With its pleasant climate, expansive white-sand beaches, and generally relaxed atmosphere, it is easy to see how Phuket (pronounced “poo-keht”) has become one of Southeast Asia's premier resort areas. Often referred to as "The Pearl of the South", this tropical island rests on the eastern edge of the Andaman Sea, at the geographical "heel" of Thailand's boot shaped peninsula. Covering an area of 810 sq. km., it is the country’s largest island–about the size of Singapore. Just barely qualifying as an island, Phuket is connected to the rest of the Kingdom by a bridge at its northernmost point.
People often forget that there was a good reason that Phuket developed as Thailand's first and remains her premier beach resort. The beaches are better, the infrastructure better and the weather better than any other beach resort in Thailand.
In spite of rapid development in recent years, Phuket remains rich in natural beauty. Much of the landscape consists of steep hills, most of which are still clad in unspoiled primary jungle. Picturesque rural scenes are common, including shady green forests of rubber trees, fertile rice paddies, and herds of docile water buffalo accompanied by slender white egrets. Looking to the east, spectacular limestone islands dot the horizon, surrounded by the emerald waters of Phang Nga Bay. On the West Coast, clear blue seas lap against white-sand beaches, separated by rocky coves and headlands. While there are no real rivers on Phuket, several scenic waterfalls do exist, some of which can be quite impressive–in the rainy season. Phuket even has a sizable tract of virgin jungle, a beautiful and pristine rainforest that is now protected as a national park.
Among its other attributes, Phuket has become well known for its diverse marine life and healthy coral reefs, providing outstanding diving and snorkeling opportunities. In addition to some very good local diving, this scenic island also serves as a departure point for the majority of Thailand’s liveaboard and charter fleet. As the gateway to the Andaman Sea, Phuket provides access to most of the best diving in Thailand, as well as Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago and India's Andaman Islands. And, with its international airport and modern infrastructure, it offers the kind of convenience that keeps travelers coming back again and again.
Phuket also has a great deal to offer in addition to diving and snorkeling. In fact, there is so much to do that it would be impossible to take it all in on a single trip. Among non-aquatic outdoor activities, golf is certainly among the most popular. The island is home to a number of highly rated, well-maintained country clubs, including some that have hosted very prestigious tournaments. For non-golfers or more casual enthusiasts, several miniature-golf courses offer a fun diversion for the entire family. Other sporting activities include a shooting range, bungee jumping, horseback riding, go-cart racing, bowling, elephant trekking, and paintball, to name a few. If you're someone who just can't get enough of the water, Phuket is certainly the right place to be. In addition to diving and snorkeling, sea kayaking, parasailing, windsurfing, sailing and sport fishing are all readily available. For more details, check out the travel section of this website.
Being surrounded by spectacular scenery, Phuket is also a great place to simply go sightseeing. Aside from the main island, trips are available to a number of neighboring areas, including picturesque locales like Phang Nga Bay, Koh Phi Phi and Koh Racha Yai. Also worth seeing are the island's many Buddhist temples or wats, especially Wat Chalong. Other possibilities include a butterfly farm, snake shows, working pearl farms, and a "school" that trains monkeys to pick coconuts for a living.
For a sneak preview of some of the marine life you will be seeing on the reefs, check out the small but worthwhile aquarium operated by the Phuket Marine Biological Center at Cape Panwa. Also highly recommended is the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center, which is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Located next to a scenic waterfall at the edge of Phuket's only remaining virgin rainforest, this non-profit center is successfully rescuing gibbons that have been neglected as pets. By gradually acclimating them to life in the wild, these adorable primates are prepared for an eventual return to their natural habitat.
If all these activities have you worn out by the end of the day, several herbal saunas and high end spas around the island provide a great way to unwind. For those with tired muscles, try a traditional Thai massage, available at nearly every beach, hotel, or tourist area.
Phuket also has a well-deserved reputation for spirited nightlife. On the tame end of the scale, bigger resorts regularly present traditional Thai and contemporary music performances, at which the public is welcome. Or, take in a Thai kickboxing match, scheduled nightly during the high season. If you lean towards the wild side, there are plenty of lively discos, karaoke bars, "bar beers", and "hostess" bars to choose from, even a gay cabaret. All in all, Phuket is a well-rounded and attractive resort area, a destination which not only offers excellent diving, but something for just about any other interest as well.
Though most serious divers will immediately book a longer liveaboard boat to the Similans and beyond when contemplating a Thai diving holiday, Phuket does offer some fine day trips and shorter overnight cruises to its West Coast and offshore islands. One and two tank half-day and full day diving excursions are available through most of the dive centers in both Patong and Kata, as well as from some of the new hotels in the Bang Tao area near the airport.
Phuket's West Coast offers casual diving, usually from a local long tail boat. Although not the easiest of boats to dive from, they do have the advantage of being able to pull right up to the beach and, are relatively inexpensive to hire. It is also what you might call a "cultural experience" to take a short trip in one.
Some of the dive areas off the West Coast include Patong Bay, Freedom Beach, Paradise Beach, Karon Noi, Kata Beach, Koh Pu (Koh means "island"). Near the airport at Bang Tao and Nai Yang Beaches there are also some local sites the dive shops there visit mostly for training. In 2008, planes were sunk off the beach in Nai Yang and in a year or two, these artificial reefs should generate a nice dive area.
All of these spots are popular training areas and actually do offer some pleasant, easy diving. One of the best areas is right off the beach in Kata, where the coral reef parallels the bay's northern rocky point. Averaging a depth of only five or six meters, the amount of marine life surprises the most seasoned diver. We've seen all sorts of unusual fish here including ghost pipe fish, dragon wrasses, crocodile fish, and sea robins.
This text is taken from the original award-winning Lonely Planet's Diving and Snorkeling Thailand, by Mark Strickland and John B Williams. This original version is no longer in print but still available from Amazon and other sources. Visit Mark's website for beautiful underwater photography.