Thailand's most beautiful islands
From coral reefs and fish filled waters to discovering an ancient culture, we take you through the must-see islands of Thailand.
*1. EXPERIENCE: PHUKET ELEPHANT SANCTUARY
How better to have an elephant encounter, than to watch a group of rescued elephants roaming freely through a sanctuary? Walk with the old ladies as they feed and socialise, watch them swim and bathe, covering themselves in mud and trumpeting with glee as they wash it off again. In short, observe elephants simply being elephants. In collaboration with the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary offers a retirement home for sick, injured and old elephants who have worked long hours in the logging and trekking industries. No tricks, shows or rides, just ethical tourism at its very best. See phuketelephantsanctuary.org
2. EXPLORE: KHAO PHRA THAEO NATIONAL PARK
In the north of Phuket, this national park is home to monkeys, gibbons, barking deer, wild boar and about 100 species of birds. It is Phuket's last significant stretch of virgin rain forest and makes a great add-on to the half-day elephant sanctuary tour. Whether you choose to hike a jungle trail or swim under a waterfall, escaping the crowds is reason enough to visit. The entrance is about nine kilometres east of the Heroines' Monument near Ton Sai waterfall. tourismthailand.org
3. ADMIRE: WAT CHALONG
Not just Phuket's oldest and most revered temple, but surely its most intriguing. Built in 1837, Wat Chalong (also known as Wat Chaiyathararam) has long been the centre of myths and legends, from its role during the Chinese rebellion of 1876 to its reputation as a place of healing. To add to the mystique, the temple is also said to be the home of a fragment of bone from Buddha, brought to Phuket from Sri Lanka and now held in a glass case inside the three-storey chedi. See wat-chalong-phuket.com
4. LEARN: TO COOK THAI FOOD
Cooking schools don't come much classier than the Blue Elephant Cooking School, housed in the 105-year-old Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion in Phuket Town. Classes typically start with a visit to the morning market, followed by a chef-led cooking session and a meal at the Blue Elephant restaurant. Choose between morning or afternoon classes, private lessons or a class specialising in ancient cuisine. See blueelephantcookingschool.com
5. SHOP: PHUKET TOWN WEEKEND NIGHT MARKET
The downside of local markets is that often you need to wake early. Not so the Phuket weekend markets, which run from 4pm-10pm. From carvings to corn cobs, cold beers to hot curries, it's all here. Known as Naka Market or Talad Tai Rot, the extravaganza can be found just off Chao Fa West road opposite Naka Temple. Prices are fair and bargaining (within reason) is expected.
*6. STAY: BANYAN TREE PHUKET SPA SANCTUARY
Phuket isn't short of luxury resorts, but few offer unlimited daily massages in the privacy of your own villa. Part of the Banyan Tree Phuket Resort, the 12-villa Spa Sanctuary is a private, adults-only zone dedicated to wellness and relaxation. Each villa has its own 11.5-metre lap pool, massage pavilion for two, outdoor Jacuzzi, day beds, expansive lawn and garden area. Daily in-villa breakfast, afternoon high tea, bikes and group yoga are all included. Lunch and dinners can be served in-villa, or the restaurants and bars of the rest of the 135-villa resort are a buggy ride away. See banyantree.com/en/thailand/phuket-spa-sanctuary
*7. ADMIRE: SINO-PORTUGUESE ARCHITECTURE, OLD TOWN
Phuket Town's most striking stretch is the Old Town, where sherbet-coloured Sino-Portuguese shophouses line the streets, a remnant from the 19th-century Chinese immigrant merchants who came here for the tin mining. Influenced by Portuguese, Dutch and colonial architecture, the two-storey buildings boast a store at the front and living quarters behind and above. Today many of the buildings have been restored and repurposed as bars, cafes, shops and galleries. Connected by a "five foot walkway", it's the perfect neighbourhood for an afternoon stroll and an ice cream. Pick up a free Phuket Town Treasure Map. See tourismthailand.org
