Where to go for offbeat family fun in Phuket

There's more to Phuket than the beach - we round up the unexpected adventures you can have with kids in tow on this Thai island.

The Big Buddha statue lives up to its name
  • Kerrin O'Sullivan
  • February 2019

When thinking about a holiday in Phuket opens in new window, most people imagine long lovely days spent on sandy beaches, but there’s so much more on offer in this Thai province. Keep the kids entertained with animal encounters, cooking classes and even a few deeper cultural experiences.

Check out Big Buddha

The gleaming marble Big Buddha opens in new window, propped benevolently on the top of the Nakkerd Hills, impresses with its sheer size (it’s a staggering 45 metres tall). With tinkling bells, fluttering prayer flags and the chanting of orange-robed monks, it’s a serene place to enjoy 360-degree vistas of the island. To beat the crowds, it’s best to get there early in the morning but it’s also an idyllic spot to watch the sun setting over Chalong Bay. You can contribute to the statue’s maintenance by buying a marble tile, on which you can write a message to be placed inside the Buddha.

Eat and drink at Phromthep Cape Restaurant

Shake off the sand, scrub up and head out for a sunset cocktail at Phromthep Cape Restaurant opens in new window. Located on Phuket’s southernmost promontory, the open-air restaurant offers lovely views and balmy ocean breezes. Try the local prawns with an ice-cold beer while the kids tuck into a seafood basket with fresh coconut water. For anyone after a slightly more upscale experience, several resorts dot the coastline boasting to-die-for views.

Go zip-lining

Zip-lining through the lush rainforest area around the Kathu Waterfall guarantees beautiful views and an adrenaline rush for all ages. Flying Hanuman opens in new window offers eco-sensitive flying fox adventures for the whole family – you can even opt to be filmed so you can re-live the experience back home. If that doesn’t sound quite crazy enough, why not learn the high-flying art of trapeze on the sands of Micky Monkey Beach, Mai Khao? Flying Trapeze opens in new window Phuket provide safety briefing, skills training and supervision in classes for both kids and adults. BYO sense of adventure.

The Big Buddha statue lives up to its name
Phuket's tall forests makes for perfect zip-lining.

Take a cooking class

There’s a smorgasbord of cooking courses that offer hands-on tuition in Thai cuisine but an excellent option is the Phuket Thai Cooking Academy opens in new window, which hosts children’s classes. The day begins with a trip to Kathu Market to shop for fresh ingredients such as rice noodles, lemongrass and mangoes that will be used to cook up a wide range of dishes (think pad Thai, massaman curry and mango with sticky rice). Chop, simmer and sizzle at your individual cooking stations while taking in stunning views, then share the meal you cooked together.

Meet gibbons

With their big eyes and furry faces, gibbons are undeniably cute. Sadly, poachers keen to make quick tourist dollars often remove them from their rainforest homes, exploiting baby apes as photo props for tourists. Once mature, the adult apes are abandoned and replaced by more photogenic baby gibbons, leading to them becoming endangered. In Khao Phra Thaeo National Park, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project opens in new window rescues abused gibbons, nurses them back to health and releases them into the rainforest. The GRP sanctuary is not a petting zoo – so no cuddling, feeding or flash photography – but it is a great place for kids to learn about conservation and spend time in nature.

Thailand's gibbons are full of personality
Thailand's gibbons are full of personality.

Access the Upside Down

Head to the quirky Upside Down House of Phuket opens in new window located on the northern outskirts of Phuket Town. The inverted three-storey house rests on its roof, with furniture nailed to the ceiling. A wander through its rooms promises an illusory experience plus goofy photo opportunities. Fancy a family brainteaser? Also on-site is The Chamber of Secrets with two escape rooms – using teamwork to solve puzzles and break out of the room is a fun and challenging way for everyone to bond. When the rain stops, tackle the hedge maze outside or climb up to the teak tree house for a bird’s-eye view over the grounds.

