Phuket, the Pearl of the Andaman, is Thailand’s largest island, with a curvaceous coastline of wide sugary beaches strung between jutting peninsulas and craggy rock formations.
Though it has long been one of Thailand’s most popular destinations, it is easy to avoid the tourist traps. Venture into Phuket Old Town, a former South-east Asia tin trading hub and the island’s cultural centre. Its Sino-Portuguese architecture is currently being restored and spruced up – the droopy webs of telephone wires are being moved underground and designers, artists and baristas are making themselves at home amid the traditional shop-houses, temples and barbers that line the streets.
Phuket’s beach scene is also undergoing something of a revival, with swanky new hotels and beach clubs popping up along the west coast.
If lying on a four-poster day bed on an intravenous drip of cocktails loses its polish however, there are plenty of quieter escapes. Head north to the Khoa Sok National Park and you can partake in the full jungle experience, complete with elephants, lazy rivers and treehouse lodgings.
Sail east and explore the spectacular Phang Nga Bay, where sheer limestone karsts rise dramatically out of the water and, for a few baht, long-tail boats ferry sunbathers between desert island beaches. Head north-east and after a couple of hours you’ll hit the pristine islands of Similan and Surin, where divers can swim with leopard sharks, octopus and a concerto of colourful fish by day and camp on empty islands by moonlit night.
When to go
Temperatures hover around 30°C all year round, but the high-season really sits between November and March when the rains die down and the Andaman Sea settles to a lake-like calm. Outside of these months the weather remains hot and humid, and there’s plenty to do in terms of activities, whether it’s diving amidst the limestone islands, birdwatching, relaxing in a spa or hiking through the jungle.
July to October is a bit more challenging when it comes to the weather, as the seas whip up and red warning flags litter the beaches – good for surfers, particularly on the west coast, but not as much fun for those hoping to lounge. There’s also no guarantee of sunshine during this period, and it’s not unusual for it to rain for weeks at a time in late summer and early autumn.
Know before you go
Flight time: flying direct from London with Thomson Airways (see above) takes about 12 hours; if flying via Bangkok add an additional two to three hours to your journey time.
Currency: Thai Baht
Time difference: six hours ahead of the UK in summer and seven in winter
Phone code: 00 66
Foreign Office Advice: on May 22 2014, the Thai military took control of the government and implemented martial law. This was then lifted in April 2015 and replaced with a more insidious, if less severe sounding law, called Article 44. Throughout the coup there has been very little military presence in Phuket; tourists are unlikely to see soldiers on the streets or notice anything out of the ordinary. It is worth bearing in mind though that it is illegal to criticise the coup and making any strong political statements could land you in jail. South of Phuket, the Foreign Offices advises against all but essential travel to the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla, on the Thai-Malaysia border
Extra reading/apps: download the Thai Dictionary Free app for some handy phrases
British Embassy: 14 Wireless Road, Lumpini, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand;
telephone: 00 66 (0) 2 305 8333
British Honorary Consul, Phuket: 115-116 Plaza Del Mar, Moo 1, Pasak Koktanod Road, Cherngtalay, Thalang, Phuket; telephone 00 66 (0)76 318 118
Tourist police: national number 1155; Phuket hotline 1699
Emergency services: 191
Tourism Authority of Thailand, Phuket office: 00 66 (0)76 212 213.
Phuket International Airport: 00 66 (0)76 327 2307.
Phuket Bus Terminal: 00 66 (0)76 211 480.
Local laws and etiquette
The King and Queen of Thailand are revered, almost God-like figures and any criticism of the monarchy will cause great offence, and could result in arrest – foreigners are not above prosecution.
Stand to attention if you hear the King’s Anthem being played. It is broadcast every day at 8am and 6pm, and at the beginning of every movie presentation.
A Thai considers the top of their head to be the most sacred part of the body. Avoid touching the head of any adult.
A “no worries” attitude permeates here and there is little point in becoming frustrated or impatient as this usually only serves to slow matters down even more.
Kissing and cuddling in public make Thai people uncomfortable so save the PDAs for the privacy of your pool villa.
Hiring a motorbike or moped is warned against. According to the World Health Organisation, Thailand has one of the worst road safety records in the world, with over 9,000 fatal road accidents per year (nearly five times higher than people killed on UK roads), 74 per cent of which were attributed to motorbikes.