Phuket – there has never been a better time to visit

by Harris Woodman

2020, it sure is an interesting and challenging time, which we all need to embrace both the good with the bad, some may call it one of the silver linings, others just a great opportunity to escape reality, but 100% there is no better time than now to travel and explore this incredible country that we are all so privileged to call home.

Just a one hour and ten minute flight from Bangkok awaits Phuket, known as ‘The pearl of the Andaman sea’. This name derives from having some of the biggest sea pearl farms in Thailand. Reputedly started by the Japanese, pearl farms have been handed down through the generations of Thais that took over when the Japanese left.

There is hope that restrictions on travel will ease soon, but with international flights stopped from entering the country you can enjoy the natural beauty of Phuket without the maddening crowds, and believe me the luxury hotels, tourist services, restaurants, businesses and locals will welcome you back with open arms. Just one click on an online booking engine and you will see that there are bargains and deals to be had on this beautiful tropical island. Escape the city and enjoy some me time on the beach, toes in the sand, coconut in hand and an idyllic beach all to you and your loved one/s.

For years aeroplanes have disgorged international arrivals at Phuket International Airport and tour buses and coaches have choked the narrow streets and surrounding hills. Similar to the streets of Bangkok, Phuket roads and sois are “sans” the minivans and coaches and are instead filled with locals and expats going about their business without the stresses on the roads. By their own admission the hoteliers, the tourism industry and the locals perhaps did not concentrate on domestic tourism as much as they should have done as they were far too busy filling the tills from guests around the world. Marketed internationally, however now the hotels are empty and want no they need… your business. Many hotels bravely opened on October 1st to test the local market with mixed results across the board, word on the street is that it has been a success. Locals and travelling local.

If Thais visited Phuket, they normally drive their cars and perhaps stayed in Thai hotels or on the outskirts of the city and drove in each day to enjoy the beautiful beaches, breathtaking scenery and sights and sounds of the city. ‘Farang’ flew down from Bangkok and further afield and enjoyed the ‘party throb’ atmosphere, the endless hotels, restaurants and nightlife whilst relaxing by day under the sun on the wonderful beaches. However there is little “throbbing” going on at the moment, Phuket is lacking a little atmosphere – but far better in my mind, however the beaches remain stunning and the service as always impeccable with a smile.

Now the international airport is empty and the hoteliers know that they must embrace Thai and expat residents and you can stay in a 5 star property, enjoy the very finest services and facilities and not get stuck behind a Chinese tour bus or pushed into the road by the hordes of Russian and Chinese travellers hunting in packs as they so often do.

Just as in Bangkok there are amazing deals to be had, the time to travel is now. Hotels and restaurants are thrilled to see you at their door, many spas are buy one get one free, transfers from the airport are often included and free rounds of golf in some hotels come with the packages. Everyone loves a freebee or a little icing on the cake and made to feel special! Speaking of golf, if you ever thought about playing, the time is also now. The golf courses are desperate to get you out there and most are heavily discounted – green fees and buggies included! The courses are in pristine condition, as no one has been tearing them up, except a few locals and the pros in the recent Singha International at Laguna Phuket.

Phuket is a rain forested, mountainous island in the Andaman Sea. Thailand’s largest island and has another 32 smaller islands off its coastline and it boasts some of Thailand’s most beautiful beaches, mainly situated along the clear waters of the Western shore. 

Phuket province is an area of 576 km2 (222sqm) a little smaller than the Republic of Singapore, and it is the second smallest province in Thailand. Formerly deriving its wealth from mining tin and harvesting rubber now it feeds the people from tourism. The island is home to many quality four and five star hotels and resorts, spas and restaurants.

Phuket City, the capital, lines its streets with old shophouses and street markets. Phuket Town shines with personality and nowhere more so than its ‘Old Town’. 

In this historically rich part of town, you will find shrines, temples (Buddhist and Chinese), ornate and beautifully preserved ‘shophouses’, quaint restaurants and cafés, souvenir and local craft shops, a myriad of attractive sights to enjoy whilst strolling and people watching in the cooler evenings after dinner. Weekends bring hustle and bustle to Phuket Town with the walking street market in the heart of the city, famed for local produce and entertainment supported religiously by local and expats of Phuket.

