Photo by: China D @projectgoals.ph
We went to Phuket simply because it’s one of the most popular destinations in the entire country for tourists, ex-pats and locals alike, and we were yet to see it for ourselves. It’s the thing to do in Thailand, right?
Even if you have never been to the country, you’ve probably heard about the province of Phuket – it’s become a byword for white beaches, blue waters and abundance in tropical pleasures for foreigners since tourism took over tin as the island’s biggest income. In fact, after Bangkok and Chang Mai, it was the only other area in Thailand that I could name before this trip. However, up until now, that was never enough to lure me in. I dislike touristy places in general and make it a rule to head in the opposite direction to where the loud wannabe adventurers are, riding on the backs of elephants like psychotic heroes and wreaking havoc on local traffic with their hired scooters, driving nonchalantly at break-neck speed as if they’re locals (or know better than the locals) and haven’t actually just arrived. But sometimes it’s a case of “When in Rome…” or a dose of FOMO that can make you unexpectedly change your mind. Either way, I felt it was high time to experience the vibe of Thailand’s largest island - even if it was just once.
Despite my deep seated aversion to the well-trodden, plastic lined, trinket selling path, Phuket found its way to my hardened heart and, against my anti-touristy will, there it will stay. Being so put off by the presence and behaviours of foreign visitors, I never considered that its local inhabitants would become one of the main reasons I’ll be coming back for as long as my perpetually ageing body will allow. In fact, just thinking of it, Phuket is plucking at my heart strings like a Siren, insisting that I return into its mountainous bosom and lapping waters. I’ve fallen hard for you Phuket.
Photo by: China D @projectgoals.ph
How did an island, located in the southern extremities of a country that’s filled with natural beauty, intriguing rituals, glistening temples and good times, become one of the biggest draws? What kind of voodoo-like charm does it possess to capture even the most closed off tourist and make them weak at the knees with its very name?
A Long History with Tourists
Phuket’s first contact with Europeans actually came long before the pasty holiday makers of the 20th and 21st centuries arrived in droves to soak up more sun in a day than they usually get in a year. Its location being ideal for further passage to India and other South East Asian territories, Phuket was used as a supply port by Portuguese explorers from the mid 16th century. So, Phuket’s southern location is actually an advantage for catching the eye of passers-by. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the English, Dutch and French caught wind of a lucrative trade opportunity in tin, setting up shop until the early 20th century when the ongoing dispute of low tin prices and heavy taxes eroding pays caused rebellion in the local working ranks. After this, various private companies established mines and continued to excavate tin right up until the 1960s. It was then that they finally self-destructed by pushing local residents too far with an audacious request to operate a deep sea mine to fulfil their insatiable appetite for the mineral. The Tourism Authority of Thailand took control a few years after the mining company’s request was quashed, with plans to develop the island for domestic and international visitors. Since the 1970s, tourism has been the economic backbone of the island.
Now, tins provide the means to store and pour beer for thirsty tourists from Russia, the UK, Australia and the US, to name the top few countries that choose to spend their annual leave in Phuket each and every year.
Among the many things that the island has to offer, including stunning view points, awe inspiring Buddhist statues, both extreme and docile activities and an elephant sanctuary, there is also a plethora of beaches to choose from when deciding where to stay – this is probably the first problem you’ll encounter when planning your trip. Well worry not. The great thing about Phuket and its beaches is they all offer something different which in turn caters to a wide variety of tastes, moods, occasions, situations and motivations for tourists. So, you can’t really go wrong, just choose according to the type of holiday you’re after and the type of traveller you are. This is but one of the reasons that Phuket is not just a popular destination, but also a popular return destination.
Which Beach is Best?
If you’re finding it a bit overwhelming to choose a beach to call home for your holiday, here’s a list of the main ones and who they are best suited to. Tip: all the beaches are great and it’s very easy to hire a scooter or other transport to travel between them all during the day, so don’t worry about making a wrong choice. In no particular order:
Easily the most visited and therefore crowded. Having said that, we returned several times during our Phuket stay in the daylight hours and made use of the many sunbeds on offer, plus the pubs providing pool tables for free - as long as you buy a beer. This gives you an idea of the vibe – many foreigners, if not already drunk, tipsy or hungover, many opportunities to buy souvenirs and many bars that turn into night clubs at the flick of a neon switch come sunset. Good for singles and for groups unaffected by loud noise at night mainly because they’re either out making most of it or passed out. Good for relaxing during the day when revellers are asleep or rendered useless by a hangover and lack of sleep. Not so good for families at night.
