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As Thailand’s biggest island it is not a surprise that there are lots of things to do in Phuket. From beach bumming to party, from romance to debauchery, the list of activities in Phuket is practically endless.
Mind you, the island is spread out and, like Bali, so it is larger than most people realise. It will take you over an hour and a half to drive from the airport, in the north, to the southern part of the island so it pays to plan a smart itinerary if you want to do a bit more than just sun tanning or reading a book by the beach and for that, it’s advisable to rent a car.
- The history of Phuket
- Best things to do in Phuket, Thailand
- 1. Karon View Point three beaches view – For the views
- 2. Phuket Town Weekend Night Market or Talad Tairot – For the markets
- 3. Learn to cook Thai food with the best – For aspiring chefs
- 4. Phang Nga Bay – For James Bond lovers
- Phang Nga Bay Day Trip by Speedboat
- All day Phang Nga Bay Sea Cave Tour
- Deluxe Phi Phi island hopping
- 5. Scooter time around Koh Yao Noi – For a trip back in time
- 6. Ka Jok See – For free-spirited fun
- 7. Rawai beach – For an insight into local’s lives
- 8. Phromthep Cape – For a Titanic moment
- 9. Walk around Phuket Old Town – For a dose of heritage
- 10. The Big Buddha – For monumental views
- 11. Wat Chalong – For temple beauty
- 12. Koh Panyee fishing floating village – For market buzz
- 13. Sri Panwa – For watching the sunset
- 14. Local beaches – For escaping the crowds on the best hidden beaches
- What to do in Phuket if you want to escape tourists
- Best places to stay when you visit Phuket
- Best way to explore Phuket
The history of Phuket
Historically a tin mining town, Phuket only started to boom as a tourist haven in the 70s when the airport was built. Admittedly, the best things to see in Phuket today relate to the touristy bits, like the beach or the party scene, although understanding the heritage and history behind Old Phuket is equally fascinating.
Phuket was the center of Chinese and Indian exchanges well before the rest of Thailand. Ships from both empires would seek refuge in its safe harbour during the Monsoon season. The area only became part of the Thai Empire in the 13th century when the Sukhothai took it over from the Sumatran Sirivijaya Empire.
The jungles of the interior were inhabited by indigenous tribes who were displaced by the tin miners whereas the coast was the home of sea gipsies, some of which are still living there and in adjacent islands.
Tin mining brought prosperity to Phuket and the interest of the British Empire who almost annexed it in the 19th century but ended up going for Penang as a safer harbour. The Sino-Portuguese buildings that one can still see today in Old Phuket were built at that time by the rich merchants.
Best things to do in Phuket, Thailand
I have been to Phuket over a dozen times and every trip is different. You can surely spend a weekend getaway in Phuket and just see the beaches. But you may as well travel to Phuket and not step foot on the beach and instead enjoy nature, culture, food (glorious food) and the many other sights that make the island such an interesting destination.
In this post I wanted to gather all of the top things to do in Phuket including a few cool things to do in Phuket that most people don’t know about, things that are lesser known and probably slightly off the beaten path, if that is at all possible in an island that receives over 3 million visitors a year.
If you are looking for an organised and neatly laid out itinerary including most of the places to see in Phuket mentioned here, head to my weekend road trip around Phuket. For those looking to party, just head to Patong or Bangla Road, everything you need is there but I will not cover it here on this post. Plenty has been written about it already!
However, I do have a pearl of wisdom and a hidden secret for a night out in Phuket like no other, so scroll down and see if you can find it. I promise that was one of the most fun nights I have ever had in Phuket and elsewhere and it did not involve ping pong, beer pong or any other dodgy or doubtful activity you would be too ashamed to tell your mother about.
1. Karon View Point three beaches view – For the views
You are unlikely going to be alone here because the stop is popular with some of the bus tours of Phuket, but Karon Viewpoint is popular for a reason.
