If you can only visit one place in Thailand, zero in on the island of Phuket. Set some 400 miles south of Bangkok, Phuket crams a near-excess of sights and activities within its coastline: gorgeous beaches, delicious food, amazing natural parks, and access to some of the Andaman Sea’s most breathtakingly beautiful islands.
Backpackers introduced Phuket to the tourism world. The first backpacker-friendly accommodations sprung up in Patong in the 1970s, presaging a steady rise in visitors that peaked at 14 million in 2018. Phuket’s present-day attractions have evolved with tourist tastes; beyond the beaches, visitors can now check out Phuket’s Michelin-starred restaurants, world-class theme parks, and luxury hotels fringing the sands.
For the first-time visitor to Phuket, the island can be a lot to unpack at first glance. Read on to make sense of Thailand’s most popular tourist destination, and how you can have the time of your life when you visit.
Planning Your Trip
- Best time to visit: Plan your trip between mid-October to mid-February; the “winter” months coincide with a cool, dry climate caused by northeast monsoon winds blowing in from Siberia.
- Language: Central (standard) Thai is widely spoken throughout Phuket, though southern Thai is the local mother tongue. A fair number of Phuket locals can manage basic English, but don’t expect them to manage sustained conversation. These are a few useful phrases to learn when traveling in Phuket.
- Currency: The Thai Baht (THB) is standard currency across the island.
- Getting Around: You can ride buses (songthaew), tuk-tuks, or motorbike taxis to get around Phuket. Songthaew commute between Phuket Town and resort areas like Surin, Karon, and Patong. Tuk-tuks and motorbikes can take you on a point-to-point basis for short distances.
- Travel tip: Phuket’s beaches are lovely to visit and swim in—but during the monsoon months between May and October, riptides and unpredictable swells make them positively dangerous for casual swimmers. Watch for red flags on the beaches, which warn against swimming when the conditions are too risky.
Things to Do
For an island just over 200 square miles in area, Phuket offers a surprising number of things to see and do. To be sure, its beaches are Phuket’s spotlight attraction, but there’s more to discover once you move beyond the coastline.
- Enjoy Phuket’s beaches. Each beach in Phuket offers a distinct appeal that caters to different folks—partygoers go to Patong Beach, couples to Karon, and nature lovers and plane-spotters prefer Mai Khao.
- Visit Phuket Town. In its heyday, Phuket Town was a key trading post for Thai, Chinese, and British colonial entrepreneurs. While the tin trade that drove local business has long since faded, the old town has retained its old-timey charm, its townhouses having been converted into museums, restaurants, and shops.
- Take in the nightlife. All nightlife adventures in Phuket begin at Bangla Road in Patong—a neon-lit thoroughfare with attached soi (alleyways) brimming with bars, live music venues, and street performers.
- Go island-hopping: The seas of southern Thailand offer some of the most breathtaking views, both above and underwater. Tours to Koh Phi Phi, Phang Nga, and Koh Similan can be easily booked from your Phuket hotel.
What to Eat and Drink
Thanks to Phuket’s long history as a trade entrepot, the local culinary scene bears influences from all over—European fine dining, Southern Chinese home cooking, and Thai royal cuisine, among others. Foodies in particular swear by Phuket’s fusion of Thai and Chinese cuisines, the natural result of the island’s Chinese/Peranakan community centered around Phuket Town.
The local food scene has earned Phuket recognition as a "Creative City of Gastronomy" by UNESCO, owing to the variety of dishes and dining styles. High-end diners can take in a meal at one of the island’s Michelin-starred restaurants, while budget eaters can count on Phuket Town's hawker-style premises that resemble similar setups in Singapore and Malaysia. The street food scene in Patong helps balance out the town’s raucous nightlife, and many resorts offer in-house dining experiences overlooking the sea.
Where to Stay
The vast majority of hotels and resorts in Phuket are located around the west coast, as Phuket’s top beaches can be found there. One exception is Phuket Town, whose affordable hotels are offset by its considerable distance from the beaches.
