After several years of blogging about Thailand, it’s about time we’ve explored the country’s largest and most popular island. So in typical Tieland to Thailand fashion, let us share with you an overview of our first impressions of Phuket (pronounced “poo-get”, not “foo-ket”, and no, definitely not “fuk-it”…you’ll thank us for that later). And let’s just say, “Wow, were we surprised!”
Phuket is one of the few places in Thailand that we were not genuinely interested in visiting. But it’s constantly one of the most popular places in Thailand to visit. If vacationers, slow travelers, and expats are flocking there in the millions every year, something must be good about it, right?
So visit we did. During our time there, we did what some of Phuket’s vacationers and prospective expats do: we stayed in a comfortable villa rather than a hotel room, rented a car instead of being at the mercy of public transportation, and then explored as much of the southern half of Phuket as we could.
We have so much to share! Although each category can be a post in and of itself, for now we’ll focus on the highlights of our first impressions of Phuket.
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Island layout and infrastructure: Very good
Although it’s an island, Phuket is fairly convenient to reach. That’s because it has a commercial airport (Phuket International Airport – HKT) and a bridge (Saphan Sarasin) connecting it to the mainland. These two options make it easy to travel to and from the island. Typically, island travel involved coordinating bus, ferry, and speedboat schedules. This is not only stressful but adds hours (if not a full day) of traveling time. So for its airport and bridge, Phuket gets two thumbs up.
Phuket also has a huge highway that runs (generally speaking) north to south through the island. In some stretches there are six lanes. This superhighway makes it convenient to travel far and fast. Usually, the alternative way to get around a Thai island is to creep along the single congested road that twists and turns up and down the coastline, which takes on the burden of both local and tourist traffic.
Lastly, the expat-friendly areas of Rawai, Chalong, and Nai Harn are furthest away from the airport. At first we were bummed to hear this, but after giving it a second thought we were glad these neighborhoods are. Tourists can conveniently enjoy the busy beaches and resorts closest to the airport while long-stay travelers and expats can have a little more peace and quiet further away from the touristy spots yet still access the airport by highway.
Restaurants: Some gems in a sea of discord
Phuket’s restaurant selection is similar to every other touristy beach town we’ve been to: there’s a plethora of near-empty restaurants that offer a seemingly identical
menu 30-page book featuring Thai-Italian-Pizza-Indian-Seafood-Western fare. Some of these restaurants serve good food and others serve marginally edible, unmemorable fare.
However, unlike some beach towns we’ve been to, we did come across several really satisfying restaurants in Phuket. Many times this was thanks to the recommendations given to us by fellow expats. When we relied on Google or TripAdvisor reviews or were drawn in by big pretty restaurant signs, the restaurants were hit or (mostly) miss.
Of the 25+ restaurants we ate at during our two-week trip, these are the places we thought were worth eating at again (and in some cases, we did):
- Breakfast Hut in Rawai (no frills American and English breakfast)
- Bua in Kamala (Thai seafood)
- Crust in Phuket Old Town (Italian flatbreads, pasta, and salads)
- Curry Delight in Kata (Indian)
- Hey Ha Bar & Restaurant in Kamala (Thai seafood)
- Hock Hoe Lee in Rawai (artisan coffee and Western breakfast)
- Surf & Turf in Phuket Old Town (Thai-German fusion)
- Wilson’s Café in Rawai (Western breakfast)
Expat needs: Excellent
Phuket made it really easy to feel at home as an expat. At times we didn’t feel like we were in Thailand. Depending on what you’re looking for, this may be good or bad news.
There seemed to be no limit of high-end Western restaurants, massive air-conditioned malls, or home stores selling fancy kitchen appliances and plush furniture. We were wowed by the number of car dealerships, international grocery stores, and offices advertising services for foreigners.
As in other major touristy towns, the local Thai people spoke good English. There were also plenty of signs, menus, and various advertisements in English.
On this trip, we enjoyed a taste of what life would be like if we were expats in Phuket. Instead of living out of our suitcase at a guesthouse or hotel, we made ourselves comfortable in a Lofty Villas vacation home with a few friends. We had our own garage for our rental car and a Western kitchen where we cooked at least one meal a day. We had central air conditioning and hot water and even a yard with own pool, gazebo, and grill. It was a taste of what life could have been like if we lived in Phuket. It was pretty awesome and definitely our preferred way of exploring a new area!
Variety of things to do: Unending selection
Wow, there are plenty of things to do in Phuket. Not only that, but the island goes beyond catering exclusively to singles looking to have a good time or millionaire retirees settling down in paradise. Phuket has activities and sites and attractions that appeal to families, solo travelers, couples, expats, seasonal stayers, and short-term vacationers.
On first glance, Phuket has a lot of high-end attractions. These top-dollar activities flood the search results if you Google ‘things to do in Phuket’. There are fancy beach clubs, extravagant spas, five-star restaurants, and luxury boats to enjoy.
But there are also tons of beach- and outdoor-lover activities. Kayaking, snorkeling and island hopping trips, parasailing, trekking, zip lining, exploring waterfalls, and jet skiing are just a few that caught our eyes.