8. ENJOY: XANA BEACH CLUB
Think Phuket is all beer and seedy bars? Not true. Over recent years there's been a rise in "beach clubs", hip places to hang when the sun goes down. One of the best is XANA Beach Club, smack on Bang Tao Beach on the west coast. Some nights it's all chill-out tunes with the resident DJ, on others it's a doof-doof dance party with international DJs. With its classy white decor, pool with 35-metre swim up bar, Mediterranean-influenced menu and sophisticated service, it's the perfect spot to get your groove on. See xanabeachclub.com
9. EXPERIENCE: THE GIBBON REHABILITATION PROJECT
Not a zoo, but a place where rescued gibbons are rehabilitated and released back to the forest. Visitors can see some of the gibbons (those that can never be released), learn about wildlife, volunteer on projects, adopt a gibbon or help by purchasing merchandise from the fundraising shop. Because the ultimate goal is to return gibbons to the wild, contact with visitors is kept to a minimum. The centre asks all visitors to Thailand to report any cases where they see gibbons being used as illegal photo-props. In Khao Pra Theaw National Park, entry to the rehabilitation site is free, but visitors need to pay an entrance fee to the national park. See gibbonproject.org
10. DINE: SEEDLINGS RESTAURANT
A small cafe with a big heart, Seedlings is a social enterprise eatery inside the Laguna Holiday Club Resort. Leveraging the resort's food and beverage expertise, young adults from the local community are trained on site and through the Prince of Songkla University, Phuket campus. The nine-month training program focuses on kitchen, service, restaurant management and basic life skills for disadvantaged youth. Enjoy local Phuket food such as Pu Lhon (crab meat in coconut milk), Kang Pu Bai Cha Plo (yellow curry) and Chinese-style Hokkien noodles. The service is five-star. seedlings-restaurant.com
11. VISIT: PERANAKAN (BABA) MUSEUM, OLD TOWN
To understand Phuket you need to understand its Peranakan heritage. The 19th-century tin-mining boom brought a wave of migrants from Malaysia and Singapore, themselves descendants of Chinese migrants who had married local Malay women and become known as Peranakans or Baba-Nyonya. The Phuket Peranakan community is proactive about maintaining their distinctive culture, famed for its fusion cuisine, architecture and clothing styles. The museum is small, but housed in the 100-year-old Standard Chartered Bank building and filled with displays of clothing and period furniture it makes a worthwhile stop in the Old Town. Intersection of Phang Nga Road and Phuket Road. Closed Sundays.
12. STAY: CASA BLANCA BOUTIQUE HOTEL, OLD TOWN
In the heart of the historic Old Town, this boutique hotel offers stylish and comfortable rooms (town, pool or garden views), small pool, cafe and personalised service. The elegant three-story hotel, painted stark white with grand arches and black wrought iron, is within walking distance of most major attractions. Step outside for restaurants, bars, markets and museums, or stay inside for a cool and classy retreat away from the tropical heat. A few nights in the Old Town is a great add-on to a beach holiday. See casablancaphuket.com
13. SWIM: AT A QUIET BEACH
Phuket has more than 30 beaches, but they're not all bursting at the seams with tourists, touts and tacky shows (looking at you Patong). Layan Beach on the northern end of Bangtao Beach on the west coast is a quiet spot. Home to a handful of restaurants, it is popular with Thais and expats. Kata Noi is a peaceful bay lined with casuarinas and palms, while Nai Harn on the southern tip of the west coast has good swimming and a European feel, thanks to the yachts that are often anchored there. See tourismthailand.org
*14. SEA CANOE: PHANG NGA BAY