Go “rollerballing” on a beach

If rolling down a hill in a giant plastic ball sounds like your kind of fun, then check out zorbing (aka rollerballing) at Kalim Beach opens in new window, north of Patong Beach on the island’s west coast. Two people – it can be a parent and child – climb into the three-metre-wide ball filled with 40 litres of water before turning and tumbling, sloshing and sliding along 190 metres of thrills, spills and laughs. Choose from the straight hill run or the more adventurous twister – and bring your togs, towel and trust. It’s ideal for a rainy day, as you’re going to get wet anyway.

Visit a temple

To add a dose of spirituality to your trip, seek out one of the 40 Buddhist temples on the island – some more than a century old. At Wat Chalong opens in new window, set amongst manicured gardens about 10 kilometres south of Phuket city, the inspiring architecture, beautiful murals and sacred relics, such as a walking stick with healing powers and a splinter of bone from Buddha, will have the whole family intrigued. It’s just as interesting to watch local worshippers make offerings of lotus flowers and pay their respects by sticking gold leaf on the idols.

The Wat Chalong temple is an inspiring cultural site
The Wat Chalong temple is an inspiring cultural site.

Learn about turtles

Each year, sea turtles leave their Andaman Sea home to lay eggs on Mai Khao Beach, in Phuket’s north-west. While habitat loss means their numbers are declining, turtles still return here during nesting season (October to March) to hatch their young. The Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation opens in new window, located on the grounds of JW Marriott Phuket Resort opens in new window, holds free information and feeding sessions (donations are appreciated).

Ride an artificial wave

On days when the wind is whipping up the Andaman Sea with gnarly waves, you can head inland for a surf. Across the road from Kata Beach, Surf House Phuket opens in new window offers gentle sloping artificial waves for both stand-up flowboarding and bodyboarding. Parents can surf or just chill poolside with a snack and a Singha beer from the Wipeout Bar while cheering on the kids as they hang ten, perform tricks or learn the basics. Surf sessions run hourly and it can get busy so book early.

Master your surfing technique at Surf House Phuket
Master your surfing technique at Surf House Phuket.

Join a bike tour

A cycling tour of sleepy Koh Yao Noi (Little Long Island) will show you a different side of Thailand, pedalling through fishing villages, rubber plantations, lush rice paddies, mangrove forests and stretches of jungle. A mini-bus transfer to Phuket’s pier for a one-hour boat ride across Phang Nga Bay is all it takes to be transported into the quiet rural haven. These full-day tours are available for children 10 years and over but shorter tours and simpler itineraries to other places can be tailored by Amazing Bike Tours opens in new window.

Support the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary

The island’s only genuine shelter, the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary opens in new window, rescues and rehabilitates sick, injured and old elephants that have been mistreated while working in Phuket’s logging or tourism industries (while many operators still offer elephant rides, treks or shows, training these majestic creatures to “perform” or “work” is often harsh and cruel). The whole family can learn about elephants while watching the herd bathe and socialise – you can also feed the majestic creatures.

The ethical sanctuary offers a guilt-free elephant experience
The ethical sanctuary offers a guilt-free elephant experience.

Visit a market for dinner

When dinnertime rolls around a feast for the senses awaits at the island’s night markets. One of the newer options is the open-air Chillva Market in Phuket Town. Created from shipping containers, the market has a cool vibe with artisan clothing stalls, live music and the mouth-watering aromas of local delicacies wafting from the grill. Get a dragon fruit juice to wash down kai jeow (omelettes over rice) and klnay tod (deep-fried finger bananas). Feeling adventurous? Try the fried grasshopper or red ants.

Explore history

Give the kids an old-fashioned paper map of Phuket’s Old Town (find one at the tourist information centre on Thalang Road) and let them lead the way. Check out the Shrine of the Serene Light, note Thai Hua Museum’s opens in new window striking Sino-Portuguese architecture and learn about Phuket’s tin-mining history. Walk Thalang Road, which, at 4pm on Sundays, becomes Phuket Walking Street with Lard Yai market offering amazing food. Stop for a Thai coffee at UnforgetTablePhuket opens in new window, then grab a pa thong ko (doughnut) from a street stall. When everyone’s tired of walking, head back in a tuktuk.