If you've never been to the Thai island of Phuket (pronounced "Poo-get"), your conception of it is probably fairly vague. To many people, Phuket is synonymous with the 2004 tsunami (which actually affected several countries and millions of people around the rim of the Indian Ocean), while others envision it more generally, as a tropical but run-of-the-mill beach paradise.
The reality of Phuket is more complicated. Parts of the island resemble a busy metropolis and others seem more like a relaxing vacation destination.
Get Your James Bond On
Even if you've never seen the 1974 James Bond film "The Man With the Golden Gun," the island from that film (colloquially known as "James Bond Island") is one of the most iconic scenic spots in the world. It also happens to be easily accessible on a day-trip from Phuket. Just ask your hotel about boat tours to Koh Khao Phing Kan (เกาะเขาพิงกัน in Thai script) to get your James Bond on!
Bliss Out at the Base of a Huge Buddha
Buddhist heritage is never far no matter where you are in Thailand, and Phuket is no exception. While the island is home to countless ordinary Buddhist temples, the most impressive monument sits atop a hill in the southwestern corner of the island, in the form of the aptly-named "Big Buddha." In addition to the marble statue itself, Phuket's 150-foot-tall Big Buddha offers one of the island's most astounding panoramas, whether you come during the day or stay until sunset.
Fly Through the Jungle
You're never terribly far from a beach in Phuket (and we'll get to those in a minute), but the large island also has a mountainous, green interior you won't want to miss. One of the most adventurous ways to explore the greenery of Phuket is via the zip line tours the Flying Hanuman company offers.
Sail Around the Islands
Thailand's scenery is timeless, and so is its appeal for movie makers. To be sure, Koh Phi Phi Le (also known as Maya Bay) might've become famous more recently than Koh Khao Phing Kan (in 2000's "The Beach," starring Leonardo DiCaprio), but seeing it is just as thrilling an experience. TIP: Rather than going on a day trip and seeing the island crowded with long-tail boats, book a sleep-aboard cruise that allows you to see the island all but deserted, and gives you a chance to see its famous bioluminescent plankton!
Join One of Thailand's Wildest Parties
As far as mainland Phuket beaches are concerned, Patong is probably the best known, if only because of how widely footage of it in the wake of the aforementioned tsunami circulated in the international media. On the other hand, while Patong Beach is perfectly swimmable, Patong itself is more famous for its nightlife, particularly on Bangla Street. Don't like to party? Patong is also lively during the day and is home to several high-end restaurants and shopping malls.
Take a History Lesson
Thailand is famous as being the only country in Southeast Asia never to come under the rule of a foreign power. On the other hand, foreign influence is replete in Thailand. For Phuket's part, the so-called "Phuket Town" (which is one of many urban areas on the island today) has a Portuguese-colonial flair, which you can enjoy while traipsing between museums, boutiques, and coffee shops. Phuket Town is close to the island's Rassada Pier (where you'll depart on trips to Koh Phi Phi), so you can hang out here for a couple hours even if you don't have time for a dedicated trip.
Go Chasing Waterfalls
Another beautiful side effect of Phuket's relative large size and dense, jungle interior is waterfalls. Phuket is home to too many waterfalls to count, but its most famous include Bang Pae, Ton Sai, and Kathu. You could combine these waterfalls with the Flying Hanuman zip line adventure, or hire a taxi driver for the day in order to try and see as many as possible!
Eat Yourself Sick
It's no secret that Thai food is amazing, but Phuket is a culinary capital in its own right. Whether you sample pan-Thai favorites like Pad Thai and Green Curry Chicken, southern specialties like Yellow Curry with Crab (Bu Pad Pong Kuree), or Phuket-inspired takes on Asian classics like congee pork porridge and Hainanese chicken rice, Phuket is as much a paradise for your taste buds as it is for your inner beach bum. In particular, Phuket markets like Banzaan Fresh Market and Phuket Weekend Market are great places to begin your culinary adventure.
See Animals (Responsibly)
Like many other destinations in Thailand, Phuket is home to a controversial "Tiger Kingdom," whose namesake critters many believe are drugged. You don't need to abuse animals in order to have a wild encounter in Phuket, however. Visit the island's popular aquarium to have a scuba experience without going underwater, or play a round at Dino Park Mini Golf to get up-close and personal with predators of the extinct sort.
Grab a Surf Board (or a Beach Chair)
In Phuket's case, you'll find some postcard-perfect beaches. Whether you prefer a more active time on the beach (in addition to surfing, Phuket has become a hub of stand-up paddle boarding) or just want to laze with a Chang beer or a fruity drink, you'll be spoiled for choice. Popular Phuket beaches include Karon and Kamala, while Surin, Bang Tao, and Mai Khao (where, if you're lucky, you can release sea turtle babies) are more alternative choices.
Experience the Culture
Phuket has some incredible cultural experiences, such as the Siam Niramit, a performance featuring Thailand culture and heritage, or the Bangla Boxing Stadium to watch a Muay Thai match.