From above, you will be able to see the three beaches north of the viewpoint. Couples go there to sit on the benches and observe the view. It’s a nice stopover if you are driving past and it gives you a bit of perspective on the island. After all, Phuket gets its name from the Malay word for hill (bukit) so there are a few places where you can enjoy the view from above.
2. Phuket Town Weekend Night Market or Talad Tairot – For the markets
Phuket Old Town offers a glimpse into the heritage-rich past of the island and it seems that the trading tradition has evolved right into the 21st century with what tourists have come to know as the Weekend Night Market.
For the Phuket locals, the market is called “boot car sales” or Talad Tairot so that should give you an idea of the spread. You will find everything here and mostly copies of anything you can think of, from bags and watches to CDs and DVD, but don’t be surprised if the quality is anything but what the big brand names go for.
One of the most interesting shops is the one selling second hand shoes, in case the prices of new stuff are not cheap enough already! A visit to the market can be one of the most unusual things to do in Phuket or it can be one of the most fun, see for yourself. As this is Thailand, there is also plenty of food to enjoy, or check out my guide to Phuket Old Town for ideas about where to eat.
3. Learn to cook Thai food with the best – For aspiring chefs
What better place there is to learn to cook Thai dishes than in Thailand? There are hundreds of places to learn and your hotel may offer a class too but, for the genuine and well-known school, try Blue Elephant Cooking School.
This is one of the best known restaurants in Phuket and a real institution that specialises in Royal Thai cuisine. The chef is famous and the restaurant serves fabulous food in the beautiful settings of an old mansion house. Everything is great here: the food, the teacher, the setting, if you ever wanted to learn to make some of the easier Thai dishes back home, there is no better cooking class than this one.
4. Phang Nga Bay – For James Bond lovers
A typical day trip for almost everyone visiting Phuket is a day out at sea in Phang Nga Bay. There are lots of islands near Phuket and many possible stops along the way, the tour that you book will determine where you stop but you will almost surely stop at James Bond Island, the island made famous by The Man with the Golden Gun movie. It is a pretty old movie and most people have not seen it, but one of the scenes, when the man with the golden gun is indeed holding the item, is filmed there. It is a striking rock as well on its own due to its sharp upside down looking shape. The other common stop on day trips is a kayak trip inside some of the caves, and the longer tours also make it to Maya Bay, at the back of Phi Phi, another Hollywood famous spot made popular by The Beach.
You should make sure to be properly equipped for the tour with towels to dry yourself, sunscreen, a hat, sun glasses and long sleeves if you plan to kayak, so you don’t end up with the wrong sun marks.
Here are a few day trip options for a day inPhang Nga Bay I would recommend:
Phang Nga Bay Day Trip by Speedboat
Enjoy the typical stops in Phang Nga Bay including James Bond Islands and a bit of canoeing the caves on inflatable canoes. Lunch is on a floating village so you get a bit of that sea gypsy feeling. A typical tour means one that is popular with tourists but this one is done in style
All day Phang Nga Bay Sea Cave Tour
This tour focuses more on the caves and allows you to go inside and get close to nature and wildlife. Lunch and dinner is included and there is a Loi Kratong ceremony where guests make their own floating bowls with banana leaves, flowers and a candle that is lit and released.
Deluxe Phi Phi island hopping
The tour includes six stops at some of the smaller islands that fill Phang Nga Bay. I sailed these waters and some parts of it are still remote. The boat stops at all the best spots in the area: Phi Phi Islands, Koh Khai, Koh Yao, Mosquito Island, and Bamboo Island.
5. Scooter time around Koh Yao Noi – For a trip back in time
Koh yao Noi is a small fishing island off Phuket. You can get there by boat and spend a few hours cruising on a scooter and have some delicious food before coming back to busy Phuket. It is a mini getaway from the getaway.
