Phuket attracts over 6 million tourists from all corners of the world each year, and that’s expected to almost double in the next decade.
Now I know why.
It has everything a family, couple, individual or group of friends could want in a holiday destination. From soft, sandy pristine beaches to adrenaline-fuelled activities like jet skiing, kite surfing, wakeboarding and speed boat rides. Phuket is home to world class snorkelling, its reefs teeming with luminous tropical fish and unique coral formations. Wildlife sanctuaries and lush national parks offer an easy escape from the bustling streets. And historic Old Phuket Town, founded in the early 1800’s, gives history buffs plenty to gawk at. There are more restaurants than you can imagine to delight your tastebuds complemented by locally-distilled silky-smooth sugarcane rum.
With so many things to see and do, you’d probably ask “where should I stay?”. Well, you’re in luck. I’ve done the hard (and enviable) work for you, and put together a first-hand comparison of the 6 most popular areas to stay in Phuket.
1. Patong Beach
Best for: night owls, beer lovers, serious party animals and shopaholics.
Many of the world’s most popular coastal tourist destinations have a singular famous beach strip where visitors flock to pull out their favourite swimsuit, soak up the sun, and party the night away. For Phuket, it’s Patong Beach. If you prefer your vacations to be oozing with action and filled to the brim with fun, Patong Beach is your place to stay.
In the mornings, this unassuming beach is lined with umbrellas and sunbakers. Go for a swim or walk along the beach and you may come across evidence of revelry from the night before in the form of glass bottles and similar debris. There’s no shortage of street vendors selling sunglasses, watches, and clothes, or hiring out jet skis, boat rides and other water sports.
Tip: Take detailed photos of the jet ski before hiring to avoid the notorious “jet ski scam” which charges tourists for pre-existing damage to the vehicle. If you’re not sure if the operator is legit, look for their “Merry Elephant” logo issued by the Department of Tourism. And report any issues to the Tourist Police (phone 1155 within Thailand).
Patong’s shopping scene kicks off around 11am when the major mall, Jungceylon Shopping Centre opens (and last night’s drinks start to wear off). There is no shortage of cafes, fast food and restaurants to choose from at Jungceylon in a relaxed, open courtyard setting. The shopping centre also houses a cinema, local artisan stores and department stores selling jewellery, clothing, souvenirs, electronics, and more. Continue your shopping adventure out on the streets, but be warned, the street vendors here are more aggressive than other parts of Thailand. They may follow you down the street in an attempt to close a sale. Just say a firm “no”, and continue on your merry way – don’t take it personally. I found that compared to Chiang Mai, Pattaya and Hua Hin, prices tend to be a bit higher in Phuket.
After dark, Patong Beach comes to life in a sea of neon lights centred around Soi Bangla (Bangla Road). There are hundreds of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs along this very busy and popular strip, and the sounds of partying carry on into the early hours of the morning.
If you’re like us and enjoy being close to the action, but not too close, you’ll feel right at home at the illustrious Amari Phuket. Nestled away on a peninsula at the southern end of Patong Beach, it’s easy to forget this luxurious resort is only a 5-minute walk (or free 2-minute shuttle ride) away from the centre of town.
We stayed in a spacious one-bedroom suite in the Ocean Wing which included the added perk of exclusive access to the Clubhouse facilities. Here we enjoyed breakfast, considered using the fitness centre (but let’s be honest, cocktails were calling!), relaxed on the panoramic sun deck, and took a dip in the infinity pool. If you’re not convinced already, cocktail hour is served every day from 5pm to 6pm at the Clubhouse. Amari’s friendly staff crafted our drink of choice along with a selection of tasty canapes free of charge.
Yep, free cocktails. The two sweetest words in the English dictionary.
Complimentary tea, coffee and light snacks are also available at the Clubhouse throughout the day.
If you feel like checking out the hotel’s two other pools and three other restaurants, don’t worry about having to trek down the steep hill… just call a golf buggy! Closer to the lobby, (paid) cocktail hour is available at the Samutr Bar or Pool Bar before dining at Amari’s Italian restaurant La Gritta or at Rim Talay for a superb selection of Thai and western menu options.
The restaurants overlook the sea so after dinner we enjoyed a moonlit stroll along the secluded beach. Amari is one of the few resorts in the area with a private jetty. The Jetty is a popular spot for weddings and photo enthusiasts (which includes yours truly). With a small bar and restaurant, The Jetty is an unbeatable location to watch a romantic sunset or pre-book a private candlelit dinner to celebrate that special occasion.
Every single interaction with a team member during our stay was enjoyable and effortless. They anticipated our needs and were always so caring. I have to give special recognition to Pierre-Andre Pelletier, the hotel manager and regional vice president. He’s done a great job with Amari Phuket.
