Around four million annual foreign visitors to Phuket make the island one of Thailand’s most important destinations. So just what brings them to this southern island province?
Apart from the stunning natural beauty and an excellent hospitality industry, Phuket also has a number of other attractions to fill its tourist brochure. And although it doesn’t have the cultural depth of some other destinations in Thailand, there are plenty of reasons to get off the beach and do some sightseeing.
Phuket’s beaches along the west coast, with its various viewpoints, are among the most popular attractions, while on day trips, you can visit some fantastic seascapes and national parks farther afield. Phuket Town itself has a measure of historic legacy and intrigue, and the rest of the island has several pretty waterfalls and areas.
Here are the most popular attractions in Phuket. We’ve given approximate locations, but we suggest you use a free tourist map (or online maps) for navigation. These are readily available from hotels, restaurants and guesthouses, or by clicking here.
This is what everyone has come to see, and there are nine pretty crescent bays along the west coast, each worth dropping in on to experience their differing characters. The viewpoint in the south, above Kata Noi Beach, offers an excellent perspective of these tropical beauties, best seen in the high season...more on beaches.
Located within Khao Phra Taeo National Park, close to Bang Pae Waterfall, this project has been rescuing gibbons from markets and tourist venues for a couple of decades. The animals’ trademark whooping ‘great call’ is distinctive and there are a number of volunteers on hand to give you a thorough introduction to these magnifient apes which are currently under threat. 104/3 Moo 3 Paklock, Talang. Tel: (076) 260 492, Email.
Promthep Cape Phuket
A popular place at sunset for the tour buses, with good views and an interesting landmark dedicated to a maritime-minded prince. Look out for the hundreds of small elephant statues left here. There are good restaurants close by for supper after the sun has set.
The Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Sanctuary
This park offers the best of Phuket’s lush landscape and is a protected sanctuary with two lovely waterfalls; Bang Phae to the east and Ton Sai to the north, both accessible by nature trail. There is a waterfall in Kathu, closer to Patong, if you would rather not pay the exorbitant national park fee. 254 Moo 2, Thepkrasattri Rd., Thalang, Tel: (076) 311 998. Note: Keep the ticket as it allows entry to both waterfalls on the same day.
Highly recommended for the whole family, Phuket FantaSea has a Vegas-style extravaganza, staged every evening in a large auditorium and theme park. It includes a menagerie of animals (from chickens to elephants), circus acts, comedians and Thai cultural displays, and a disappearing elephant magic act devised by David Copperfield. It is located in Kamala, but plenty of shuttles are provided. Multiple winner of Thailand Tourism Awards Best Attraction.
Old Phuket Town
In the heart of the old town, Thalang Road, Krabi Road and Soi Romanee have the best-preserved Chinese shop houses, some of which date back 100 years. They also have grand mansions in the Sino-Portuguese architectural style; remnants of Phuket’s tin boom. These days, many of these mansions, which were in poor repair, have been leased out and are being rehabilitated – the largest mansion now houses the Blue Elephant restaurant. Well worth a stroll to see how the rich lived in Phuket a century ago.
Dating mostly from the same period as the old town, the Government quarter includes the Provincial Hall, the old court and the prison (still in use, see below). The old architecture is complemented by massive trees that keep the roads cool for a quiet stroll. Around the verandah of the Provincial Hall is a fascinating display of photos of old Phuket.
This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you can tour Phuket Prison. You’ll need to book, and are asked (especially the ladies) to ‘dress well’. One aim of these tours is to convince foreigners that Thai gaols are not as bad as books and movies make them out to be. The prison can accept parties of up to 10 people at a time. There is also a prison shop selling crafts made by inmates if you want a souvenir of your brief incarceration. 38/4, Ruttanakosin 200 Years Rd., Tel: (076) 212 104.
