Some holiday destinations take time to grow on you, their charms not immediately apparent. Not Phuket. It earns residence in your heart before the plane’s wheels even grip the runway at Phuket International Airport. As you look out the window preparing for touchdown, this Thai island’s natural bounty spreads out before you like a scene from the most pleasant of daydreams.
Hills cloaked in dense jungle, teeming with exotic wildlife, roll towards the coast where lush land and the emerald green Andaman Sea intersect, separated only by strands of perfect white sand beaches. It is extraordinary tropical landscape such as this which has turned Thailand into one of the world’s tourism giants. Almost 33 million people visited this South East Asian nation in 2016. Tourism is crucial to the Thai economy, while in Phuket tourism pretty much is the economy.
Thailand’s largest island needs tourists and its residents are well aware of this fact. Just in case the natural beauty of Phuket doesn’t charm visitors, its residents make sure to pick up the slack. They lay on some of the warmest and most efficient hospitality to be found anywhere in the world. Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles” and I can attest to the truth of this slogan.
Taxi driver Tee could be the poster boy for Thailand’s tourism campaign such is the wide grin he meets me with as I hop into his car to leave Phuket airport. I soon realize it’s not an act - the wiry middle-aged man is indeed a genuinely content person. “Look where I live, how could I not be happy,” he tells me through the translation services of my wife, who speaks far better Thai than I ever will. “Phuket is a place where people want to have fun. And not just tourists, but the locals, too, we are always, always looking for fun. And you can find it everywhere here.”
Tee is emblematic of the Thai tourism industry. In the same way that Thailand manages to win over tourists and turn them into repeat customers, Tee’s friendliness has earned him my custom. I take his business card and use him to drive all over the island during my trip. Having a friendly driver like Tee is the best way to explore Phuket, which has a limited public transport system, with most locals getting around on their own motorbikes. At the end of our airport drive he drops me at my hotel in Phuket’s busiest area, Patong.
A hive of markets, restaurants, shopping centers and endless hotels and resorts, Patong throbs with energy. Its strength mirrors what I consider to be the greatest asset of Bangkok – an easy balance between the Thai and Western worlds. In either place you can have an exotic experience, like exploring a bustling market alongside a gleaming Buddhist temple, and then walk for just a few minutes to have a steak lunch at an opulent restaurant in a five-star hotel.
It is Phuket’s synthesis of the exotic and the familiar which enchants so many foreign tourists. This wonderful balance extends to the food, which caters for every conceivable taste, in a culinary sense. Cuisines from almost every corner of the world are available in settings ranging from grand to basic. It’s the Thai food, though, which is likely to live longest in your memory.
In any of Phuket’s built-up areas you are seemingly never more than a dozen steps from an outlet selling spicy, delectable Thai cuisine. The mobile vendors who line almost every street charge just 50 baht ($USD 1.50) for freshly cooked dishes like Pad Thai (fried noodles), Khao Pad (fried rice) and Som Tam (papaya salad). Or you can dig deeper into your wallet, visit one of Phuket’s many seafood restaurants and enjoy crab, fish and prawns freshly plucked from the sea.
Phuket is famous for its seafood, with the local fishing industry exporting products to neighboring countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar. As Tee drives me along Phuket’s southeast coast I notice there is still a very traditional side to the fishing industry. Groups of fishermen (it is an occupation dominated by males) carry large nets across the beach, into the shallow ocean waters and climb into wooden “long-tail” boats. Known in Thai language as Rua Hang Yao, these multi-colored vessels are an historic mode of transport in Thailand. They are particularly common down here in the south where, in between these fishing expeditions, the boats often are used to ferry tourists on sightseeing or diving trips. For as cheap as 30 dollars, tourists can hire a driver and their own boat and cruise off into the Andaman, stopping to snorkel at beautiful reefs, swim in sheltered lagoons, or have picnics on uninhabited islands.
The use of the long tail boats reflects the way in which traditional industries, like fishing, have slowly given way to tourism. It is not so many decades ago that Phuket’s tin mines and fishing were the island’s two biggest industries. The latter of these attracted Portuguese settlers and also waves of Chinese migrants, so many that about half of the population of Phuket has Chinese ancestry.
The influence of these two foreign peoples is particularly visible in its capital, Phuket Town. In its Old Town area, magnificent Sino-Portuguese architecture hints at the island's past. Splashed in a palette of bright colors, from salmon pink to citrus lemon, these well-preserved buildings were originally occupied mostly by workers and barons of Phuket's booming tin industry. Now they have been meticulously restored and converted into museums, cafés, restaurants and art galleries displaying Thai sculptures, painting and woodwork.
With its palpable history, artistic bent and gentle rhythm of life, Phuket Town is a fine contrast to the faster-paced Patong. Even greater escapes from everyday life are to be found beyond these two towns, on the powdery sand of one of Phuket’s seemingly endless beaches. Among Phuket’s greatest selling points as a tourist destination is that, despite receiving millions of visitors each year, it still has many beautiful locations which are all but empty. Most tourists tend not to venture too far from Patong, in the island’s southwest, which creates opportunities for solitude at places like the petite Ao Yon Beach in the southeast, or the very long Mai Khao Beach in the north-west.
Beaches like these are underdeveloped with few large hotels and restaurants. Unlike Patong where watersports and other adventurous activities abound, in these isolated areas you make your own fun. An afternoon snooze in the shade of a palm tree, a hammock session with a good book, a relaxing dip in the warm ocean water – simple pleasures which help melt away stress. After a day of relaxation and rejuvenation in your slice of sandy solitude, head back to Patong to re-enter the livelier side of Phuket life. In Patong the entertainment options are many and varied from cabaret shows to Thai dance performance.
The morning after a night out, I’m nursing sore feet from hours of dancing. So I head to one of Phuket’s famous spas, Siladon, where tourists can be pampered for a fraction of the price they would pay back home. Costing just 1,900 baht ($USD56), my two-hour foot massage and aroma oil massage is heavenly. Afterwards, as I sit in Siladon’s hillside lobby, looking down across the sun-soaked bay of Patong, I tell the staff I feel jealous of Phuket locals. Siladon manager Hutsaya Paramee giggles and tells me she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Most Phuket residents would say exactly the same thing, according to Ms. Paramee. “I love how Cosmopolitan Phuket is,” she says. “I feel like we have everything (here). Nothing is missing. Probably (that’s) why people travel from all over the world just to spend a few days here.”
From the time of the Chinese and Portuguese settlers to the modern day, Phuket has always had an allure for outsiders. Yet it’s never been overridden by foreign culture. While its many visitors have helped shape the island, Phuket has managed to retain a sense of its own identity, its own charm, and its own way of life.