2. Merlin Beach
Best for: active families, occasional party goers and business travellers.
A short drive southwest from downtown Patong Beach is Merlin Beach - the perfect compromise for holiday makers looking to stay close enough to Phuket’s major shopping and dining attractions but far away enough to escape the party scene at night.
Hotels like the Phuket Marriott Resort & Spa, Merlin Beach offer regular shuttles to Jungceylon Shopping Centre so you can easily get your fill of shopping and sightseeing without staying in the centre of Patong Beach. Having said that, we had to drag ourselves away from the Marriott to spend a day out sightseeing. It would have been all too easy to spend an entire vacation without leaving this resort.
Why? Let’s start with the Marriott’s in-house butterfly sanctuary and reef.
Imagine walking back to your suite after breakfast and spotting vibrant electric blue and amber butterflies floating past your nose to land on a nearby orchid. It’s hard to avoid the curious distraction, instead you follow their flutter to a quiet sanctuary full of leafy green plants and colourful flowers. Walls near the sanctuary are lined with fact sheets informing guests on the different kinds of butterflies that live there. It’s a neat way to teach kids about nature and, if they’re lucky enough, a butterfly may even give them a kiss. Awww!
Then there’s the reef on the resort’s private beach filled with colourful tropical fish and coral. Why would you go to any other beach to snorkel when you can see some of Phuket’s finest sea life right at your doorstep? The private beach is also a relaxing spot to dip your toes in the Andaman Sea without any annoying beach vendors getting in the way.
Just metres away from the house reef is the Caribbean-themed Rum Shack, a quaint bamboo cocktail bar perfectly suited to the surrounding coconut trees. As its name implies, the Rum Shack’s specialty is cocktails made from Phuket’s very own Chalong Bay Rum, but the bar staff will whip up any drink you desire while you lean back and watch the sunset.
That brings us to food and the Marriott’s many dining options. If you’re a health nut, grab a smoothie bowl or bliss ball at Wellness. If you’re a sports fanatic, pick up a burger and pint of beer while watching a sports game at Balls & Burgers. If you can’t start your morning without a caffeine hit, try a rainbow latte at the Phuket Coffee Co. If you’re a budding master chef, try a cooking class at the Thai Pantry. Or if you just love food in any forms, you’ll be delighted every night by the Marriott’s calendar of international buffets ranging from Asian, to Italian, to Australian BBQ, and more. We were able to try an Italian buffet at Marriott’s Italian restaurant, D.O.C.G. It was a joy to watch the talented chef teach his Thai assistants to toss pizza bases in the air and effortlessly catch them before adding fresh toppings and sliding them in the authentic wood-fired oven (the pizzas, not the assistants!).
To burn off all of that caloric intake, the Marriott offers guests an action-packed activity calendar. This includes team sports like volleyball and soccer, water activities in the main pool, group fitness classes, muay thai lessons, and scuba diving classes. For the kids, there’s art and craft activities, special cooking classes, movie nights, group games, and disco parties. A regular entertainment program includes fire dancers and live music. Many activities are free of charge but some do attract a small fee. Details and prices are provided in each hotel room.
After all of those activities, you’ll appreciate the Marriott’s comfortable hotel rooms to relax and unwind. We stayed in a premier pool access room with a private terrace opening to one of the 3 outdoor swimming pools. We relaxed on the deck chairs in between hopping in and out of the pool throughout the day. When we needed a change of scenery, we wandered over to the main pool just at the start of happy hour at the pool bar. I say, impeccable timing!
3. Karon Beach
Best for: young families, people watchers, chillaxers and beach lovers.
Sometimes one day trip to a busy destination like Patong Beach is more than enough. Once you’ve seen it, you want to spend the rest of your holiday away from the crowds.
Enter Karon Beach. This beach is not overrun by tourists, but more balanced between local beach-goers and foreigners. There’s still snorkelling, scuba diving, parasailing and other activities available, but you’ll be able to seek these out at your own leisure, without feeling pressured by beach vendors, as is often the case in Patong Beach.
Karon Beach is really something special. I was treated to one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever witnessed and joined dozens of folks to stop, sit, and marvel at the ineffable beauty of nature.
Directly across from the beach, just north of Karon Park, is a strip of 9 Thai restaurants. As we hungrily walked towards these, waitstaff come to the front and waved, inviting us to select their restaurant. It was quite an unexpected experience, we almost feel like celebrities! Once we randomly chose Anna Restaurant (not to be confused with Anny Restaurant next door!), we gorged ourselves on delicious Thai food at very, very reasonable prices.
