featuring more knick-knacks.
For a selection of more upmarket products, visit Drawing Room (56 Th Phang-Nga), a co-operative gallery filled with interesting artists, then pop into the antique gallery Ranida (11 Th Thalang), which sells vintage fabrics and statues of Buddha. The more hippy-minded might also like Island Paradise (8 Th Phang-Nga), a boutique featuring young up and coming Thai designers, who showcase dresses, scarfs, shawls, and bold, adventurous jewellery. Follow any shopping – exhausting in the heat – with a health tonic at Juice Raw (91 Th Yaowarat), a café serving customised detox juices with ingredients including cucumber, pomelo, ginger, and dates.
Phuket Town offers some of the island’s best local food and, as the city continues to lag behind the island’s beach areas in terms of tourist numbers, it remains cheap. Visit Ka Jok See (26 Th Taku Pa) for hot, spicy Thai served in the old town with lashings of charm. Meanwhile, Raya Restaurant (New Dibuk Road), located in an old Sino-Thai mansion built at the beginning of the 20th century, plays up to its colonial past with mosaic tiled flooring and large gramophones. Make sure to try the caramalised braised pork belly, crabmeat curry with rice vermicelli, and succulent deep-fried sea bass in lemongrass sauce.
After consuming all that delicious Thai food, learn how to make it — and then take some recipes home – by booking a lesson at the well respected Suay Cooking School (50/2 Th Takuapa), where you get to eat the meal you create, washed down with wine. Leading the helm is Thai chef Tammasak Chootong, who learnt his culinary craft in Germany. If slaving over your own lunch is just too much hassle simply book a table at the Suay Restaurant (50/2 Th Takuapa) instead and have it done for you.
Finish your visit with a climb – or, if you’re feeling lazy, a drive – up to Khao Rang (Phuket Hill), just northwest of Phuket Town’s centre. It offers a birds-eye view of Phuket that is hard to beat.
Address: 186/22, Kok Tanode Road, Kata, Mueng, Phuket 83100, Thailand
Phone:+66 76 370 77
Kata Rocks (186/22, Kok Tanode Road, Kata Beach)
Boathouse Wine & Grill (182 Kotanode Road, Kata Beach)
Natalie’s Restaurant and Bar (20/2-3 Th Kata)
After Beach Bar (Hwy 4233, Kata Beach)
Royal Phuket Yacht Club (Mueang Phuket District)
Phuket Butterfly Garden and Insect World (71/6 moo 5, Soi Paniang, Yaowarat Road)
Phuket Aquarium (Mueang Phuket District)
Shrine of the Serene Light (Saan Jao Sang Tham)
Day market (Th Ranong)
Drawing Room (56 Th Phang-Nga)
Ranida (11 Th Thalang)
Island Paradise (8 Th Phang-Nga)
Juice Raw (91 Th Yaowarat)
Ka Jok See (26 Th Taku Pa)
Raya Restaurant (New Dibuk Road)
Cooking School (50/2 Th Takuapa)
Suay Restaurant (50/2 Th Takuapa)
Khao Rang (Phuket Hill)