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Thailand was one of the countries I was most excited about visiting on our around-the-world adventure. We ended up spending a little over two months sailing on the west coast of Thailand, and a majority of that time was spent on Phuket. Not everyone has the luxury of slow travel like we do, but everything we did can be condensed down into one week in Phuket!
Getting around Phuket is fairly cheap and easy, and most hotels and attractions can help you coordinate transportation from anywhere on the island. Boat tours and ferries typically leave from Chalong Bay, which is a halfway between Old Town Phuket and Nai Harn.
I’d recommend spending at least two nights in Phi Phi, three nights in Old Phuket Town, and two nights at Nai Harn (or another beach on Phuket).
Phuket is very touristy. I was shocked by how many tourists are here, especially in the peak season around the holidays. In Phi Phi and the night market, the streets were packed and the islands were always noisy and crowded with tour boats coming and going, dropping hoards of florescent-orange lifejacket wearing tourists into the water. This is in spite of a massive drop in Chinese tourists recently.
From Chalong Bay, a two-hour ferry or one-hour fast ferry can get you out to Ko Phi Phi, which is definitely worth it. The beach is beautiful, and there is a day’s worth of activities to keep you busy. If you can spare a second day, book a dive or snorkel trip out to one of the smaller Phi Phi islands.
Check out our one day in Phi Phi itinerary.
One of our absolute highlights of Phuket was the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary. Do not miss it! It was amazing to see these animals up close in a positive environment. I went twice – with David and his sister Julie, and then again with my friend Carlanna.
Just nearby are two attractions that I wish we’d done: The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project and the Bang Pae Waterfall. You can make an afternoon out of those two activities and then pop into dinner at the Piang Prai Restaurant (see below).
These activities are fairly far north, so are slightly easier to access from Old Phuket Town than from further south.
The iconic limestone islands out in Phang Nga Bay are worth a visit. I had the Panak Island hong all to myself, but you can book a full day trip out exploring the islands.
Book John Grey Sea Canoe.
There are a lot of places in Thailand where getting in the water is pointless – the visibility is very low, especially in Phang Nga Bay. I did, however, go diving in Ko Racha Noi and Ko Racha Yai. The visibility was amazing and there was a small wreck of an old tour boat to check out. The wreck was covered in blue dragons.
I did the dive with Phuket-Scuba as my Underwater Navigation Course. In Chalong Bay, my private instructor met me and we boarded one of the tour boats. I would guess that the dive shops rent out space on the tour boats, as there were a bunch of other dive groups onboard. The crew made us put on lifejackets the first and last 10 minutes of the cruise (because “port authority is watching”). It was about an hour out to Ko Racha and the boat was not very full. We also got served food – lots of it – in between dives.
I wish we had gotten out to the Similan or Surin Islands during our stay. Next time!
Book a day trip to the Similan Islands.
Despite my love of seashells, I had never been to a seashell museum before. Carlanna and I popped into the Phuket Seashell Museum for a couple of hours and were very impressed. Read about touring the Phuket Seashell Museum.
Another activity Carlanna and I did was go shopping at Gems Gallery. Our tour started with a ride – I kid you not, Carlanna and I boarded a little indoor tram that took us into a tunnel and through an educational tour complete with animatronics. The presentation was about the mining industry and the formation of gems. I didn’t really learn anything new but it was a hoot and unexpected.
Then you walk through the manufacturing center where you can see the artisans crafting the jewelry, and then into the store. At this point, you have a private salesperson, and these ladies were enthusiastic salespeople! While they were more than happy to pull out anything I wanted to see and crunch numbers for me on their pocket calculators (15% discount today, minus VAT….), I did not feel pressured to buy anything. It was fun to look around and ask questions. I had no idea that Thailand mines sapphires and that they come in three colors; yellow, orange, and a very dark blue.
