Phuket is that place you’ll see from the inside of the air-conditioned minibus transfer that picks you up from the airport and delivers you to your liveaboard at Chalong Pier.
Though Phuket is an extremely popular Thai beach destination with a number of beaches populated with hundreds of hotels and resorts, it a sprawling conurbation, and depending on traffic, can take some time to get through. Plan accordingly.
Phuket is in fact a large island halfway down the west coast of the Thai Peninsula on the Andaman Sea. It’s connected to the mainland by bridge, and in fact doesn’t really feel like an island at all. Its international airport is on the north of the island, so it is relatively easy to get transfers to Khao Lak and Ranong – dis/embarkation points for some of the liveaboards.
The liveaboards in Phuket head either on a southern itinerary or a northern itinerary – see dive sites section below.
The dive sites immediately south of Phuket (which are also visited by day dive boats), are all quite different. Favourites include the King Cruiser Wreck – the wreck of a car ferry; Koh Dok Mai – a limestone pinnacle typical of this area, and Anemone Reef – known for the anemones and their clownish inhabitants!
Other great dive sites on liveaboards’ southern itineraries are those around Ko Phi Phi, and further south, Mu Koh Lanta National Marine Park boasts a large number of uninhabited islands considered great dive sites. Koh Ha, (Five Islands) are tiny islets located west of Koh Lanta Island with channels that separate the islands running 50 metres deep. Finally, the two southernmost dive sites of Mu Koh Lanta are considered the best outside of the Similans. Hin Daeng (Red Rock) is a submerged boulder pinnacle with soft corals in various shades of red and plenty of small scale action. Hin Muang (Purple Rock) is Thailand’s highest vertical submerged wall.
Northern itineraries from Phuket include the Similan Islands, the Surin Islands and the Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar.
Where to Stay
If you’re about to board a liveaboard, it may be necessary to overnight in Phuket. Sea Bees Diving who are based (along with many other dive operators) in Chalong Bay have a small resort across the road from the dive shop called Palm Gardens.
Accommodation is in very comfortable 3-star bungalows situated around a swimming pool. The food is great – and served up until 10pm for those of you with lengthy transfers.
Chalong Bay is a lively little strip in the evenings, with a great many restaurants and bars, so there’s plenty of choice for après-dive drinks with your new-found dive buddies.
If you’re planning on basing yourself in Phuket, then you may want to choose somewhere near the beach – but choose your beach wisely. If you want to party all night, then Patong Beach is definitely for you, but if you’d prefer something quieter, go for one of the lesser-known beaches.
The Centara Grand Phuket is located at the northern end of Karon Beach and as such, with not many people wandering up that far, the beach is usually fairly quiet. The resort itself has two enormous pools as well, one of them adults only, as well as a water park with a fast flowing river to float along, and a patrolled beach.
There are a few dining choices here; the massive Cove Restaurant which has one of the biggest buffet spreads I’ve ever seen (especially breakfast), Mare Italian Restaurant and the Beachcomber beach club.
If you’d rather something a little off the tourist-beaten track, try one of the growing number of boutique guest houses in Old Phuket Town, the old Chinatown area. It’s an area that’s experiencing a revitalisation, with lots of interesting curio shops and cheap eats to be found among beautifully restored buildings.
Where to Eat
For authentic Thai food, there are quite a few cheap places to eat in Old Phuket Town that serve a great selection of spicy salads and light curries.
How to Get Around
If you’re not going to spend a lot of time on land then your best option is taxi. There are plenty around – and it’s usually easiest to get your hotel (or the dive centre) to book one for you rather than hail one on the street.
There are endless activities and attractions in Phuket and it’s probably worth planning a few non-diving days to experience a few. Here are some ideas:
Beaches. Yes – this is obvious, but you may like to find one that’s less populated than say, Patong. Nai Yang Beach, in the north of the island (quite near the airport), is within a national park, loved by Thais – few foreign visitors go there. It’s a great spot for snorkelling.
Karon Beach is a lovely white sandy (patrolled) beach, lined with a great choice of cafes and restaurants. The north end is quieter.
If you’re after a more adrenalin-fuelled beach, then go for Patong, where you can surf, go mad on a jet ski or try parasailing. Lots of cafes, restaurants and nightclubs.
Wildlife. There are quite a few zoos and wildlife parks in Phuket, which are easy enough to find along the main highway, but off the beaten track a bit, next to Bang Pae Waterfall you’ll find The Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre which rescues injured or orphaned captive gibbons and retrains them so that they have a chance of returning to the wild.
Also nearby Bang Pae Waterfall is an Elephant Trekking adventure, but if you want a really good elephant experience, take three days of your itinerary to explore Elephant Hills.
Elephant Hills will pick up from your hotel in Phuket and take you to their tented accommodation in Khao Sok National Park. There you’ll learn how to take care of elephants, go rafting down the river, learn how to cook a Thai curry and be entertained with a display of traditional dance performed by local school kids.
Take a couple more days to extend this experience to their Rainforest camp on Cheow Larn Lake in the centre of Khao Sok National Park.
Here you’ll sleep in tents on a raft, surrounded by jungle. Dive straight into the lake for a swim or grab a kayak and go looking for monkeys and gibbons while hornbills fly overhead.
There are numerous daily flights to Phuket from Bangkok, the country’s main international gateway. Some budget airlines including Jetstar also fly direct from Sydney and other major Australian airports to Phuket’s international airport.