Brace yourself; it’s time to talk about Phuket. But how? How should we discuss this land of coexistent realities, where incredible natural beauty butts up against gaudy dens of debauchery and one can witness profound acts of cultural celebration before retiring to the private beach at Club Med? This is the paradox of Thailand’s largest island and gateway to some of its most treasured destinations: sure you can enjoy it, but your transient presence will almost certainly contribute to the deterioration of a local culture that has even the friendliest of locals asking for a limit on tourism numbers. Have we sufficiently complicated things? Fantastic. Then let’s dive head first into the beautiful, convoluted waters surrounding this pearl of the Andaman Sea.
Adventure lovers rejoice! Well, kind of. If you’re looking for immersion in a land of jungles, islands, cliffs and aquatic beauty you’ve found it. Seclusion, on the other hand, may be somewhat harder to come across. That just means you’ll have to get a little creative. While major attractions like scuba diving the Ko Phi Phi and Similan Islands will likely have to be shared with myriad other travelers, hiking options in Khao Phra Thaeo and points north should offer a bit more in the way of privacy. Don’t want to have the typical Phang Nga Bay experience? Try bypassing James Bond Island in favor of a climb up neighboring Ko Panyi. There are, of course, plenty of other possibilities, but this should give you some indication of what to expect in the great Phuket outdoors.
Then there’s the somewhat more divisive relationship between locals and tourists on the island. Western beaches crawling with resort-goers, including Karon, Kata and the infamous Patong, have given birth to an industry of exclusive hotels, needlessly expensive restaurants and beer-soaked sois that threatens to overshadow some of Phuket’s cultural and religious gems. Don’t want to be part of the problem? Then try planning your stay around Phuket Town (we know, we know, it’s technically a city now), where the temples are plentiful, the food is bona fide and the atmosphere is authentic. It’s one of the few places left on the island where you can shop an honest, regional market (Ranong Road) and finish off the night sipping Thai beer with a healthy mix of expats and locals. But whatever you ultimately decide on, keep this in mind: while it’s easy to visit Phuket as a tourist, the rewards are even better for those who don’t mind trading in luxury for a taste of the truly good life. The results are less damaging, too.