Thailand’s biggest island is open again. Come for barefoot luxury, waterfall hikes through wildlife-filled forests, fabulous food, colourful festivals and sunsets over the ocean, silhouetting giant Buddhas and mountain-top temples. Here are just five of the many reasons to visit in 2022 and beyond...
1. To gaze in awe at the temples
Gold-glittering temples, ancient buddhas, serene shrines… they’re not all in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Phuket has plenty too. Most spectacular of all is the 45-metre-high Ming Mongkol Buddha: a brilliant-white marble statue, sitting serene high on Nakkerd Hill, above the sweeping beaches of Karon and Kata. You could spend hours here in the late afternoon meditating, when the Buddhas is kissed with soft golden light and the setting sun sinks red over the ocean.
There are dozens of smaller temples scattered across the island from resort towns to tambon (villages). Visit Wat Chalong early in the morning to see locals offering alms to saffron-robed monks in a ceremony that has endured for millennia. Join the monks at morning prayers at the Temple of the Pearl Buddha. Get lost in the beautiful bay and ocean views from Doi Thepnimit which perches over the Bay of Patong. And sit meditatively before the huge golden Buddhas at Wat Khao Rang and Wat Lipon. Serenity comes free. All Phuket’s temples ask in return is that you dress modestly, covering bare arms and legs, maintain a silent respect and never point your feet at a statue or touch its head.
2. To meet the wildlife
You don’t need to leave Phuket to see rare wildlife. The island is peppered with sanctuaries. Khao Phra Thaeo in the north protects a swathe of primary rainforest which is home to rare birds such as brilliantly-coloured, orange-breasted trogons and blue-winged pittas. Gibbons live here too. You can hear them whoop in the early morning and late afternoon, and meet them at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project where rescued animals are nursed before release back into the wild.
There are elephants too. The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is a pachyderm retirement home where you can see the animals forage and socialise in semi-wild forest, and bathe in lakes and rivers. The sanctuary is also rich in bird and primate life and has the longest canopy walkway in Thailand, giving visitors the chance to get close to animals in the tree-line.
Phuket is of course famous for its beaches. Mai Khao is the island’s longest and most beautiful and remains wild enough for nesting Olive Ridley sea turtles, who visit between November and April. Meet hatchlings and rehabilitated adults all year round at the beach’s Marine Turtle Foundation where eggs are incubated and babies and rehabilitated turtles are released into the ocean.
3. To relax in nature
It’s easy to immerse yourself in nature in Phuket. The island's toes-in-the sand lifestyle is legendary; and there are dozens of coves, bays and long strands to visit. Reefs, freshly revitalised during the pandemic, and teeming with life are a short swim offshore; and countless tour operators in Phuket town and the resort villages offer snorkelling and diving trips.
Where the island’s beaches end, mangrove forests begin, and the glassy-clear ocean beyond Phuket is dotted with limestone islets pocked with sea caves. Kayaking through them is magical and easy to organise through hotels or agencies.
Hikes through the island’s wild interior lead to lookouts with panoramic beach and ocean views, or waterfalls, dropping into cool blue pools in rainforest glades busy with butterflies. Bang Pae and Tong Sai waterfalls in the lush forests of Khao Phra Thaeo National Park fall in tiers over rocky cliffs fringed with ferns and vines. Kathu drops through rushing pools, next to a winding jungle path.
There’s yoga too, on the beach at sunset or in a woodland spa. Why not indulge in a massage? Have your muscles soothed to the natural sounds of the lapping waves, a tinkling stream or singing birds.
4. To fill up on the incredible food
Think of Thailand and it’s hard not to think of food: woks sizzling with freshly-fried pad Thai, spicy tom ka soups, fragrant kaeng khiao wan curries and tangy Thai salads. Phuket is one of the country’s great gourmand destinations. You could lose yourself in the street food markets of the island’s old capital; and eat all day at the huge Phuket vegetarian festival which takes place every ninth lunar month (usually September or October), when Chinese-Thai families parade through the streets and bring offerings of food and drink to the temples.
There’s great regional cooking to sample in Phuket. Try the gaeng sôm pla (coconut fish curry) in one of the floating restaurants off Coconut Island in Phuket’s east, or snack on ah-pong (pancakes) or o-aew (jellied bananas) in the Patong or Malin Plaza night markets.
Outside Bangkok and Chiang Mai you won’t find a better place for fine dining than Phuket. Jimmy Ophorst has a Michelin star for his exquisitely prepared farm-to-table seasonal Asian cooking at PRU. And for a table and fine food with view, you can’t beat Mom Tri on Kata beach. Come late afternoon for mai tais and ocean sunsets before tucking into the chef’s trademark spicy Thai-European fusion cooking.
5. To meet the locals
Meeting the locals has long been one of the highlights of a visit to Phuket. From the resorts in Karon to the floating villages of Koh Paynee, Phuket has always welcomed visitors with a warm Thai smile. And after a two-year hiatus, communities are even happier to receive visitors, in safety and with the responsibility required post-pandemic.
Your visit provides vital economic support for Phuket’s communities. Tours to Bang Rong, a small fishing community in Phuket’s north, are a delight. Fishermen take you through their rehabilitated mangrove forest, saved with ecotourism money and now a vital nursery for marine life, including giant leopard-spotted crabs. You’ll learn how to harvest rubber and cut coconuts (before enjoying a glass of fresh juice), and to paint textiles using age-old pateh batik techniques. And after a busy day, you’ll tuck-in to the tastiest tom yod ma praw sweet rice snacks and tangiest coconuts in Phuket.
In old Phuket town you can learn about the island’s unique Thai-Chinese history and culture on a walk with a local, beginning at the Tai Hua Museum and visiting Chinese herb shops, and balconied Chi-No houses where you’ll share a Thai-Chinese family meal, accompanied by traditional live music.
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