Built on the riches from the tin boom in the last century when the metal was an extremely valuable commodity. In this quarter of the town, you will see grandiose Sino-colonial mansions, once occupied by Phuket’s landed gentry. Street art tours are super popular and breathe life and charm into some of the older buildings. Small and safe enough to stroll round with the family. Obviously, the best time to do this is either early in the morning before the sun takes over or after the day has lost its heat. There are plenty of restaurants and street cafés to provide you with refreshments, so you do not need to burden yourself. Coffee culture is a big part of Old Phuket Town, many streets have numerous tiny shops run by the locals who are passionate about the art of coffee and have run their shops for decades. Patong, the main resort town, has countless nightclubs, bars and discos and of course the normal Thai attractions lining its streets and alleys, but it is relatively safe apart from the inevitable street hustlers. Sadly, these are almost all closed currently, but there is hope that restrictions will change, and things will slowly open up.

Phuket has the most stunning natural beauty around its coastline and boasts well over 30 first class beaches. This is Phuket’s key attraction and why it has become so popular over the years with international visitors starved of Vitamin D. The role of Vitamin D – the sunshine Vitamin – in keeping bones strong is already well established.

Phuket offers its visitors lively towns, world class shopping and a sheer abundance of entertainment alternatives. Whilst few of the beaches are busy nowadays, there are many quieter ones off the beaten track, not to mention the hidden and secret ones too.

The main beaches are Patong and Kata, Kata Noi beach is a pretty bay if you want to be near Kata but stay away from other sun worshippers.  

KaronKamala, Paradise, Bangtao and Freedom beach are some of the most beautiful beaches, blessed with soft white sand and swimming in clear blue waters. Nai Harn is a picturesque beach surrounded by verdant green hills and small islands of its coast – great for snorkelling.

Laem Singh has always been one of Phuket’s favourite beaches, likened to a Caribbean beach, a bit nostalgic, very green with its palm trees leaning over the sand and now you can have it to yourself. It looks and feels like a Robinson Crusoe hideaway, access was restricted to the public in 2017 but there are still routes to get there.

Ya Nui is tiny but has the charms of a private beach, tucked away in a cove between the Windmill viewpoint and the now famous Promthep Cape in the South of Phuket island. Mai Khao Beach is 11km long, the longest in Phuket. Pansea Beach shared by the luxury five star resorts ‘The Surin Phuket’ and ‘Amanpuri Phuket’ is one of the most amazing beaches. 

Nai Yang and Naithon beaches are hidden gem on the West coast. Panwa beach also known as Khao Kat beach is not a swimming beach like most but has the charms of a remote bay that not many would find the time to explore while visiting Phuket, located on the East coast but facing West.

The Shrine of the Serene Light is one of Phuket’s oldest Chinese shrines. It is effectively hidden from sight, having been built in a little courtyard next to The Memory at On On Hotel on Phang Nga Road in Phuket Old Town. Established in 1891, the shrine clearly shows its heritage with distinctive architectural design, with characteristics common in ‘Hokkien’ Chinese shrines like the terracotta tiled roof and single storey construction.

Sometimes known as Banana Rock beach, this 180 metre strip of sand is one of the most pristine spots in Phuket. Its remote location between Bang Tao and Nai Thon beaches, as well as the challenging access path, makes it almost untouched by visitors. Banana beach lies at the end of a rough trail down to the bottom of quite a steep hill, but the hardship of getting there is rewarded with a tranquil and unspoilt spot which you can enjoy for you and yours alone. 

The Samet Nangshe Viewpoint is barely known by most locals, let alone expat visitors to Phuket. It is at the top of a steep hill off the main road in Phang Nga (30 minutes drive from Phuket). Thanks to the distance from the main bustling Phuket beaches, there is next to no light pollution – they say that you can see the Milky Way on some nights – I couldn’t! But I probably wouldn’t know if I did! The vista of the dawn breaking and the sun rising over Phang Nga Bay is absolutely breathtaking.

The Kathu Waterfall is probably the best known and most visited waterfall in Phuket, but now there are no crowds so now is the time to visit. There are other smaller waterfalls near to it, past the bridge and up the hill. Like most Thai attractions it lacks proper signposts and is a fair old walk, but your puffing and panting is worthwhile and it makes an excellent selfie or instagram location.