Nai Thon Beach
At the other end of the sophistication spectrum, Nai Thon Beach is less crowded but more expensive in every regard – from accommodation to food. Plus, aside from the natural beach itself, it’s not a true reflection of the island, it’s facilities are made for foreign tourists with full wallets. It’s great for holiday makers that earn a good living and want to escape the daily grind without needing to experience the gritty reality of the place they’ve travelled to. For an air-conditioned, perfectly paved, small portion big price holiday, it’s perfect. Good for honeymooners and families not wanting to mix with others too much.
Somewhere in between the two above, Kamala beach is popular with families and groups. It offers a chill vibe without the pretentiousness of Nai Thon, but with the civilized facilities such as restaurants, cafes and massage parlours. Good for families.
Similar to Kamala with a number of places to sit and relax while enjoying a fruit shake, beer or meal with the blue water and white sand of the beach stretching in front of you.
A lovely wide beach hugged by the mountains. It has the beach chairs for hire and your choice of masseurs without the feeling of being packed in a sardine tin like Patong. There are a number of restaurants on the street opposite or, for a true authentic experience, there’s a long row of vendors cooking most Thai delights. The smell alone makes the temptation to try overwhelming.
Bang Tao Beach
This place is perfect for families and those who want a quiet holiday that’s still within walking distance of the usual necessities. Like the others, Bang Tao has a number of small restaurants that line the beach but these ones are literally on the sand. It’s perfect for anyone unfazed by sand occupying cracks and crevices. Considering the fact that a beach holiday is about feeling the sand between your toes and getting wet higher than you intended by a rogue wave, Bang Tao offers all a low-key holiday maker could ever want.
In a nutshell: the beaches become more crowded the further south you go. They also offer more activities such as jet skiing, paddle boarding and parasailing. Just stand still long enough and the tourist guides will offer you the chance to spend your money with them. The beaches up north, especially over the winding mountain road, are more peaceful, but also more expensive.
Bang Tao Beach - Our New Favourite Home Away From Home
Bang Tao Beach is where we called home over the busiest season: Christmas and New Year. Before the wretched pandemic, this place would be packed this time of year with European farangs (the Aussies staying home for their summer and Christmas) escaping the cold of their homelands and providing local businesses with enough income to withstand the post-Christmas lull until Australian and US forces arrive, typically from June. Given the powers that be still wish to milk the pandemic cow, the usual hordes were reduced to small groups spread across the beach. As sombre as the reason behind the small groups was, it did make for a unique opportunity to experience the place at peak season with no unpleasant crowding or spoiling of sunset pictures. This was definitely a once in a life time experience.
Day and night, the beach felt spacious with only a few other groups either walking by or settling in to soak up the sun or atmosphere. Swimming was equally spacious, with basically the whole Andaman Sea to yourself. This also made activities such as jet skiing feel like an exploration into the unknown, with you being the first to zoom by, and not a routine activity undertaken by too many people at once. The beach vendors too had plenty of empty seats to choose from. With fewer people around, you could find a go-to spot and be sure to even have the same seat each time, making you feel like an old regular, which in turn elevates your holiday from just visiting to I’m like a permanent resident.
Another unique, once in a lifetime by product of the pandemic was the low prices of accommodation. Every place had reduced their usual rate to attract any kind of business – something, at this point, is better than nothing. Because of this, we stayed at the Andaman Bay Resort, situated at the Southern end of Bang Tao beach.
Photo by: China D @projectgoals.ph
It would have usually been out of our price range but on this occasion, we were able to take full advantage. Although travelling on a budget offers experiences that money cannot buy, such as a closer understanding of the local lifestyle (which is one of the main reasons to travel to far flung, exotic places different to your own), there’s something to be said for enjoying an up-market joint at least once in a while. And, unlike most up-market places, the Andaman was far from pretentious.
Due to the late time of our flight out of Bangkok, we arrived at the Andaman Bay Resort well after dark. Despite this, there were still plenty of staff to make us feel instantly at home. This was definitely in stark contrast to a backpackers or dodgy budget hotel, where just finding the front door once the light fades can be difficult. As soon as we stepped out of the airport taxi, we were relieved of our bags and told to take a seat in the open-air dining area. Not accustomed to this kind of lavish treatment, with the sound of waves lapping against the shell adorned concrete, French accents and cigarette smoke filling the air, we sat wondering where the reception was and if we should pay now or later. As if reading my mind and answering the other question that pops into the head of a person usually in charge of their own security, our host came over and said, “Don’t worry about your bags. They’re safe.” Check. Then, two fresh coconuts with straws peeking out the top were placed in front of us – a welcome drink simply for being their guests. I could get used to this. The smiling waiter then offered us some food and it was here that I had the best Tom Kha Gai or Thai coconut soup in all of Thailand. Who’d have thought?