It's easy to make the mistake of limiting your holiday time on Phuket to the beaches, when there is a whole sea to discover. John Gray Sea Canoe offers a range of half-day, multi-day and week-long expeditions. Paddle through sea caves inside Phang Nga Bay, find hidden lagoons, search for water monitors and sea eagles, enjoy a seafood buffet dinner and watch the sunset, all with an experienced guide and state-of-the-art kayaks. Popular tours include Hong by Starlight and the seven-day Wings of the White Belly Sea Eagle expedition. See johngray-seacanoe.com
15. GOLF: LAGUNA GOLF PHUKET
If you love your golf you'll love Laguna Golf Phuket. With an emphasis on its natural surroundings, the redesigned, 18-hole, par-71 golf course is Phuket's finest. The front nine holes are all about lush tropical foliage, while the back holes feature coconut groves and sand bunkers. In between you'll find decorative Thai fishing boats, scenic lagoons and undulating fairways. There's a PGA-branded golf academy and a traditional Thai-style clubhouse with locker rooms, Pro Shop, floodlit tennis courts and Banyan Cafe offering daytime dining and snacks. See lagunagolf.com
16. ADMIRE: BIG BUDDHA
At 45 metres high, the Big Buddha is big – big enough to be seen from almost anywhere in the southern part of the island. Perched on the highest peak of the Nakkerd Hills in Ao Chalong the reinforced concrete structure is adorned with white Burmese jade marble. Construction began in the early 2000s, but it wasn't until 2008 that it was awarded the tongue-twisting name Phra Putthamingmongkol-akenagakhiri. Dress conservatively, pay your respects and enjoy the 360-degree views over Kata and Karon beaches, Chalong Bay and parts of Phuket Town. The winding road leading up to the Big Buddha is off Chao Fa Road East near Chalong. See phuket-big-buddha.com
17. WATCH: THE SUN SET FROM PROMTHEP CAPE
Promthep Cape is Phuket's southernmost point, a rocky headland with great views of the ocean and Nai Harn Beach, making it one of the island's most popular spots at sunset. Yes, it's busy, but get there early and you should be able to claim a spot away from the crowds. There's also a small elephant shrine, lighthouse, market stalls and restaurant. About 20 kilometres from Patong, just south of Nai Harn Beach.
18. DAY TRIP: TO A TROPICAL ISLAND
The island of Phuket is surrounded by even more islands, from the Phi Phi Islands made famous by the movie The Beach, to the Similan Islands, a group of nine islands in the Andaman Sea popular with divers (closed annually from May 15 to October 15). Koh Khai Nok in Phang Nga Bay is a great spot to snorkel, while Coral Island (Koh Hae), just nine kilometres off the southeast coast, is ringed by reefs. There are numerous companies offering group tours, but consider chartering a private speedboat for a more personal experience.
*19. EAT: AT A HAWKER STALL
The street is the place to eat, serving everything from banana pancakes topped with shredded coconut to grilled pork satay, or steamed dumplings to fish balls threaded onto sticks. Other local favourites include Hokkien mee noodles, kanom jeen (similar to laksa, but for breakfast), O Tao (Phuket-style pan-fried oyster) and Bak Kut Teh (pork rib in herbal soup hot pot). The Old Town and the night markets are a good place to start your food adventure. Choose busy stalls with fast turnover and avoid raw salads and anything uncooked. Download the Street Food Phuket app, which includes information on 90 shops and stalls, covering 33 types of dishes (free).
20. EAT: FRESHLY COOKED SEAFOOD OVERLOOKING THE BEACH
Rawai seafood market near Rawai Beach in the southwest of the island is the place to go for a feast from the sea. Buy your seafood (fish, prawns, mussels, octopus, crab) direct from the fishermen on one side of the street, then walk across the street to a local restaurant (or a shack) where they will cook it for you for a minimal price. Choose between barbecued, fried or steamed, Chinese, Thai or western style. Finish with mango sticky rice and your life is complete.
* Traveller top pick
Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of Banyan Tree Phuket Spa Sanctuary and at her own expense.
See also: Seven dishes you must try in Bangkok