A very short walk from the beach is Karon’s main street, Patak Road, where you’ll find a large array of Thai and international restaurants, nail salons, massage parlours, tour vendors, and small shopping arcades filled with clothing and souvenir stores. Tourists still need sharp bargaining skills but the prices here are much more reasonable than Patong Beach.
We discovered Karon Beach is a convenient springboard to explore more of Phuket. Tour companies often charge additional fees for pickups from more remote locations, but Karon was always included in the price of the tours we researched. Catching a Grabcar is also very easy from Karon Beach if you prefer to plan your own day trip (albeit a fair bit pricier than other parts of Thailand). We spent an afternoon on a self-guided tour tasting rum at the Chalong Bay Rum Distillery followed by shopping at Naka Weekend Market and then squeezing through the bustling Phuket Sunday Night Markets in Old Phuket Town.
While in Karon Beach, we stayed at the Novotel Phuket Karon Beach Resort and Spa, which is just across the road from the beach. In between all of our sightseeing, we found the time for pampering at the Novotel’s InBalance Spa with relaxing massages and pedicures.
We stayed in one of the Novotel’s gorgeous plunge pool suites and enjoyed a quiet evening in our private jet pool, listening to the calming sounds of nearby birds, chirping insects, and even croaking frogs. In case we ever tired of our own private plunge pool (don’t judge us!), there were more opportunities to soak up the sun by one of the hotel’s two other large swimming pools.
We suspected the Novotel would be a haven for youngsters when, upon checking into our room, we were sneakily surprised by none other than Spiderman jumping out from behind our door! The near-heart-attacks continued with a surprise visit from Pikachu at breakfast, and a friendly clown at lunch. Sure enough, we soon discovered these characters were part of the hotel’s amazing kids’ program which includes an activity-packed play room and a dedicated kids pool with a waterslide.
The Novotel doesn’t stop dishing out doses of entertainment at cameo appearances by pop culture characters, but continues the theme of astonishment into meal service with its Fire and Ice menu. If you’ve ever ordered a flambé dish, served to your table in a burst of flames, you know the kind of excitement that it brings. Imagine every dish (and drink) served in your 3-course meal coming with fiery flames or puffs of frost (yes, including accompanying alcoholic drinks!). We enjoyed a chilled seafood platter, flaming beef burgers, and chilli-chocolate ice-cream that left my mouth pleasantly bewildered by the simultaneous sensation of spicy hot and icy cold.
The Novotel has plenty of other, less dramatic, dining options at their in-house restaurants. Horizons serves up a delicious buffet breakfast, and Thai restaurant and Champions Sports Bar offer a range of local and international meals to enjoy either in air-conditioned comfort or by the pool.
Check out the resort’s latest family promotions.
4. Surin Beach
Best for: budget-conscious families, book-loving couples, serenity aficionados and low-key beach enthusiasts.
If you’re ideal Phuket holiday involves more lounging and relaxing by picturesque beaches than shopping and sightseeing, Surin Beach is right up your alley. Unlike most Phuket beaches, you won’t find any motor boats, jet skis or extreme watersports here. Instead, there’s the simplicity of kayaking, snorkelling, or playing in the waves.
Surin Beach is best known for its luxury resorts, beach clubs, and millionaires row. There are a number of reputable restaurants and unique clothing boutiques to enjoy thanks to these resorts, but you can still enjoy the beauty of Surin Beach on a budget or with kids.
We stayed at the Novotel Phuket Surin Beach Resort in a deluxe poolside terrace room. Just a few steps from our rear sliding door were the resort’s two large swimming pools. One pool had a risky (or perhaps convenient) combination of two waterslides and a swim-up pool bar, the other was a lagoon shaped loop perfect for floating around and chilling. My favourite thing about the Novotel’s pool area was their popsicle hotline. Yes, a little blue phone booth with a dedicated line (to I have no idea where) that magically brings out a popsicle upon request… absolutely free! How cool is that?
The pool area is lined by a mix of deck chairs and dining tables so you can order a meal or just a drink to enjoy by the pool. This Novotel also offers a Fire and Ice dining experience but with a slightly different menu than Karon Beach. This time, we got to enjoy flaming nachos, iced sushi and sashimi, and fiery fondue all accompanied by fire and ice cocktails of course.
This Novotel is a very family friendly hotel, just like Karon Beach. Youngsters in the kids’ club are treated to fun activities like pirate dress-ups and treasure hunts.
Novotel Phuket Surin recently underwent considerable renovation with 254 rooms and suites being completely refurbished (completed on 15 September 2018). All the new rooms and suites were redecorated in a contemporary style and feature new furniture and equipment.
