The "Pearl of the Andaman Sea", Phuket, Thailand's largest island, is a treasure trove for sunlovers, shopaholics, gourmands and culture buffs.
Phuket, Thailand's largest island, is compact at just 543 km2, but packed within this space is an array of delights, from glimmering beaches lapped by turquoise waves to lush, mountainous jungle that resounds with the love-songs of gibbons in Khao Phra Theao National Park. The island is accessible by a bridge from the mainland, but most international travellers choose to fly directly to Phuket International Airport, located in the island's north.
Enjoying a fabulous night on a beach side restaurant during the Songkran Festival. Our tour captured the spirit of Songkran and the wonder of Thailand...
Auswathai Roaming Reporting Tony (Spindle) Smith
Enhancing Phuket's lush natural paradise are the friendly local people -- Thailand is renowned as the "Land of 1000 smiles"--- cheap yet opulent accommodation, inexpensive massage and spa services, and a cornucopia of fresh seafood, spicy curries and super-fresh noodle dishes. All in all, it's little wonder the island attracts millions of tourists each year. Also worth mentioning are the charming Sino-Portuguese architecture and Buddhist temples that pay homage to the cultural mix that makes up the Baba people (Phuket's native inhabitants, who have been influenced by Chinese and Portuguese culture).
The largest temple on the island is Wat Chalong; however, also well worth a visit is the ambitious Big Buddha (or Phra Puttamingmongkol Akenakkir to give it its Thai name), a concrete and marble behemoth that presides over the island from its vantage point in the Nakkerd Hills. Although still unfinished, it is accompanied by a smaller shining brass Buddha and is nevertheless an imposing and spiritual presence on this largely Buddhist island.
Shrines and temples aside, most visitors to Thailand spend their first few days worshipping the sun and soaking up the ambiance of Thailand's crystalline beaches. The most accessible, and the most crowded, is Hat Patong, a stretch of sand frequented by sun-blissed tourists and wily traders, wheelers and dealers hawking everything from trinkets to motorbike hire. Learning to barter is among the first skills visitors to Patong need to master; the second is turning a blind eye to the more tawdry offerings of this tourist strip -- the seductively sleazy alleys that radiate from the debauchery of Soi Bangla, where just about everything is for sale. More relaxed and family friendly are the classy Hat Surin to the north, and Kata, Karon and secluded Kata Noi and Nai Harn in the south. All beaches are bedecked with sunbeds that will cost 100 Baht (about $3 Australian) for the day's lounging.
Those seeking a less lethargic way to while away the sun-drenched days can hire a motorbike or car to cruise around the island, or take to the water on hired jetskis or kayaks. An aerial view is even available with affordable parasailing. A recommended activity is to take one of the many speedboat or charter boat tours to the offshore islands that dot the serene waters, including the popular Phi Phi Leh and Phi Phi Don, fringed with coral reefs, or the famous Maya Bay, where the hollywood blockbuster The Beach (based on the novel by Alex Garland) was filmed in 1999. Snorkelling, scuba diving or the hybrid SNUBA diving are all available and the crystal-clear waters teem with aquatic life.
Phuket also boasts elephant riding, monkey shows, a zoo, an aquarium, several deadly snake shows and the unforgettable chance to visit endangered gibbons at the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre in the island's northern national park. Gibbons rescued from unscrupulous street performers are housed here, pending release back into the jungle wilds.