It has been a long 12 years since I was last in Phuket. And somehow I don't have many memories from that trip. I have a vague recollection that I was there, but as I drove around the island this time, it all looked rather unfamiliar and brought back no memories.
As we drove from Surin beach all the way down south, past Kamala, Patong and on to Karon and Kata, it was evidently clear - this island has stunning beaches. Beaches like you will never see on Bali! It's everything a European would be looking for while trying to survive their gloomy and cold winter. Tropical lushness and a high-season full of sun and little rain that spans November to April, which corresponds perfectly with the northern winter.
Phuket is also a yachting centre, an activity which is surprisingly rare in South-East Asia. Due to a combination of national restrictive policies and lack of infrastructure such as marinas, although the region is perfectly suited for cruising, this industry is still at its infancy. An exception would be Phuket which has several marinas and many yachts available for charter to cruise around the beautiful Phang Nga Bay and beyond.
Yet there is something lacking in Phuket. Great restaurants - tick. Vibrant nightlife - as you would expect in Thailand - tick. Luxurious hotels - tick. Dreamy beaches - tick. Modern infrastructure - tick. But no prevalent local culture on display. Phuket is all about commercialism. As you drive around the island you will see that the whole island is geared towards tourism, and unlike Bali, it has none of the local and rich culture interwoven into it's offering. Yes there are rubber plantations and tin-mines from its past, but that’s really not that sexy!
It also doesn't seem to have an eccentric community of locals and expats, which bring a touch of bohemia to Bali. From yoga classes, to merengue evenings, to artisan shops, these local touches are what also make Bali memorable. Phuket has the sex trade in Patong and that's as much entertainment as we saw here. And it's this lack of a colorful and sizeable local arts community that had all the hip beach bars and restaurants empty on Easter weekend, for they seem to rely solely on tourists that just weren't flocking to Phuket this Easter weekend.
Hence you get a tropical playground where you can bask in the sun, have sun-downers at groovy beach bars, stay in uber-luxurious resorts and entertain yourself drunk in Patong, yet fly away from the island without truly understanding or having experienced much of the beautiful Buddhist local Thai culture.
I miss that element in Phuket!
And because of that, I tend to prefer Bali, which combines many of the elements that you find in Phuket with a very unique and eccentric local community and a rich living culture that affects you no matter where you're heading on the charming Hindu island.
Now, if only we could make Bali a tad less chaotic, improve its infrastructure and clean up its waters and beaches!
> Given that Phuket and Bali are the two main beach destinations in South-East Asia, flights abound. From legacy carriers to discount airlines such as Tiger Airways, Air Asia ... they all fly here.
WHAT TO DO:
> Patong Beach: you want entertainment Thai style, this is the place to go. Much the same as in Bangkok and Pattaya, all the sleaze of the world unites here :-)
> Explore the island: don’t just get stuck in your resort and the nearby beach! From the gorgeous beaches of the west coast to the much more functional and local east coast with Phuket Town as the town where a majority of the locals live, give Phuket a drive-around.
> Boat trip: we did a day cruise to the Phang Nga Bay to marvel at the striking limestone islands peppered around the bay, swam in little coves and went into sea caves. And of course, you cannot miss the infamous James Bond Island!
> Catch (Surin beach): amongst the many beach bars you will find on Surin beach, this one seemed the most popular. You go where the people are. Right?
> Taste (Surin beach): again, plenty of restaurants to choose from along the strip on Surin. This one was recommended to us by the hotel. Had some great Australian steak here.
> Rawai Beach: at the very south of the island on Rawai beach, we found a row of very local restaurants, built on bamboo platforms right on the beach. This was the first place we saw that had only locals eating, with no tourists around. We finally seemed to have escaped the clutch of the tourist infrastructure and found some great local food.
> Silk: located in the beautiful Andara hotel, this is a great modern Thai restaurant with a stunning view.
> Amanpuri: sometimes you wonder what kind of value proposition you will get from a hotel that charges such exorbitant daily rates. Somehow, the Amanpuri manages to deliver and justifies all the $$$ you have spent here. Money does buy you privacy, extraordinary service and a magnificent location. Without being intrusive, the service was warm, friendly and personalized. You really felt like you had a team of individuals that were looking out only for you. Made you feel very special.
The resort is located on a whole peninsula between Surin and Laguna beach, with commanding views and a stunningly beautiful private beach. The gym is situated on the highest point of their private peninsula giving it the best location I've ever seen for a health club! From the glass walled structure you have commanding views of all the beaches below while you're trying to focus on your breathing while running on the treadmill!
The villas are very large and beautifully appointed, combining lots of wooden features, mirrored walls and great lighting. Not to mention the antique table in the middle of your room with a gorgeous flower arrangement. Outside you have a very private pavilion with magnificent vistas for your relaxation, in a lush setting. Privacy abounds! There are only 40 villas on the resort, great pool area and the sound of cicadas that accompanies you all day long.
This is paradise ... albeit after being in Koh Lipe, this comes at a very hefty price. Same, same ... but different!
> Manathai: located on Surin beach, this hotel was a little gem. We discovered it by going for dinner to their street-facing restaurant. Delicious Thai food. And as Robin went to the bathroom he realized that this was also a hotel. We asked to see the rooms for we were curious. Very contemporary and hip design, mixing modernity with a Thai design. And at a fraction, literally, of the adjacent Aman resort.
> Trisara Resort: this is the other ultra-deluxe resort on Phuket.
> Andara Hotel: a beautiful boutique hotel located at the beginning of Millionaire's Row by Kamala beach. Given that it's built into the slope of the hill, it commands a stunning vista.