5. Bangtao Beach
Best for: chillin’ couples, business travellers, uber relaxation enthusiasts, sunbakers, boutique shoppers
Bangao Beach is a luxurious getaway located closer to the northern end of Phuket’s west coast. The epitome of peace and calm, it’s no wonder this picturesque location has attracted so many luxury hotels and resorts.
Unlike Surin Beach, Bangtao Beach is not home to dozens of built-up western-style restaurants. Instead, the dining options here are either quaint beach-front shacks or some of Phuket’s last remaining beach clubs. A short walk from our hotel was Tony’s Restaurant, which had a very unassuming local vibe and low-key beachy outdoor atmosphere. The Thai food at Tony’s was fantastic and very reasonably priced. Between the food, the atmosphere, and the friendly staff, we couldn’t help but be repeat customers.
A 5-minute drive inland from Bangtao Beach will have you in the small town of Cherng Talay where there is a large range of international restaurants, boutique stores, galleries, and other attractions. If you’re craving any western-style meals from home, there’s a pretty good chance you will find it in Cherng Talay.
While visiting Bangtao Beach, we stayed at the Mövenpick Resort Bangtao Beach Phuket and quickly understood why this resort had earned every one of its 5 stars.
We stayed in a spacious 2-bedroom pool suite with ocean view and could have spent our entire stay there if we wanted to. The suite features a fully contained kitchen for those who prefer to cook. Or if cooking on vacation is a cardinal sin, don’t worry, Movenpick has that covered too. For an additional fee, you can order a private chef to come to your suite and cook the meal of your choice while you relax on the lounge or swim in the pool. How’s that for luxury?
Speaking of pools, the main hotel pool is pretty spectacular. Between the architecturally balanced lines and daffodil-coloured deckchair cushions contrasting against the deep blue pool, we were in hotel heaven (it’s kinda like Valhalla but less Norsemen and more cocktails). The swim-up pool bar is perfect for kicking back during happy hour. I tried showing off my mad skills on the poolside basketball hoop. Luckily for us, a friendly Chinese tourist didn’t mind collecting the ball back every time I overshot it (pfffft… and I thought I was Michael Jordan!).
The pool area is also where guests are served the iconic chocolate hour. So just lie back on a pool chair, relax and eat chocolate. Did I mention this is heaven already?
The Movenpick’s in-house restaurant The Palm has been joined by a recently opened bar. Did someone say cocktails and tapas? Both western and Thai dishes at The Palm are devastatingly delicious. I’m talking about fine dining resort cuisine at its best. The friendly service staff at The Palm are eager to help guests and brought us a tasty selection of gluten-free pastries each morning after being told upon check-in that my wife eats gluten free. All this without being prompted. So lovely!
Relaxing is easy to do at the Movenpick with a range of massage and facial treatments available at their spa. Upstairs from the spa, the Movenpick’s gym is pretty impressive too. If you need to cool off after a work-out, there’s a pool right opposite the workout equipment. Or if you’re like me and prefer to skip the workout and go straight to the cooldown, there are separate men’s and women’s saunas and steam rooms in the gym change rooms.
It’s only proper for relaxation to continue back in your suite so hire a DVD from the Movenpick’s gift shop and then face the difficult decision of which TV to watch it on… main bedroom, spare bedroom, or lounge room? That’s how you know you’re definitely staying in a 5-star resort.
6. Racha Yai
Best for: romantic couples, ultra-hardcore sunbakers, serious snorkelers and cocktail connoisseurs.
I often get asked “what’s your favourite kind of holiday?”. My answer includes ones where I can relax on a beach, swim a little, and maybe go snorkelling. And that’s exactly what I discovered at Racha Yai when we booked a speedboat day tour (check latest prices for: tour option 1, tour option 2).
Raha Yai was the second stop on our tour and my expectations had already been exceeded by the crystal-clear sea at our first stop, Coral Island. Before getting off the boat at Racha Yai, we made a quick stop off the northeast coast of the island in Ter Bay where we jumped straight into the cerulean blue water to snorkel amongst some of the most exquisite tropical fish I have ever seen.
We then headed to East Bay and disembarked at the jetty. A buggy transported us past farms, buffalos and monitor lizards to The Racha resort at Patok Beach. We spent a couple hours at their beach club where we enjoyed a buffet lunch before swimming in another idyllic beach, then the pool, then the beach again, and then sunbaking amongst palm trees and pristine white sands.
This little piece of paradise looks like it’s straight out of a movie.
Can you imagine staying in a remote island resort, where there is nothing to do all day but swim in exquisite waters, take a canoe around the island to one of the world’s best snorkelling spots, drink cocktails and eat delicious food, and maybe do a scuba diving course if you’re feeling energetic. Doesn’t it sound like paradise?
That’s where you’ll find me the next time I visit Phuket.
What part of Phuket suits you best?