Setoff the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea, Phuket is the country’s largest island and home to many exquisite beaches, coral reefs and an abundance of marine life, including turtles, tropical fish and even sharks.
Historically located on one of the major trading routes between India and China, Phuket was frequently mentioned in the captain log books of Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English trading ships who were known to seek refuge here.
Today Phuket enjoys thousands of visitors each year, drawn to the high-end seaside resorts, health spas and restaurants. Old Phuket Town welcomes a closer look at its old shophouses and busy markets, while Patong, the main resort town, is renowned for its vibrant nightlife and full moon parties.
Yet for most tourists it’s the exceptional beauty of the bay and the 32 smaller islets scattered scenically around it that draws them to stay longer. Some islands mountainous and covered in rain forests, others unhabitable rocky outcrops, all inviting exploration, snorkelling, swimming in the turquoise waters and lingering on the palm-fringed beaches.
Idyllic days spent island hopping between them, most popular. These are some of the more popular to visit.
Phi Phi Islands
Phi Phi’s small archipelago of six islands serves as an ideal and escapist holiday destination. Koh Phi Phi Don, the largest and only inhabited island in the group, features the bustling main village between Tonsai and Dalum bays which is lined with hotels, shops, bars and restaurants. Laidback Laem Thong beach is recognisable by its many long-tail boats and water sport kiosks. On the southern coast of the island find dramatic scenery and a mix of jungle and sea. Made popular by the movie The Beach, Koh Phi Phi’s Maya Bay is surrounded by emerald waters with white sandy beaches, dramatic cliffs and rock formations. The island is a national park and under strict protection these days.
One of the largest and best islands near Phuket with a world-renowned beach, the place somehow still remains somewhat of a hidden gem. The clear waters and pristine beaches are enhanced by the extensive corals that can be found just off the shore and the towering limestone outcrops. Here you’ll experience excellent diving with the chance of spotting turtles, octopus and other colourful tropical fish.
The Similans are a group of 9 islands belonging to the Marine National Park, about 84 km northwest of Phuket. Completely undeveloped, they offer visitors an unspoiled and unchanged landscape. Similan is the undisputed top scuba diving site in Thailand, and is regularly ranked among the top 10 dive sites in the world. The Similans can be visited on day trips as well as short stopovers. The ranger’s camp has basic accommodation in tents and small bungalows that allow visitors to fully immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the islands. With desolate beaches, lush vegetation, crystal waters, and the only sound being the wind through the trees, the Similans offer the ultimate get away destination.
A part of the Mu Koh Surin National Park, Surin Island holds a similar appeal to the Similan Islands. With glittering blue waters and protected corals, Surin is known to lure travellers in search of a quiet retreat. While there you can witness the daily lives of Moken or Sea Gypsies, who have inhabited the area for decades. Surin Island is most famous for its whale sharks, which are found just off the coast here. Shark sighting diving tours are popular, and seeing these precious animals in the wild is an experience of a lifetime.
Koh Khai Islands
Koh Khai Nok and Koh Khai Nai are two tiny islets to the east of Phuket, only a 20-minute ride by speedboat. The largest of them, Koh Khai Nok, is particularly busy in high season as it offers a getaway for those wanting to enjoy suntanning and snorkelling without the need for a long trip at sea. Both islands are uninhabited, and only Khai Nok can be visited. With all the infrastructure required to spend a lazy day on the beach – restaurants, bars, sun-loungers and umbrellas – the highlight of Koh Khai Nok is the multitude of tropical fish right off shore.
Collectively known as Racha Islands, Koh Racha Noi and Koh Racha Yai are small, beautiful islands with spectacular white beaches and clear blue waters. Twin Islands, Koh Racha Yai is larger and Koh Racha Noi is the smaller. Koh Rang Yai is found about 5km off the east coast of Phuket with a 1km long beach that gets busy with day trippers seeking out great resorts, while Noi is uninhabited and a bit rockier. Ao Tawan Tok is the most famous beach, although often crowded by day, it empties out by evening. Yai makes for an ideal romantic getaway.
Coral Island or Koh Hae in Thai is a small island that’s 5km off Phuket’s south eastern coast. The easy access from Phuket makes it a very popular day trip destination. Coral Island features only two beaches, Long and Banana, both face north and offer great diving and snorkelling. There is only one hotel, Coral Island Resort, and a few bars and restaurants. Similar to Racha Island, it fills up with day-trippers until mid-afternoon, after which it regains its peacefulness.
Island hopping tours are easily available and can be booked at your accommodation or any activity centres. The bay’s waters are dotted with coral reefs and perfect for snorkelling, even for the inexperienced swimmer, while in the north wildlife sanctuaries and national parks can be visited. Scuba diving is a must, and PADI courses are offered in these waters. For the activity hungry there is rock climbing, speedboat excursions and a cruise around Ao Phang Nga National Park.
In collaboration with Dawn Jorgensen