- The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes. Marcel Proust
Visit Phuket, Thailand
Phuket is Thailand's largest island, and arguably the most famous. Blue waters, sandy beaches, great food, and diving are all part of the attraction. Arriving from all over the world, travelers flock to Phuket for relaxation and adventure, and the island rates as one of the most popular destinations in Thailand. Part of the draw is that Phuket has an exceptional climate. The monsoon arrives here earlier than on the other side of the gulf, with rain only once or twice a day during the rainy period.
Phuket's longest beach was also once its most beautiful, until development and tourism turned it into a bustling hub of activity rather than a retreat from the world. Still, Patong is great for people watching, and part of the fun of Thailand is that (in addition to being a land of smiles) it is one of contrasts. You may not be able to find a quiet spot to read and contemplate life on Patong, but you'll find lots of shopping and activity to keep you entertained.
Phuket Town lies on the southeastern coast of the island on a picturesque bay. The architecture reflects the influence of Chinese immigrants and a Portuguese aesthetic, and provides a nice contrast to the more traditional Thai styles seen elsewhere. This island city bustles with activity thanks to a boom of hotels, restaurants, massage parlors, and other attractions that have sprung up in the decades since Patong Beach was opened to development in 1980.
Venture out to this small village to glimpse the lifestyle of the Moken, a tribe of "sea gypsies". They have roots in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and have remained staunchly committed to their own beliefs and customs. Some live by the sea and others choose a semi-nomadic life on land. Any attempts by the Thai government to integrate them have failed. The men of the village work mostly as fishermen and sometimes also as guides for sea trips.
Rawai itself has a small fishing harbor and a beach covered with coconut palms and swamp oaks. Boats can be rented here to sail to offshore islands. The beaches of Nai Harn (with the Phuket Yacht Club Hotel), Kata Noi, Kata, Karon, Karon Noi and, finally, the main beach, Patong Beach, lie south of Rawai Beach (Hat Rawai) and further north along the west coast.
Four Branch Coconut Palm
While on your way to Rawai, keep an eye out for this botanical rarity - a four-branch coconut palm. The tree is more than 60 years old; after the first 20 years the trunk split in two, and after another 20 years two branches grew in turn out of the two trunks.
This is a particularly fun option if you're traveling with kids, as they can see Phuket's marine wildlife firsthand, even if they can't go diving to find it. Among the creatures on display are exotic species of fish, sea turtles, crabs, and starfish. You can also tour the Marine Biology Research Centre when you book in advance.
Khao Phra Thaeo Game Reserve
If you're looking for wildlife above the water, visit the Khao Phra Thaeo Game Reserve on the northeastern part of the island. Here you'll find buffalo, wild boar, elephants and monkeys, as well as many species of tropical birds. You can trek through the rainforest, or relax at the Ton Sai or Bang Pae waterfalls.
Hat Nai Yang National Park
Why go here when you can enjoy all the wonders of the game reserve? Located on the northwestern end of Phuket, this park is special because it is where sea turtles come ashore at night to lay their eggs. And witnessing this rare moment would cap off a rewarding day spent in Phuket's diverse ecosystems.
Many people come to Thailand with the specific intention of obtaining their scuba diving certification. Koh Tao is the preferred place to get their training, but Phuket offers many options for PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) courses. Some will take you to Koh Phi Phi, another famous island, and other equally beautiful locations. Costs for PADI certification courses tend to be lower in Thailand than in other countries, so visitors can take advantage of the low rates while doing some once-in-a-lifetime underwater sightseeing.
If you do opt to do some diving once you've earned your certification, consider checking out Similan Islands National Park. Comprised of eleven uninhabited islands, this small chain tends to attract diving enthusiasts. Tour operators and diving schools offer excursions to these paradise-like islands, with no extra planning on your part. Those wishing to go there independently should travel 104 km north of Phuket to Thap Lamu and take a ferry from there. Boats sail daily from Patong Beach on Phuket to Koh Similan (journey time about 8 hours by regular boat or 3.5 hours as part of a tour operator day trip). Some accommodation is available on the main island.
Editor's Pick Snorkeling
Perhaps you don't have the time (or the nerve) for proper diving lessons. Snorkeling provides a nice and easy alternative, especially in Thailand where the clear waters make for excellent conditions. Many boat tours include snorkeling stops around the islands, and you'll spot no end of gorgeously colored fish, sea urchins, and other fascinating creatures.
Island Boat Tour
You may be tempted to lounge on the beach for your entire stay (and really, who would blame you?). But if you're willing to exert just a little effort during your island getaway, sign up for an island tour to discover the delights surrounding Phuket. Particular mention must be made of Maphrao, Nakha Yai and Nakha Noi (on the east coast, with pearl culture at the latter) as well as Koh Bond, Koh Kaeo, Raja Noi and Raja Yai (off the southern tip), and finally little Poo Island on the west coast off Hat Kata.
Boats depart from Po Bay for a day excursion to Phangnga with the famous "James Bond Rocks". You can also easily reach Koh Phi Phi (and the famous Maya Bay beach from the Leonardo DiCaprio movie "The Beach"), but you'll want to leave yourself more than an afternoon to explore that one.