The real Phuket reveals its charm
The beautiful Thai island of Phuket has developed beyond its beautiful beaches. Local identities reveal the hippest and newest places to go.
- September 2018
Phuket has changed – a lot. From a sleepy backwater, it’s become one of the most important provinces in Thailand, with all the major development that entails: tunnels and expressways, mega shopping malls and a flash new international airport terminal late last year.
Then there are the beaches. In 2011, Phuket opens in new window’s sands were covered in beach chairs and umbrellas and filled with assorted ice cream and souvenir vendors – there was barely a spot to put down a towel, and you were discouraged from doing so by the locals that made a living renting out sun loungers. Fast forward to more recent times and the beaches have been (mostly) cleared, with the natural order restored and palm tree vistas no longer obscured.
However, perhaps the biggest change has been the improvement of the island’s culinary scene, which is now a vibrant world of top-class chefs and innovative mixologists. Rustic opens in new window spins contemporary European and Asian fusion cuisine. Meanwhile, over at Suay opens in new window in Phuket Town, chef Tammasak Chootong opens in new window has been doing the same for Thai food, merging his local heritage with a German upbringing to create an often unique menu of cross-cultural favourites, such as the Phuket-style quiche Lorraine with crab meat in yellow curry, and the spaghetti with grilled river prawns served in spicy tom yum butter sauce.
Indeed, the Old Town as a whole has gone from sleepy backwater to trendsetter, with new cafes springing up every week – try Bookhemian opens in new windowfor the hipster vibe – and a wave of brave new restaurateurs like Smokin’ Fish opens in new window. Right next door is Phuket’s coolest bar Z1mplex, where mad scientist duo Tom Auttayatamavittaya and Nann Yantapanit brew their crazy concoctions - try the ‘Hannibal’ with schnapps, rum, gin, cream liqueur, and bitters served a skull-shaped glass.
The latest sights
Of course, there’s plenty more to do than just drinking and dining in Phuket.
The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary opens in new window opened as a retirement home for sick, injured and old elephants from the island’s many trekking camps. Visitors here have limited interaction with the elephants, and instead observe the animals – which often arrive with severe man-inflicted injuries – as they graze, swim and play. Within a short space of time, it started to change attitudes on the island towards elephants, helping steer it towards ethical tourism. Much like the clearing of the beaches, and the infrastructure improvements, it shows how Phuket continues to grow, and remains a truly wonderful place to visit – and call home.
Tim Newton owns Phuket radio station The Thaiger and has lived on the island for five years. Originally from Melbourne, Tim came for the beaches, adventures and pad Thai.
There are two main shopping centres in Phuket and another three on the way, but I prefer to head to the Expo Market close to Phuket’s Old Town where the locals shop. Bargain hard! For a drink, head – at sunset, of course – to the Sunset Bar on the cliff road between Kata Beach and Nai Harn. When it comes to eating on the island, you can’t go wrong with a banana pancake on the street. There’s approximately three million calories in each, or something like that, but it’s true love in every bite. I like mine with Nutella.
When I’m looking for something to do, I head up to the Khao Rang Viewpoint overlooking Phuket Town. Get up there before sunset to enjoy amazing views, then enjoy dinner at Tung Ka Café, where they serve outstanding local curries. Lastly, when I need an escape from it all, I head to Mai Khao Beach in the north of the island. There’s kilometres of sand. That’s paradise for me.
Filmmaker Nico Raess co-owns Phuket video production company Fat Mango Videos. He moved to Phuket at age 13 and has called it home ever since.
I don’t really shop much, but if I were to get a gift for someone, I’d go to the Lard Yai Sunday Night Market on Thaland Road in the Old Town. It’s become a kind of gathering point for makers of local handmade goods, and they have some great street food. When it comes to eating, I’m a sucker for Isaan food from the northeast of Thailand.
If you can handle your spice, then head to the Big Chicken in Kathu – it’s a local landmark with a huge 15m-tall rooster statue at the entrance. Order the tum taeng spicy cucumber salad. If you want to get away from the craziness of Bangla Road in Patong, Phuket Town has some great little watering holes – check out Cue Bar next to the Clocktower roundabout. When I need a getaway, I head down to Rawai Beach and rent a longtail boat for the day. For around THB1,000 (SGD $40), they will take you on a private tour of the offshore islands.
Born on the island, Piangpen Thampradit is a fixture on the Old Town’s bar scene, and is owner of the popular Phuketique Coffee Bar opens in new window and co-owner of craft beer bar, Crafts & Co.
There are plenty of great restaurants in Phuket Town for eating, but a secret place I like to go is Mee Hoon Pa Chang in the Bang Niew Chinese Temple – while the service may not win awards, their Hokkien-style mee hoon rice noodles are some of the best the island. When I’m not looking after the bar in my own places, I head to Club No. 43 – while I prefer their classic-style cocktails, you can tell the staff here what you like and they’ll create something special just for you. When I’m looking for a little adventure, I take to the skies at the Flying Hanuman in Kathu, a zipline adventure park where you ‘fly’ across the jungle canopy. When I need a change of pace, my favourite place to head to is the southern end of Kata Beach, to find a quiet and shady spot of sand – if you’re here in the evening, grab a drink at the nearby Reggae Bar, perched on the rocks.