Staying at the Andaman, we soon had a daily routine that helped us to fall in love with Bang Tao Beach and the lifestyle it offered. We’d wake, go to the dining area on the water’s edge and enjoy a cup of coffee with fresh fruit while watching the water ebb and flow as the locals chipped off oyster shells, the water level allowing.
Photo by: China D @projectgoals.ph
From here we could walk straight to the beach – via the water if the tide was low or down a set of stairs belonging to the adjacent restaurant if the tide was high. Bang Tao stretches for 6 kilometres, so exceeding the daily step count was always an easy and, for once, pleasurable task. Every day I felt like I’d actually earned all the culinary and libatory pleasures that I treated myself to. Psychologically speaking, feeling like you’ve earned a reward provides more satisfaction than just being given the reward. After a day or so, we had found a small restaurant on the beach that became our regular hang out joint – the Sunset Bar.
The reason certain places attract people is different for everyone. For us, this place had dogs. They were the reason we stopped and ended up ordering beers and food in the first place, and they were the reason we went back time and again. They’re just so sweet!
Being regulars to this spot, we became friendly with the owner of the dogs and the restaurant, as well as her extended family working as cooks and hosts. They looked forward to seeing us each day and we didn’t want to start our day without having given the owner, our new Thai mum, a hug and playing with the dogs while sitting in our usual chairs. Having become friends, we were frequently treated to complementary plates of fruit or bowls of nuts – this despite the fact that tourist numbers are at an all-time low and the restaurant couldn’t be earning much. It was a heart-warming gesture, the kind of thing that makes you grateful for all that you have and eager to be better with your generosity.
All of this completed the basic list of requirements for not only a good holiday, but a good lifestyle. We ate well, exercised, socialised, tried new activities and rewarded ourselves, plus, being on the beach every day, we even started to sport amazing sun tans. What more could you want?
Christmas Day dawned, China and I woke in our large hotel room and she opened the present I somehow managed to smuggle in my luggage undetected – a Thai cookbook that weighed a tonne. There was also now an explanation for my hand-luggage being a struggle to carry everywhere we went. Christmas is a day usually spent with family. Given our unusual situation this year, China and I were unable to spend it with our blood relatives. But, we were together for the first time in almost two years and that was the main thing for us this year. Plus, we weren’t spending the day by ourselves – we now had our Thai family.
After our coffee and breakfast at the Andaman, and a cheeky jet ski, we walked the couple of Ks to Sunset Bar. We spent the whole day there either in our chairs or the water a few metres in front. Being Christmas, we bought the dogs new balls to play with. As we unwrapped their present, our Thai mum emerged from the tiny open kitchen with a broad smile on her face before running back to get her phone and take a picture of the scene. She then gave us hugs so tight, China lifted from the ground.
To begin festivities, we ordered San Mig Light, to remind us of the Philippines and our family there. Continuing the Filipino Christmas traditions, we also requested a platter of fruit with every piece they had. The variety almost added up to 12 and the amount certainly surpassed it. Sunglasses on, shoes off and beer in hand, we sat watching the passers-by while sampling our fruit platter or having some part of our body playfully chewed by a pup. Feeling the Christmas spirit, we went to the group of Russians sitting beside us and shared the massive platter we were fortunate enough to have.
After a few hours of idle sun-bathing, swimming, eating and beer drinking, we decided it would the best idea ever to build a snow man out of sand in the blazing afternoon sun. As our man began to emerge and our unexplainable behaviour became more obvious, our Thai sister came down to give us a knife for carving and a fir branch for decorating. With our Thai family’s contribution, we created something that gave both others and ourselves great enjoyment. Others walking passed would stop and take a photo. Even if they just paused for a moment and smiled, it was worth all the effort.
It even created more sales for our family, with the pause inadvertently causing them to raise their eyes to the Sunset Bar and its inviting shaded bamboo furniture – not to mention two people clearly having the time of their life with some dogs. We stayed until the sun set over the mountain.
Photo by: China D @projectgoals.ph
It may have been a different Christmas day to all the others we’ve had for as far as our memories stretch, but it was one of the best because China and I were together. In order to be together, we had to sacrifice spending it with our usual family members, however, in return for this sacrifice made without further expectations, we were given the opportunity to spend it with another family. Now, we have another group to call ours beyond Christmas and our stay in Phuket.