Since we travel to a lot of remote and poor locations, the amount of shopping you can do in Phuket is overwhelming. If you don’t feel like buying jewelry from Gems Gallery, there are several other opportunities to shop. Premium Outlet Phuket has stores such as Lacoste and Nike for lightening your wallet. We did go to Central Festival, a large mall (actually two: Central Festival and Central Floresta, connected by a skywalk) about 15 minutes from Phuket Town. We caught a movie (Aquaman) at the luxury cinemas. The mall was stunningly decked out for Christmas and we even caught a Thai carols performance. Downstairs is a food court with mock Sino-Portuguese architecture and a huge gourmet grocery store full of westernized stuff (maple syrup!!).
Massages in Southeast Asia are incredibly cheap. Twice in Phuket (once with David’s sister Julie and once with my friend Carlanna) I visited Kim’s Massage and Spa. I preferred the location at Limelight in Phuket Town over the Rawai location. Be warned: you may have to ask for light pressure, and the Thai massage includes back cracking.
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Finally, definitely check out the Sunday night market in Phuket Town. I love walking around the stalls and trying a bunch of exotic foods.
We’re not really the lay on the beach and suntan kind of people (hello fair skin), but we did stay in Nai Harn beach and you can’t help but enjoy the beach there. Nai Harn is quieter than nearby Patong, which is party central. The beach does get crowded during the day, but the water is nice and usually calm.
Ao Sane Beach is a 15-minute walk from the Nai Harn taxi stand (over a hill). The beach is much smaller, but there’s actually reef to snorkel.
Nai Harn has some of the best sunsets we’ve ever seen. We saw two green flashes, which was just amazing! You can watch the sunset from the beach, or get a ride up to Windmill Viewpoint or Promthep Cape, or enjoy the sunset over drinks and dinner at one of the restaurants on the north side of the bay (see below).
The Big Buddha is best visited first thing in the morning, so if you have time on your last day, it’s a great way to greet the morning!
Read about our visit to the Big Buddha in Phuket.
I really should have done a Thai cooking class while in Thailand. It’s a shame, given how much I love Thai food, although the recipes are often complicated and hard to replicate in the American kitchen.
Also, a stop at the Thai Orchid Farm would have been nice.
While we primarily stayed at the below two areas, we did also stay in the Boat Lagoon area (while at Royal Phuket Marina) and Ao Po (while in G&T Boat Yard). Those places were lovely, but tourists don’t really go there unless they are yachties.
Nai Harn was my favorite place. It’s quieter, with a beautiful big beach and nice views of the sunset. There’s a tuk-tuk stand at the parking lot, plus a nearby temple and lake with a running trail. And the restaurants we ate at were fantastic!
We stayed on our boat, but there are many great places to stay in Nai Harn that are walking distance to the beach:
Budget ($25 – 75 a night): Baan Krating Phuket Resort is well-rated and in a good location, though it’s closer to Ao Sane than Nai Harn, both are still in walking distance. With an excellent location, Nai Harn on the Rock is slightly cheaper but not as well rated. Naiharn Beach Resort is a 15-minute walk away from the beach just off Nai Harn lake and is rated #1 of B&Bs and Inns.
Luxury ($150+): If money were no object, I’d stay at The Nai Harn. It’s extremely well-rated (#1 of hotels), has great views, and beautiful rooms.
With the Sino-Portuguese architecture comes an eclectic mix of backpacker hostels and boutique hotels. It’s worth staying a night or two to ensure you make the Sunday Night Market, and because it’s off the beach, it’s cheap!
Budget ($25 – 75): We choose to stay at Mei Zhou Phuket Hotel. It’s quiet and clean, although it’s more of an Asian hotel than a Western hotel. The staff was very accommodating and friendly. We picked it because they had a two-bedroom family suite for us when Julie was visiting.
Moderate ($75 – 150): WOO Gallery & Boutique Hotel is a brand new location on Thalang Road. It looks stunning but has no reviews at the time of our writing. It might be worth a look. The 2rooms Boutique House is just around the corner and is very well rated and glamorous. The Blanket Hotel is still walkable, but further away from Thalang Road, with great reviews.
Phuket is filled with glorious food for super cheap! We ate out frequently all over the island. Read our recommendations for dining out in Phuket.