There are also many markets (day and evening) and even a Sunday Night Walking Street in Phuket Old Town. There are family-friendly activities, too. Museums and an aquarium, water parks, indoor playgrounds, and plenty of quiet beaches to take the little ones. Oh my, the many beaches!
First impressions of Phuket’s beaches: So many!
We had a great first impression of Phuket’s most popular beaches, Patong, Kata (gut-dtuh), and Karon (guh-rone).
They’re clean (no trash, hardly any natural debris) and well maintained (zoned areas, nice signs). We loved that there are beach shops, small convenience stores, smoothie stands, cafés, and bars. These businesses did not encroach onto the beaches but are only a stone’s throw away across the main road. The beaches are also several kilometers long, so there is plenty of space to find a spot with breathing down the neck of other vacationers. Hawkers kept at bay thanks to the recent crackdown by authorities. All in all, Phuket’s touristy beaches are very good.
And then we visited Phuket’s other lesser-known beaches.
Did you know Phuket has more than thirty? These range from working beaches (Rawai) which have longtail boats taking visitors to nearby islands or hauling in the day’s seafood catch. There are also several nearly deserted beaches (Panwa, Laem Ka) as well as family friendly beaches (Kamala, Kata Noi, Bang Tao). The latter have cafés and restaurants as well as umbrellas and lounge chairs or mats but didn’t have the crowds. We visited nine beaches and Kamala was our favorite.
Phuket’s prices: Reasonable but not budget friendly
Phuket’s prices – both for tourists and for expats – hovered around mid-range and went up exponentially from there. This is relative to other cities in Thailand, not the world in general.
From what we observed, Phuket is not very suitable for people looking for things to do on a budget. That’s not to say there aren’t free things to do because there are: hiking, relaxing on beaches, visiting viewpoints, to name a few. But in terms of organized tours and guided activities, the prices are more expensive than similar things to do at any other beach town we’ve been to (Hua Hin, Ao Nang, Koh Mak, Koh Chang, Chumphon, and Koh Lanta). In other words, if you want to go on a group tour, take a cooking class, or have a spa treatment, expect to pay significantly more in Phuket than most other beach towns for something similar.
Grocery store and produce market prices were the same as the prices we’ve found in other popular expat cities. We didn’t see a jump in gas prices and thought our two-week car rental price of 4,600 THB was a steal (330 THB per day). Items that were more expensive included hotels (based on seasonal rates), touristy Thai restaurant prices, beer, and mixed drinks.
There’s no point in sugar-coating it: driving in Phuket was a bit scary. To make a long story short, the drivers in Phuket were, to various degrees:
- reckless (motorcycles, cars, and tour vans flying passed us on blind curves)
- clueless (not yielding to right of way, dumbfounded by roundabouts, u-turning in dangerous spots, driving in the wrong direction)
- territorial (aggressively tailgating, straddling lanes, preventing faster vehicles from passing)
- unskilled (first-time motorcyclists wobbling down the road at half the speed limit)
We also had some issues with the roads themselves. Some roads were gorgeous with their well-marked lanes, ample-sized shoulders, and well-lit views at night. However, there were roads in poor condition, too. We dodged countless potholes and randomly placed orange cones. There also seemed to be unending construction that left debris (broken concrete, gravel) and uneven pavement in its wake.
To make matter worse, on days it rained, the roads had huge puddles of standing water. Whatever the cause – a lack of drainage systems or incorrectly sloped roads – we were worried about hydroplaning on the highways or hitting enormous hidden potholes on some of the smaller side roads.
Connectivity: Good for the average Joe
We had reliable 3G internet wherever we went. Whether that be the villas we stayed in, the restaurants we ate at, or the occasional café we ducked in for coffee, we stayed connected. For the average person who wants to check email, browse social media, or makes phone calls, you’re in the clear.
Unfortunately, the 4G connection had weaker signals than we were used to. We had a difficult time sharing our experience of Phuket in real-time with our Periscope followers, our go-to social media platform.
Weather: Gorgeous when sunny, fun’s over when raining
According to one expat we spoke to, this year has been Phuket’s worst rainy season in 15 (or was it 18?) years. Of the two weeks we were in Phuket (during the tail end of the wet season), five days were sunny and ten days were rainy.
And by rainy we don’t mean it rained for two or three hours and then cleared up for the rest of the day. (That’s what normally happens in Chiang Mai, the town we call home.) No, the rain was relentless. It would go back and forth between drizzling and dumping buckets for hours on end, take a 20-minute break, and then continue misting-drizzling-pouring until way past sunset. We were at the weather’s mercy.
However, on the days the weather was clear, Phuket was gorgeous. If it’s a testament to what the non-rainy season is like, then staying there from November to April is a treat.
We’re looking forward to going back to Phuket
We were pleasantly surprised by how much we liked Phuket. Like, really liked it. Although it was pricey at times, we were blown away by just how gorgeous the island is, how many things there are to do, and how comfortable and convenient it was to be there as a foreigner. And that’s from both the perspective of vacationing there and living there. We can’t wait to go back!