Few visitors had even heard of Mai Khao Beach up until the new millennium, owing to its relative remoteness. Stretching 11kms from the airport to the northern tip of Phuket, it’s the longest beach on the island, yet the only accommodation up unto its rediscovery palm-thatched bungalows, tents, and a basic restaurant. Today, however, Mai Khao now sports major resorts and is good for families.
While tourists packed Patong Beach like sardines, it was possible to walk most of the length of Mai Khao and meet no one apart from the occasional fisherman or beachcomber. its remoteness, part of the reason for this is not as idylic as the main beaches of Phuket, and the shoreline drops off quickly – in one step you can go from knee-deep to over-your-head, for example!
In addition, the low season surf makes swimming thoroughly dangerous and, even in the high season, when there is no surf, the drop-off is perilous for children and non-swimmers.
In 2001, however, the JW Marriott Resort and Spa opened, causing other hotel companies and property developers to take a second look. Land was cheaper there, so there were definite possibilities, if one solved the problems of the poorly-demarcated national park along the shore.
The Marriott solved these problems by advising guests to swim in its large pool and use the beach only for sunbathing or strolling. Between the resort and the beach a strip of natural scrubland was left untouched in order not to encroach on the park. This is a model that has been followed by other resorts on the beach.
Mai Khao Beach now has three other major resorts – Anantara, Sala Phuket and the Renaissance (a Marriott brand). It also has a small upmarket shopping centre, Turtle Cove, with a convenience store, ice-cream shop, a couple of good restaurants and a pub, along with souvenir and clothing shops.
Causing a buzz on the island, the latest arrival is West Sands, comprising a resort, apartments and large, almost-beachfront, villas for sale. It also has Phuket’s first water park, Splash Jungle, which boasts pools, including a wave pool, giant water cannons, a meandering river, and five giant water slides. It’s been criticised locally as a bit expensive to take the whole family for a wild and wet day out, but the kids will love you for it.
Around the corner from Mai Khao Beach, you come to another beach that looks out across the strait between Phuket and Phang Nga, with the bridges to your right. This beach is truly deserted, but don’t be tempted to swim here as the tidal currents going through the strait are pretty fierce.
Mai Khao is the last place on Phuket where you can see giant leatherback turtles come ashore to lay their eggs if you’re lucky. They do so between November and April, digging a hole for the eggs and shovelling sand back over. Sadly, numbers have dwindled to almost zero, and patrols mounted by the Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation now carefully collect the eggs, hatch them and raise the baby turtles until they are old enough to have a chance of surviving at sea.
If you’re in Phuket at New Year, you can join in the annual turtle release, a fascinating and tactile way to learn about these endangered creatures. The foundation is supported by the local resorts and the Royal Thai Navy.