The graceful Sino-Portuguese buildings, cheap food, and activities around Phuket Town make it an excellent choice for history nerds and foodies. Meanwhile, budget travelers and partygoers should look for accommodations around Patong, home to the island’s hottest nightlife scene and most affordable budget hotels. Hotels around Karon Beach offer a happy medium for tourists who like staying close to the beach, but abhor Patong’s congestion and party-happy atmosphere. The relaxed energy around Karon appeals to families, couples, and seniors.
For a selection of Phuket accommodation options, check out this list of Phuket’s top hotels.
Some 16 million people fly into Phuket International Airport from all over Asia and Europe. Located at the northern end of Phuket, the airport sits over 20 miles from the island’s main tourist stretches. If you’re flying in during Phuket’s peak season, be aware that it will take over an hour to get to or from your Phuket resort, so plan accordingly.
Phuket is connected by bridge to the Thai mainland, allowing domestic travelers to take the bus from cities around Thailand to the island. Most cross-country buses arrive and depart to/from Phuket Bus Terminal 2 on Thepkasattri Road in Ratsada.
Despite Phuket’s relatively low crime rate, some risks remain for visitors to the island. The beaches hide dangerous riptides and jellyfish, whereas locals might also take offense to fighting words or undue talk about politics or religion.
When hanging around the beaches, keep the following threats in view.
- Beware of riptides. During monsoon season, Phuket’s beaches hide a nasty secret: deadly riptides that can pull you out to the open sea, or pull you under to drown. Patong, Karon, and Kamala beaches are notorious for these. If you see red flags flying on any Phuket beach, do not go into the water.
- Listen for tsunami warnings. The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami hit Phuket hard, killing over 5,000 people. Today, an advanced tsunami warning system watches over Phuket; warnings will be sent via broadcast media and SMS on local cellphones, giving you plenty of time to head to higher ground.
Thai locals are some of the most easygoing people on earth, but remember that their patience can be severely tested, too. Here’s how to stay on locals’ good side—and how to stay out of trouble otherwise:
- Never get angry or aggressive. Avoid conflict wherever possible. Thais do not go for pranks or humiliating jokes at their expense, and they also look down on Westerners picking fights. You should also avoid political talk—Thailand has a lese majeste law that penalizes insulting talk about their royal family, so steer clear of that topic in polite conversation.
- Don’t do drugs. Thailand has extremely punitive laws against drug trafficking and use. You can spend years in prison if caught with even a small amount of prohibited drugs, or get the death penalty at worst.
- Keep your eyes open for scams. Tourist locations tend to attract a fair number of scammers, and Phuket is no exception.
Money Saving Tips
Even as luxe hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants have taken over, they haven’t crowded the backpackers out yet—budget travelers can still find plenty of ways to stretch their dollar. Follow these simple rules to get the most value out of your Phuket trip:
- Eat the way locals do. Get a meal at a Patong food hall, or hunker down to street food in Phuket Town. The cheapest meals can be found at wet markets in your vicinity, where you can get rice, meat, and a drink for no more than 100 baht ($3.30).
- Use local transportation. Look up the songthaew routes around your hotel and your preferred destinations, and ride them whenever possible. Tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis will also let you haggle the price down to a certain extent.
- Visit Phuket in the low season. Between May and October, Phuket gets the brunt of the monsoon season. Prices are at their lowest for both accommodations and transportation, though, which can save you money in what is arguably Thailand’s priciest town.
- Get a local SIM card for your phone. Assuming your phone is compatible with the local networks, buying a prepaid SIM card will let you surf the web and call home without breaking the bank. You have your choice of three brands: AIS, DTAC, and TrueMove. All are available at the airport, or at any convenience store on the island.
- Drink Thai-made beers. Chang, Leo, and Singha beers are much cheaper than Australian or European beers around Phuket—and they’re arguably just as good.
Phuket.net. "History of Phuket." 2021.
Channel News Asia. "Phuket already bursting at the seams but more tourists on the way." December 8, 2019.
The Phuket News. "History: Cultural History of Phuket Town." May 6, 2016.
UNESCO. "Creative Cities Network: Phuket." 2015.
Michelin Guide Global. "Phuket Restaurants." 2020.
The Nation Thailand. "Tsunami warning system finally ready, after 8 years." December 25, 2012.