There so many gorgeous islands off Phuket and Koh Bon is reputedly one of the quieter ones, because it is among the least developed. You reach it by chartering a long tail boat from Rawai. The crossing takes 20 minutes and you are greeted by a small eatery, glistening white sand, and little else on the 1.2km island.

The Panwa viewpoint offers 360° views across Southern and Eastern Phuket. Known as the Khao Khad views tower, it is on the road to yet another luxury hotel Cape Panwa. The steep stairs leading to the hilltop will test your stamina but the scenic views of Chalong Bay and the iconic Big Buddha in the distance on the Nakkerd Hills make great backdrops for selfies.

Paradise is the only befitting word to describe the scenery at Phuket’s Phang Nga Bay. 400sqkms of clear, calm blue and green water, stunning limestone karst’s and caves. The natural flora, fauna and wildlife all wait to be discovered.

The natural wonder that only God could have created brings tears to your eyes. This is the real beauty of Thailand unspoilt, unsullied real mother nature. Phang Nga Bay should be at the top of every expat visitors bucket list.

Here are the four natural wonders of Phang Nga Bay:

James Bond island

The most famous landmark in Phang Nga bay bar none. Though, originally known as Koh Tapu, the island got its current name after its starring role in the James Bond 1974 film The man with the golden gun. What makes James Bond island a natural wonder is its rocky pinnacle and rather bizarre shape. The island is larger towards the top, thinner towards the bottom and appears to vertically jut out of the emerald green water. It is a magnificent site that will keep you wondering how it doesn’t actually fall over?

Just next to the island is the spectacular Koh Ping Ghan rock. The very high leaning rock has some small caves inside that are great for an exploration adventure. But most importantly, its beach offers a great view of James Bond island.

The hongs of Phang Nga 

A ‘hong’ is the Thai word for room. The hongs of Phang Nga refer to a collection of collapsed caves found in the interior of the islands in Phang Nga bay. These spectacular caves open up to the sky and are filled with jungle rich flora and fauna. A kayaking trip through the hongs brings life to the statement, there are worlds yet to be discovered.” Experience a unique ecosystem at the heart of the caves filled with unique vegetation, fish, birds, a variety of marine life and monkeys. The quiet serene seawaters, surrounded by towering limestone walls as you explore cave after cave, island after island, will transport you to an entirely different world.

The limestone cliffs of Phang Nga bay

The cliffs in the Phang Nga bay area are phenomenal works of nature. The bay features at least 40 uniquely shaped island cliffs that will leave you speechless. By day, the cliffs are a colourful scenery of varicoloured streaks, thanks to the mineral oxides from various sources that are part of their composition.

They were once part of an ancient coral reef that covered most of SE Asia at a time when the earth’s oceans were hundreds of feet higher than they are today. Millions of years passed, the cliffs remained standing, towering like magnificent rock giants.

A perfect way to experience the scenery is by cruise ship or private yacht charter. The seawaters of the Phang Nga are calm all the year round because the bay is protected from both the Northeast and Southwest monsoon seasons. Therefore, you can take your time to marvel at the monumental beauty of the place anchoring in different spots.

The Samet Nangshe viewpoint

This is the one location where you go to witness the entire breadth of Phang Nga bay with all of its natural wonders. Located on a hilltop about 30 minutes drive from Phuket, this viewpoint provides a 180 degree panorama facing the East view of the bay. This hilltop is the perfect place to stand and be awed by the sheer force, strength, and beauty of nature.

At the Samet Nangshe viewpoint, you can take in the entire 1.6km of mangroves, the spectacular limestone karst’s, the beautiful seawaters and the unique chain islands of the Phang Nga bay. If you make it to the hilltop between 5:30/6am, you can witness the most magnificent sunrise. At night, as the viewpoint is far away from light pollution, they say it is possible to spot the Milky Way – I couldn’t, but I do not know if I would know it anyway…

Go to Phuket, there is no time like the present, a weekend getaway or mid-term break with the kids or over Christmas and New Year and let someone else do the cooking, will recharge the soul and replenish your Vitamin D. The beaches are empty the hotels are ready, the locals are here and waiting for you!

Many of the hotels, golf courses, restaurants and tours will offer Expat Life in Thailand readers special advantages but you have to mention the magazine and if the receptionist and or junior staff give you a blank look or say no – ask to speak to the GM or the Director of Marketing and they will reward your persistence. If you don’t ask you won’t get! Enjoy!

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