Phuket, which has for a long time been Thailand's premier beach destination, has now evolved into one of southeast Asia's two most glamorous and jet-set islands (the other being Bali). The many top-flight resorts vie with each other in opulence, often to exquisite effect: Thais tend to have a good sense of aesthetics, so the masterpieces far outnumber the monstrosities. If you have money and like to spend it on stylish restaurants and resorts, this is the place for you. The better Phuket gets for the well-heeled, however, the worse it becomes for budget travellers, who have now been mostly banished to scruffy doss-houses in noisy, smelly back-streets.
Your first impression of Phuket depends on where you have arrived from. If you have just stepped off a plane from a bleak European winter on your first visit to Thailand, you will no doubt shortly conclude that the only thing separating the place from paradise is the lack of soprano-singing women with large wings and white robes flying around. If, on the other hand, you have just come from a pristine island like Koh Yao Noi, Koh Muk or Koh Lao Liang, you may find Phuket over-developed. Not that this matters much if you have deep enough pockets to stay in one of the lovely luxury resorts, which zealously clean their beachfronts every morning before their guests arise.
Phuket is superbly equipped and placed for devotees of Thailand's three main 5-star sports, sailing, big-game fishing and golf (it has five courses). Plus it is Thailand's best dive base, from where you can reach the Similan Islands, Koh Racha Yai, Koh Doc Mai, Hin Daeng and Hin Muang, plus the Anemone Reef and King Cruiser sites. It is a convenient base from which to explore one of the best tropical kayaking destinations in the world, the stupendous limestone kart cathedrals of Phang Nga bay.
Phuket is blessed with an abundance of gorgeous beaches, the finest of which lie along the west coast. The best-known of these is the infamous Patong, which used to attract hippy backpackers like filings to a magnet but now, since the one-hour hotels and girly bars moved in, mostly draws in a different sort of tourist. Whilst Patong is now a paradise for the dissolute, it is also a place where families with young children can have a great time (provided they don't return to their resort too late) due to the outstanding family facilities in many of the superb hotels located there. The nightlife is as raucous as that in the other two of Thailand's trio of pandemonium P's (Pattaya and Bangkok's infamously seedy Patpong being the other two).
For families with teenage children who want to be out and about later at night, the vulgarity of Patong's sex tourists as they troop in and out of short-time hotels make Patong an unsuitable place. More wholesome places are the neighbouring beaches Kata Yai, Kata Noi and family-friendly Karon (Phuket's most upmarket beach and arguably the one with the best-balanced development. Kata Noi beach, home to the Amari Kata Thani resort, is particularly picturesque and offers good snorkelling.
On the southern tip of Phuket pretty Nai Harn beach is still relatively pristine, thanks to its bodyguard, the Samnak Song monastery, which has repeatedly refused to sell out to developers; the beach is thus home to only one resort, the luxury Royal Meridien Yacht Club. From the top of nearby Promthep Cape, the island's most southerly point, the sunsets are often the fieriest imaginable, but make sure you arrive in plenty of time so that you can find a place to park, as you will be a long way from being the only one enjoying the sight.
Laem Sing beach is in a small, curving bay with rocky headlands at the foot of forest-fringed cliffs and is among Phuket's most beautiful spots. Ao Bang Thao is a large open bay with one of Phuket's longest beaches. It was once used for tin mining, but has since been developed into a luxury resort. Most of it is occupied by the Laguna complex, four luxury hotels and a golf course. Family facilities here are excellent, and some decent coral has somehow survived the multitude of visiting snorkellers' fins. The often nearly empty Nai Yang beach is fringed with casuarina trees, which provide shady spots on which to spread a beach mat and collapse. Off-shore is a large coral reef which serves as a habitat for several species of sea life; if you are lucky you may even see a turtle or two, particularly in April, when baby turtles are released by the Fisheries Department. If you have some time to kill before your flight from the nearby airport, here's a good place to do it. Pansea or Phan-si beach is a celebrity and VIP hideaway occupied by two exclusive resorts, Amanpuri and the Chedi, both of which go to lengths to protect their guests' privacy.
Phuket has a lot going for it, unless your idea of bliss is an empty, spotless, soundless beach. Whilst strenuous efforts are made to clean the beaches, the visitor volumes mean that it is inevitable that some traces of the packaging industry's products will usually be on display on those stretches of beach which are not controlled by a single resort. Never mind, if you ever get fed up with the mess and the crowds, you can always cheer yourself up by going to an internet café and checking out the weather back home.
Phuket is ringed with 39 fine little satellite islands. Of special interest are the following. Ko Racha Yai or Raya Yai's gleaming beaches can be reached by shared or chartered boat from Phuket's Ao Chalong. A hilltop viewpoint offers a magnificent view of the whole island. On nearby Ko Racha Noi or Raya Noi there are more rocks than beaches; it is a great fishing, but not swimming, destination. Ko Mai Thon, off Phuket's southeast coast, is highly prized for its fine white beaches and crystal-clear waters and is ideal for swimming, diving, or fishing. Busy little Ko Hae, part of a marine preserve, is so well known for its coral reef that it is often referred to simply as Coral Island. In addition to the splendid reefs there are two fine beaches on the north and west of the island. Ko Nakha Noi is popular for its pearl farm and has fine sandy beaches suitable for swimming and a good seafood restaurant. Ko Bon has a white sandy beach and is just ten minutes offshore from Phuket.
Particularly in the monsoon season, there are strong currents on many of the beaches and drownings are common, especially on Surin beach, due to its large waves, turbulent currents and steeply-sloping seabed. Because of the island's winding hilly roads and poor vision, Phuket gets more than its fair share of traffic accidents. Most days someone, often a foreigner, dies in a Phuket in a road accident, nine out of ten if which involves a motorbike. Having your photo taken with a cute gibbon on one of the beaches is very dangerous, not to you but to the species. During Phuket's Vegetarian Festival celebrants go into hypnotic trances and become mediums for spirits from beyond the grave, who instruct them to pierce their bodies with all manner of household objects. If you think that you too will feel no pain with a light-bulb sticking out of your tongue or a sword out of your cheek, then by all means join in, but maybe ask your insurance company for their approval first.
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