6. Ka Jok See – For free-spirited fun
A fun, crazy, exhilarating and liberating evening of good Thai food and entertainment. If you were thinking of going to some of the shows on Bangla Road, forget it, Ka Jok See a much classier and much more fun alternative. For the price of unlimited food and drinks you also get a cabaret show to go with it. I don’t want to spoil the surprise as a lot of the experience is based on not knowing what will happen, but it is sure to be a great evening. Ka Jok See has no publicity, no website and their facebook page is empty. And they wouldn’t want to have it any other way. I have sent multiple groups of friends to Ka Jok See and they have all, without exception, have had a fabulous unforgettable time. If you want to know more about what to expect, check my review (<- spoiler alert!). To book you will have to call them and you can’t just show up as they are always fully booked and it is a tiny place.
7. Rawai beach – For an insight into local’s lives
This is not your usual tourist friendly beach but rather an insight into the lives of many Thai fishermen who do not live off visitors to the island. You have to go with a fresh set of eyes and an intention to absorb what goes on around you. Watch the day go by from a tree trunk or chat with the local fishermen. Observe life as it once was for the many for whom tourism has not changed anything.
8. Phromthep Cape – For a Titanic moment
This is the place to come end the day if you have been driving around and exploring Phuket. The cape is at the very bottom of the island and it affords great sunsets.
Bonus! touting and selling are not allowed so you can take a respite from the “boat tour?”, “massage?” you may have heard a few times already.
9. Walk around Phuket Old Town – For a dose of heritage
This is one of my favourite parts of Phuket. Often dismissed, Phuket Old Town is a great quick walk into the Sino-Portuguese past that once made Phuket the center of the tin mining industry. Today, there are lots of hipster cafes, restored shophouses and shrines that are bringing back the glory of days gone by.
10. The Big Buddha – For monumental views
A regular stop for the island tours, the Big Buddha is currently under restoration so you will see more construction and scaffolding than anything else but the views from the top of the hill are pretty and this is still a functioning Buddhist monastery so take a walk around and maybe contribute to its construction.
11. Wat Chalong – For temple beauty
Phuket’s largest temple is a red-roofed Buddhist temple and stupa covered in gold and ornate decorations. It is pretty and very well maintained. Beware the fireworks that devotees pay for as a sign of gratitude. They will go off all of a sudden and make your heart skip a beat.
Would you like to explore all of Phuket Old Town, Wat Chalong, Big Buddha Statue, Laem Promthep viewpoint and the Rum factory in one easy full day? Check this tour which covers it all in one day.
12. Koh Panyee fishing floating village – For market buzz
A floating Muslim village on stilts that still lives of fishing and, more recently, of the hordes of tourists coming down to feel like the lost world of sea gipsies. There is a fair amount of tourist shops and restaurants but if you get there early you can also chat with the locals and see how life at sea is like. Be mindful of people’s lives. This is a real village and they are used to tourists taking photos of them all day long as they go about their daily routine.
It is odd and fascinating at the same time.
The village gets really touristy at lunch time when all the Phang Nga Bay day tours start to arrive so the trick is to get there before they do, on your own, so you can also sail around the village and get a sense of place. Head down to Surakul pier in Phang Nga, then hire a long tail boat for 1,500 Baht and get there in less than half an hour. It will cost more but you will most likely have it all to yourself.
13. Sri Panwa – For watching the sunset
Phuket is a lovely place to watch the sun set. Maybe its the warm air, or the island vibes but nothing says holiday like a drink and a glorious sunset. I did the research for you and selected the best places to watch the sunset in Phuket, all of them tried and tested and compiled in an article. Have a look but, spoiler alert, the number one place for sunsets in Phuket is no doubt the award-winning Baba Nest rooftop bar at the luxury hotel Sri Panwa. It has been named by CNN among the most beautiful rooftop bars in the world and it gives 360 degree views over Phuket island. Make sure to book in advance as very few seats are available every evening and guests take priority.
There are a lot of beaches in Phuket and some of the most famous ones are truly packed. This is after all one of the main reasons for tourists to visit the island. But despite the mass tourism, there are still a few hidden beaches in Phuket with far fewer visitors if any and mostly locals chilling by the sea. As the island is quite large, most tourists crowd the easily reached beaches which can be accessed by bus or a short walk. I went on a road trip of Phuket and discovered all the best beaches, some of which I had all to myself. I published a round up here, don’t tell anyone!