The grandest and most visited of the Buddhist temples on the island. Although Phuket doesn’t boast the long historical legacy of other parts of Thailand, this particular temple, in Chalong (south of Phuket Town), has a soaring, unconventional pagoda/chedi which offers something more cultured to the tourist. At the top of the chedi is a glass case containing a chip of bone supposedly from the Buddha. Worth the climb for the views.
Located just outside Phuket Town, this 1,600-square-metre orchid garden has a rich display of tropical orchids and also puts on regular cultural shows demonstrating traditional Thai dance and music. Open: 11:00-17:00 (Daily). Show times: 13:00 & 17:30. 52/11 Moo 6 Thepkasatri Rd. Tel: (076) 237 400. Email.
Zoos are rather out of favour these days, but if looking at animals in cages doesn’t distress you, this private zoo may help you entertain bored kids. There are more than 12 acres of gardens full of Asian and other animals, and it includes a bird park, aquarium and orchid garden, along with shows almost every hour starring monkeys, crocodiles or elephants. Phuket Zoo is south of Phuket Town near Chalong. Open: 08:30-18:00 (Daily). 23/2 Moo 3, Soi Palai, Chaofah Rd., Tel: (076) 374 424, Email.
Phuket Shell Museum
This exemplary museum dedicated entirely to shells has a remarkable collection of rare local and fossilised shells in a modern building. Highlights include the world’s largest golden pearl (140 carats, apparently) and a shell weighing 250kgs. If you have the time, a stop here is well worth it. The owners of the museum are obsessed with molluscs and have themselves discovered several species. Located just north of Rawai. Open: 08:00-18:00 (Daily). 12/2 Viset Road, Rawai Beach. Tel: (076) 613 666.
Part of the National Fine Arts Department collection of local museums, this under-promoted museum is nonetheless fascinating for its historical insights into Phuket and impressive artefacts. They include the 9th-century statue of Vishnu, discovered in the jungle in 1900; a relic of the region’s pre-Buddhist Hindu era. Open: 09:00-16:00 (Daily). Tel: (076) 311 426.
These are dotted all over the island, but the best, notable for their colourful and detailed decorations featuring dragons and other mythical creatures, are in Phuket Town. The finest example is the Shrine of the Serene Light, off Phang Nga Road, which dates back 200 years.
Khao Rang Hill
This is a park on a hill overlooking Phuket Town which offers good views and is popular with locals enjoying evening exercise. The town’s other main hill, To’ Sae, is home to dozens of macaque monkeys – fascinating to watch, but keep your distance.
A quintessential Asian experience, this market on Ranong Road, Phuket Town, is a hive of activity in the mornings and evenings as locals look to pick up fresh fish and meat, fruit, vegetables and spices of all types, plus knick knacks. Located in the heart of the city, it’s a cornucopia of sights and smells that most tourists never get to experience. The grubby, old building housing the market was torn down a couple of years ago and has now been replaced by a fine, new edifice.
You can’t miss this one when you arrive from the airport, as the main highway goes through the traffic circle enclosing these statues of two sisters, who organised the people of Thalang to fight a marauding Burmese army to a standstill. The Burmese eventually gave up and went away, otherwise you might need a Burmese visa to visit Phuket today.
The Big Buddha
You can’t miss this huge, white Buddha statue. It’s located on the ridge separating Kata from Chalong and is visible from many parts of the island. Work on the Big Buddha (officially named the Phraputtamingmongkol) started 10 years ago and is still not complete – work continues when donations permit. The statue, 49m in height, is built of concrete sheathed in white marble. Make a donation, and you can write your name on building materials that eventually will become part of the statue. Spectacular views.
Phuket Tin Mining Museum
Recently opened and quiet, the tin museum, on the back roads between Phuket Town and Kathu, gives interesting insights into Phuket’s pre-tourist history, when tin mining was up. Some fascinating dioramas can be seen here. Moo 5, Katu-Nakoh Rd., Tel: (081) 535 3187.