The name “Phuket” is derived from the Malay word “Bukit” (meaning hill); true to the name, lush, green hills dominate much of the island‘s interior. There are still some rubber plantations and relics of the island’s tin mining operations remaining. Most folks head west to the beaches; Phuket’s are some of the best in Thailand. The best way to see the island is by taking an (albeit utterly hair-raising) drive around the cliff roads, a totally touristy “elephant safari” into the jungle, or opt for an unforgettable sea kayak tour with John Gray, whose guided trips visit incredible offshore caves and limestone hong (literally “rooms” hidden lagoons with sheer walls that become accessible at low tide).
Even after over some years, the impact of the 2004 tsunami, which struck a devastating blow to the resorts along Thailand‘s west coast, including Phuket, and across the now up-and-coming region of Khao Lak, cannot be glossed over. Today, most resorts are back to full capacity; many in fact used the disaster as an opportunity to renovate and upgrade. Khao Lak is fast becoming the “next” Phuket, whereas Phi Phi is still struggling to go upmarket. While some may feel put off about visiting this region, tourism is still the mainstay of the economy. Without support from travelers, Thais in this region simply have no chance to get back on their feet.
If Phuket is your only destination in Thailand, you’ll certainly want to get to some of the Muslim fishing villages, small rural temples, and Phuket Town. Outdoor activities top the list of things to do, and there’s something for everyone. More or less in the center of the island, the Heroines’ Monument is a good place to get a taste of local history. It was erected in honor of two women who rallied the troops and saved the town from an attack by the Burmese in 1785. Locals frequently arrive to make offerings and prostrate themselves before the monument, making it more than a simple statue.
Thalang National Museum exhibits Phuket’s indigenous cultures, the history of Thai settlements on Phuket, and crafts from the southern Thai regions as well as a 9th-century statue of the Hindu deity Vishnu, evidence of early Indian merchants visiting the burgeoning kingdom. There are a few Buddhist temples on the island that are notable: The most unique is Wat Phra Thong, just south of the airport. Years ago, a boy fell ill and dropped dead after tying his buffalo to a post sticking out of the ground. It was later discovered that the post was actually the top of a huge Buddha image that was buried under the earth. Numerous attempts to dig out the post failed, during one attempt in 1785, workers were chased off by hornets. Everyone took all this failure to mean that the Buddha image wanted to just stay put, so they covered the “post” with a plaster image of The Buddha’s head and shoulders and built a temple around it.
The most famous temple among Thai visitors here is Wat Chalong. Chalong was the first resort on Phuket, back when the Thais first started coming to the island for vacations. Nowadays, the discovery of better beaches on the west side of the island has driven most tourists away from this area, but the temple still remains the center of Buddhist worship.
Sea Gypsies or Chao Ley, are considered the indigenous people of Phuket. This minority group used to shift around the region, living off subsistence fishing, but commercial fishing interests and shoreline encroachment increasingly threaten their livelihoods. Related to the Malaysian Orang Laut people and the southern Thai Sakai tribes, Phuket and Phang Nga’s Sea Gypsies form a few small settlements on Phuket island: one on Ko Siray (aka Ko Sire), east of Phuket Town, and another at Rawai Beach, just south of Chalong Bay. The villages are simple seashore shacks, with vendors selling souvenir shells. It’s quite educational to visit these people and their disappearing culture; sadly, however, thanks to too many tourist handouts, be prepared also for pestering, dollar-hungry children.
Patong Beach is the center of handicraft and souvenir shopping in Phuket and its main streets and small sois are teeming with storefront tailors, leather shops, jewelers, and ready-to-wear clothing boutiques. Vendors line the sidewalks, selling everything from bras to batik clothing, arts and crafts, northern hill-tribe silver, and of course the usual fake brands and dodgy CDs, their importation is now illegal in many countries. Vendors everywhere in Patong have the nasty habit of hassling passersby; don’t respond to any greeting, and you may get away tout-free. Most prices are inflated compared to Bangkok or other tourist markets in Thailand, but some hard bargaining can get you the right price. Many items, such as northern handicrafts, are best if purchased closer to the source, but if this is your only stop in Thailand, everything is cheap compared to the West, you might as well stock up. Visit Phuket Town for local arts, a few whacky boutiques, and some reputable antiques stores, as well as Robinson department store and Ocean Mall market.
Patong is the center of nightlife on the island, though it serves up the same old sordid stuff as Patpong, in Bangkok; you’ll find plenty of bars, nightclubs, karaoke lounges, snooker halls, and dance shows with pretty sleazy entertainment. While some wide-eyed teenagers or washed-up barflies may find it titillating to trawl the hundreds of hostess bars, many people, especially couples with families, may find these venues a complete turnoff. Lit up like a seedy Las Vegas in miniature, the Patong bar areas are filled with (often underage) working girls and boys in pursuit of wealthy foreign men. Since the Vietnam War, prostitutes (some of which are transsexuals) have plied Patong’s girlie bars.
Many hotels realize their guests may not want to barge their way through smoke-filled go-go bars, so they duly put on nightly Thai dance shows, which, if done well, can be mesmerizing; For those who don’t head for the bars (which are open pretty much all night), Patong’s endless markets and restaurants usually stay open till 11pm around the main beach towns, especially Patong.