What to do in Phuket if you want to escape tourists
As Phuket became such a well-known island with millions of visitors a year, some parts of it have forever changed into something that no longer resembles the magic of the past.
But, with the masses of tourists coming for specific well known activities in Phuket, some parts of the island that are less promoted by the tour companies have remained untouched and peaceful. Believe it or not there are still a lot of places in Phuket that are quiet, known only to locals and which are not even on Google Maps. I know because I discovered them and now, I am (reluctantly) sharing them with you.
Here are a few unusual things to do in Phuket that are off the beaten path and not regularly included from the regular top things in Phuket lists.
1. Buddha Cave
The Buddha Cave in Phang Nga, called Wat Tham Suwan Khuha, a network of tunnels and caves that are hardly explored by visitors is a great alternative to the more popular canoe tours that explore the better known parts. You could hire your own boat to discover the area.
2. Secret and quiet beaches in Phuket
As an island, Phuket thrives on beach life. Some of the easily accessible and more developed ones are crowded and filled with souvenir shops selling “Same Same” t-shirts. But there are a lot of less frequented and harder to reach beaches that offer a paradisiacal setting.
I went on a quest to find them all, Google Maps in hand, veering off at any turn off the main roads that seemed to lead down to the beach. For the best quiet beaches in Phuket try Freedom Beach, found down a cliff, or Haad Sai Gaew beach on the north of the island where fluffy white sand goes on for miles.
Freedom Beach is closed off and you need to trek down a steep forest path to get there so there will be far fewer tourists. There is usually a hut from where you can buy snacks and drinks but it might be worth to bring your own if you plan to spend the day.
Best places to stay when you visit Phuket
Now I have told you about all the great things to do in but I also should help you find the right resort on Phuket because there are hundreds of resorts on the island. As I have visited countless times, this is a good selection of the best luxury hotels.
Six Senses Yao Noi
Double Pool Villas by Banyan Tree
Sri Panwa is Phuket’s coolest resort. The wonderful pool villas have incredible views and the most romantic of settings. If you are visiting with some friends, the Habitat area has a pool with great vibes and more affordable rooms. And don’t forget Baba Nest rooftop bar with the most amazing views in Phuket. Check more photos, rates and latest availability here
I am a huge lover of Six Senses and their Yao Noi island resort is one of the most beautiful there are. It is located on a separate island but you can organise day trips to Phuket. Enjoy the eco-friendly chic design and the fantastic organic food that makes Six Senses so unique and delicious. Did I mention the fabulous Phang Nga Bay views? Check more photos, latest prices and availability here
Double Pool Villas by Banyan Tree is a couple-only villa-only part of the larger Banyan Tree resort that is the ultimate destination for a romantic getaway. Banyan Tree was the pioneer in garden villas and this was the first resort. For an extra dose of pampering, head over to their spa, which is legendary. Check more photos, latest prices and availability here
Keemala is one of the latest resorts to open in Phuket. This fantastic resort offers a set of four different types of private “pods” in four villages made to look like ancient civilisations. It is one of the most unique resorts I have ever seen. The best part of Keemala. They discourage their guests from partaking in any animal tourism activities. Check more photos, latest prices and availability here
Best way to explore Phuket
Given its size, the best way to explore Phuket is by renting a car. Taxis can be expensive if you are covering such big distances and I, for one, don’t enjoy the constant haggling and feeling of being ripped off.
Driving in Phuket is relatively easy. Google Maps is well versed in all the nooks and crannies of the island and the roads are in good condition, well sign-posted and easily drivable. There are petrol stations at regular intervals (although you are unlikely to drive for too long) and parking is relatively easy.
You can pick up a car at the airport and drop it off there. Most of the international car rental companies will be there. It pays to check the prices ahead to make sure you will be able to rent the car that you need. You do not need a 4×4 so any regular car will do.
If you would like to go on a little road trip of Phuket, check out my article about it, we had lots of fun!