Why Do People Keep Coming Back?
To theorise more about why Phuket is a magnet for foreign visitors, aside from is clean beaches, warm clear water and sunshine which offers a great lifestyle, it’s the accepting nature of the locals who know their livelihood depends on tourism but who will quickly call anyone that displays a respectful love of their home, family. We always return to where we feel at home.
In the lead up to Christmas day, I had a profound realisation that came from being a more mature and respectful tourist. Age and experience has brought me to this tourist level, but, more specifically, the pandemic and its effect on our lives – taking the ability to travel and be with our loved ones away – made me appreciate the little things we took for granted, or didn’t even notice, before. As we travelled from place to place around Phuket, “Merry Christmas” signs would be hanging in bars and restaurants, Christmas trees would be in corners and tinsel would adorn anything overhead and just about every local wished us a merry Christmas. While I certainly appreciated seeing Christmassy things, because it’s the most exciting time of year for we Westerners, I didn’t muse on it any further.
The profound realisation came as I watched the staff in a restaurant serve Western customers in 30-degree heat wearing Santa hats. I realised then the extent of the humility that the Thai people possess. The predominant religion by a long shot in Thailand is Buddhism – they do not celebrate Christmas, an event created around the prophet Jesus and the Christian religion. So, not only must they welcome any and all foreigners, shape their service and their land around their wants and standards, but here they were also helping them to celebrate an event from a religion that they do not subscribe to. I realised in a moment that this would never happen in my country, Australia. I realised how spoiled I was. I realised that I wasn’t as appreciative (albeit unknowingly) as I should be for everything the Thai people were doing to make sure we felt at home in their country.
It can be argued that they do it simply because of necessity – tourists must be pleased to keep them and their money coming. But tourists should be coming to experience Thai culture as much as feel welcome. So, the Thais didn’t have to do this. Maybe it’s their Buddhist philosophy that encourages tolerance and understanding that allows them to bend and flex with what life gives them.
I mused on this for a while, then I thought, if it was reported on the news in Australia that Australians were decorating shops, bars and restaurants with a foreign religion’s celebratory event, and they were even donning the dress of another religion’s celebration, there would be protests, verbal abuse hurled at the offending establishments and general indoctrinated outrage. What a contrast. I’m speaking in a very general manner, but knowing the mentality, lack of tolerance (compared to the Thais) and one-eyed patriotism of my country and Western countries in general, I’m pretty sure my hypothetical assumption is not too far off.
The Thai people are accepting, tolerant towards others different to them and they have developed an understanding (possibly through tourism being the main source of income for most people) that we must work together, even if we don’t want to sometimes – give a little, get a little - to survive life and all its curve balls. This helps to make Phuket, and Thailand in general, a welcome place to return time and again.
In addition to the emotional draw, Phuket has so much to offer in terms of activity, exploration and discovery. Despite having driven around most of the island on our hired scooter and taken boat tours to the surrounding islands, we feel like there are still years-worth of things yet to do in this place. Even if it’s just spending entire days at our favourite haunts being completely hedonistic. Phuket somehow is able to provide the simple island life while providing more than enough options to try new things, never allowing boredom a fighting chance.
So phuck it, let’s go to Phuket!
Project Goals Recommends:
Flights go direct to Phuket from your country of origin. If you land in Bangkok first, you can fly from there to Phuket in just 1 hour. There is also a train or bus service which takes around 12 hours for the adventurous few with a lot of time up their sleeves.
The Andaman Bay Resort. Perfect location, great staff and massive, well-appointed rooms. Ours had a full-sized fridge.
Ma Maison. For a cheaper alternative situated in almost the exact same location as the more expensive Andaman (it’s on the opposite side of the same road). Its rooms are spacious and house-keeping is very thorough. Their restaurant also serves great food and has a fantastic atmosphere after dark.
You can hire a scooter from a number of locations around the island. If you don’t see a sign out the front of some-where, just ask at your hotel. It’s the cheapest way to get around at 300 baht per day. If you can ride a push bike, you can ride a fully automated scooter.
If you’re in the market for jewellery or just something special to take home, P&C Jewelry located at Patong Beach is the place. They sell stunning pieces at crazy low prices. We bought our wedding rings here, had them sized and engraved and on our fingers within a few days.
For Footage of our Phuket adventures, watch our YouTube video: