Free beaches, friendly locals, and lots of sun — it doesn’t get much better than a trip to this beautiful island.
The case for spending a long weekend in Phuket (Thailand’s infamous party island) is easy. There’s fresh seafood, great weather, friendly people, and tons of options for travelers on every budget. And let’s not forget the beaches — thanks to its dense, forested landscape, this “pearl of the Andaman” offers an abundance of well-hidden, romantic white sand beaches to choose from.
As a travel destination, Phuket is a breeze to navigate. The whole island is accessible by road, and none of the beaches require an admission fee. Getting there is even easier — with 59 flights from Bangkok per day, travelers can show up pretty much on a whim. Once you’re here, choose from diving, nature hikes, massages, or even a day trip out to the surrounding Phi Phi Islands, Similan Islands, or the narrow sea caves of Phang Nga Bay.
Here’s how to plan the perfect vacation in Phuket.
Cruise around like a local.
Motorcycle is the preferred transportation mode on this island, as it allows easier access to off-road beaches and the island’s smaller neighborhoods (just be sure to keep on the left-hand side of the road, and always wear a helmet).
If you’re feeling adventurous, try hopping on a Songthaew, the blue buses that locals use. “It’s one of the cheapest ways to get around, and it goes to all the main beaches,” says Nathan Schmidt, 26, a diving instructor with Aloha Diving in Rawai, Phuket. “Especially when time is not of importance, it’s nice to hop on and just cruise along.”
Head straight for the jungle.
Sirinat National Park, one of two national parks in Phuket, covers an eight-mile stretch of beach along the island’s northwestern edge. Though the mangrove forests and white, powdery Hat Sai Kaeo beach to the north are absolutely worth seeing, the area can also get a little touristy, thanks to its proximity to Phuket Airport, along with several mega-resorts along the water.
Instead, try Khao Phra Taew National Park, on the other side of the island. It buffers one of Phuket’s last remaining virgin rainforests, and is a natural, unsoiled habitat for wildlife like langurs, barking deer, and monkeys (there’s even a dedicated research facility for rehabilitated gibbons).
'“Very few tourists know this park,” says Schmitt, “but it offers some of the best hiking opportunities in a real jungle setting.”
Pick a beach, any beach.
Layan Beach, which is at the end of Bang Tao beach on the west side of the island, is a popular spot, with good reason: it backs up to a thick forest, offering plenty of shady nooks to shield sandy bodies from the hot sun. Further away from the built-up shops and tourist area is the alluring Kata Noi Beach, which sits near the island’s southern tip, at the end of a narrow cul-de-sac. Even more secluded: Ao Yon Beach, a sleepy little cove slung with coconut trees, and blissfully free of amenities and resorts.
Try a massage.
After some real R&R? The options for a traditional Thai-style massage here are limitless — though some are more thorough than others. At the luxe Banyan Tree Phuket, for example, you’ll be rubbed down in an open-air pavilion, while waves lap up from the Andaman.
The staff here have all been trained at the brand’s international spa academy, located just down the road, and they use traditional Ayurvedic oils and herbs to address everything from muscular tension to dehydrated skin and improved circulation.
Skip the party in Patong.
The biggest misconception about the island? “That Phuket equals Patong,” laments Schmidt. As a rule, he encourages travelers to venture outside what he calls Phuket’s “party city,” with the goal of exploring the lush nature and unique cultural heritage, rather than just noisy bars and hostels.
For instance, on an intimate, guided walking tour of Old Town Phuket, you’ll learn how the island made its fortune in the tin industry, and was a hub for traders and merchants from all over Southeast Asia, particularly China.
Charming Thalang Road reveals scrumptious Thai-Chinese fusion restaurants, as well as the beautifully intact Sino-Portuguese “shophouse” buildings. These architectural gems, marked by a deceptively narrow facade that opens onto a spacious inner courtyard, date back several centuries, and many still contain family businesses that have been passed down for generations.