Splurge or Save: How to Do Phuket Right

Courtesy of Carey Jones
Whether you're trying to travel on the cheap or you want to splurge we've got you covered.

The Thai island of Phuket is famous the world over for its powdery-sand beaches, five-star hotels, and dramatic landscapes, craggy green mountains falling off into the sparkling sea. It has also, sadly, become known for its hordes of tourists and, shall we say, questionable nightlife. 

But despite some less lovely areas, Phuket is still a world-class destination, with its unforgettable scenery, excellent restaurants, Thai hospitality, and palpable history. Whether you’re splurging or trying to save, it’s a highlight of Thailand. Here are two ways to do Phuket right. 

On the Cheap: Phuket Town

Courtesy of Carey Jones

Many travelers touch down at Phuket International and beeline to their resort of choice without ever passing through the historic old town. Their loss. While Phuket as a beach destination is the product of the last few decades, the town was a thriving commercial center for centuries. Similar to port cities like Singapore and Penang, Phuket sat along heavily trafficked trade routes and, as a result, reflects the heritage of many cultures that have passed through — China, India, Portugal, and more. 

Today, there are streets of beautifully preserved Sino-Portuguese shophouses, many now housing boutique hotels or small eateries. A walk through the city takes you by numerous temples and shrines, interspersed with upscale shops and hipster cafés. And while you’ll see a fair number of backpackers, of course, Phuket Town is far from a tourist trap; with local crowds and killer food at the night markets and in the streets, it’s a vibrant Thai city in its own right.

Stay in the heart of the old town at The Memory at On On, in fact the area’s oldest hotel, founded by a Chinese merchant in the late 1920s. The property had a brief star turn as a backpacker haunt in The Beach, as Leonardo di Caprio’s jumping-off point to tantalizing nearby islands, but it looks nothing like it did in the movie. It’s a sleek guesthouse with spacious rooms decked out in period furnishings, as well as hostel-style dorm beds for the more budget-inclined. 

Venture around the corner to Kopitiam by Wilai, a low-key eatery that’s been in operation for six years, but feels much older, with a comfortable, lived-in feel and photos of historic Phuket on the walls. The extensive menu ranges from drinks and café fare to full meals; we’d recommend the superb noodle dishes (Phuket’s pàt tai, Nyonya-style char koay teow with sweet Chinese sausage), at extremely reasonable prices. Or try Raya, known for its Phuket specialties; or Suay, a more modern fusion-style restaurant. Around the corner, Rockin’ Angels Blues Cafe & Band looks like a nondescript Western bar, but transforms in later hours to a legit blues club; their live band playing Creedence and Clapton covers that’d be impressive in any country. 

Museum buffs can learn more about the island’s history at the Phuket Thaihua Museum or the Chyn Pracha House, a 1903-era mansion outfitted in antiques. And if you’re itching for the beach, head to the center of town at Ranong Road, hop on a local songthaew (like a group taxi running regular routes) and you’ll get yourself right to any beach on the coast for around $1 USD. Might not be as comfortable as a taxi or exciting as a scooter, but you can’t beat the value. 

For A Splurge: The Nai Harn

Courtesy of Carey Jones

Looking for a tropical getaway that’s nothing but the beach? Stay right on the prettiest one. The Nai Harn, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, towers above the beach of the same name. The hotel’s tiered levels all look out onto a half-moon bay framed by mountains, the water dotted with luxury yachts; with the Nai Harn’s all-white exterior, it looks like a scene out of Santorini. 

While the Mountain View rooms have a perfectly lovely view of the tropical hillside rainforest (and it’s easy to lose an hour staring out the window butterfly-watching), the real draw are the spacious Ocean View rooms, with a vista out onto Nai Harn Bay and craggy Promthep Cape beyond. Level up to a suite, and your daybed has a “Press for Champagne” button that works just as advertised. I like how they think. 

While the Nai Harn beach isn’t exclusive to the hotel, it’s sufficiently wide that it doesn’t feel crowded even in peak season. And the “beach butlers” there to lay out mats and set up umbrellas don’t hurt. For a smaller beach with pebbly sand but good snorkeling rocks and a chill Thai coastal vibe, Nai Harn staff will run you down the road in their tuk-tuk to Ao Sane beach. (It’s only a ten minute walk, but hey, it gets hot in southern Thailand.)

It’s not always a given that high-end resorts will embrace their local cuisine. (Looking at you, Caribbean five-star hotel I visited recently that had exactly one local fish out of ten on offer. You’re in the middle of the ocean!) Thankfully, Nai Harn represents on the Thai food front. Sous chef Ann hails from nearby Phang-Na province, and many of her dishes are inspired by her family’s cooking growing up. Ask for them spicy, and they will be. I managed to eat the pomelo-coconut-dried shrimp yum som-o four times in 48 hours; the tom yum soup was the best I had in Thailand, with almost too much seafood to eat in one sitting. 

The kitchen has a relationship with fishermen in Phuket’s Rawai, purchasing their catch daily. (Early birds at dinner have the widest selection.) The Andaman seafood platter at waterfront restaurant Rock Salt came piled with two kinds of local prawns, lobster, steamed Thai clams, and oysters, a formidable tower even for two hungry travelers. And while wine in Thailand tends to be expensive and sub-par, Nai Harn’s list is a delight, created by wine critic James Suckling and impressive in its breadth. After weeks of rum and Chang beer, a slightly-chilled glass of Nero d’Avola was everything I wanted. And who knew Thailand made totally drinkable rosé? 

The Nai Harn is a great jumping-off point to explore the rest of Phuket, but with all the classic resort amenities — spa, rooftop swimming pool, the works — it’s pretty easy to while away the days onsite. When you’ve got a perfect view from your daybed, why not? 

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