Buildings in the old quarter of Phuket

Phuket, Thailand – Backpacker Guide!

One of the very first superstars of the Thailand tourism industry, Phuket, nicknamed ‘Pearl of the Andaman’ has enjoyed huge popularity by travellers worldwide. (Say it right: Phuket is pronounced ‘Poo-Ket’, rather than ‘Fuket’ as I’ve heard many travellers say!)

Located on the strikingly beautiful East coast of Thailand (the Andaman Sea), Phuket is the largest island in the country and attracts all those in self-indulgent search of sun, sea, sand and 24-hour parties! Nearby in Krabi and Phuket Province, you’ll find the popular islands of Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta and the mainland destinations, Krabi and Railay.

Due to over-development, expensive prices and tacky tourist attractions, backpackers who visit Phuket in search of the ‘real Thailand’ will be sorely disappointed. Much more of a holiday isle than an adventurous travellers destination, Phuket was even voted the 4th worst place to visit for backpackers in Southeast Asia in our recent readers poll!

That said, if you’re looking for sun, sea, sand and a good time, the island still has a lot going for it and there are some gorgeous islands that can be visited on a day’s boat trip if you’re looking for something quieter. Plus, we’re big fans of the underrated Phuket Town, which is an overlooked cultural gem on the island.

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Best time to visit Phuket

  • High Season in Phuket: Phuket has its high season from November to February which brings the best weather (sunny and fresh) and the biggest crowds. Over Christmas and New Year prices soar and booking in advance is recommended. This is the best time to visit Phuket for beach-bumming, snorkelling and diving (for the best visibility).
  • Hot Season in Phuket: February-June is the hottest time of year with temperatures reaching 32 degrees.
  • Monsoon Season in Phuket: The rainy season in Phuket starts around June and can last until October bringing daily monsoon downpours. With deals on hotels and fewer crowds, don’t be put off visiting Phuket at this time of year as the rain showers usually only fall in the mornings over the period of a few hours, leaving the afternoons sunny. 

Where to stay in Phuket, Thailand

The island is huge and the area that you choose to stay in will determine the type of experience that you have.

Being popular with rich tourists and families, the island has its fair share of five-star and resort-style accommodation. Along with Koh Samui, Phuket has some of Thailand’s fanciest hotels, complete with spa facilities, swimming pools and buffet dinners.

Fancy hotels and boutique guesthouses line the streets around the main beach resorts of Patong, Kata and Karon Beach. Like in most parts of the world expect to pay more for resorts closer to the beach. You need to pay 3,000 baht and up for real luxury. (When you start to complain just remember – this is the price of a travel lodge in Paris!)

For those on a more modest budget, there are hundreds, if not thousands of hostels, guesthouses and bungalows in Phuket around the mid-range 500-700 THB mark, and there are some cheaper options at around 300 THB.

If you’re looking for a rustic beachy experience – forget it! Cheap bamboo bungalows no longer exist in Phuket, although plenty of boutique backpacker hostels that have sprung up in recent years, will be happy to cater to your needs. Backpacker budget options can be found scattered mainly in Phuket Town and Patong.

Check out our list of the best hostels in Phuket here.

Where to Stay in Phuket?

Phuket Town – For Culture Vultures

We love the old charm of Phuket’s Old Quarter, Phuket Town, the so-called capital of Phuket! With its colonial buildings, cute cafés, jazz bars, boutique shops and great street food, this area has bags of character and atmosphere. Over the years, the town has seen influences from Chinese, Portuguese and Malaysian immigrants. Don’t miss the Phuket Vegetarian Festival in Phuket Town in October! See more on this in our Festivals Guide.

Colourful Sino-Portuguese Buildings in Phuket Old Town
Colourful Sino-Portuguese Buildings in Phuket Old Town.

With its Chinese shop-houses, old streets, art galleries and museums, Phuket Town is the place to stay if you want to get a feel for Phuket’s cultural and historical side. There are many quirky cafes and interesting boutique shops here and some cheap and great places to stay. 

Fun Fact: On On Hotel in Phuket Old Town is the original ‘fleapit hostel that was featured in the legendary backpacker film, The Beach. Nowadays, it’s been completely renovated into a stylish boutique guesthouse called ‘Memory at On On’ and is a far cry from the dirty prison cell where Robert Carlisle had his mad mutterings.

On On Hotel, Phuket Town
On On Hotel, Phuket Town (The hostel which appeared in the film, The Beach.)

Patong – For Party Animals

The infamous Patong is a busy tourist enclave with shopping malls, hundreds of restaurants and 24-hour nightlife – expect families, couples and groups of guys on holiday rather than your average backpacker here in this holiday hot spot! 

Tourists on Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand.
Hundreds of Tourists on Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand.

Patong is the area to base yourself if you’re looking to party! Popular with stag parties (bachelor parties), this is the area of Phuket that’s full of go-go bars and nightclubs. Here you’ll find a selection of Phuket’s best party hostels, though if you’re looking for peace and tranquillity, better stay elsewhere on the island – or another island altogether!

Karon and Kata Beach – For Beach Bums

Renowned as being Phuket’s best beaches, Karon and Kata lie next to each other on the southwest coast of the island. Although you’ll mainly find upmarket accommodation here, there are a few backpacker hostels hiding amidst the swank. 

For those in search of adventure, Kata Beach is one of the only places in Thailand where you can surf! Read more about surfing in Phuket here.

(Kata Yai Beach is the beach that is most popular with the surfers while its less busy sister beach Kata Noi provides white sands and peace and quiet.)

Karon Beach is the second most developed beach after Patong, so prices here are more inflated. There are a large number of beautiful high-end resorts and hotels for the flashpackers amongst us, but there are a few decently priced and stylish backpacker hostels here too.

Bang Tao or Kamala Beach

A bit further up the west coast, you’ll find the quieter beaches of Bang Tao and Kamala. Bang Tao Beach is a 6-km stretch of sand that is dominated in the centre by the huge fancy resort Laguna Phuket. More modest guesthouses and hostels are dotted around the edges and the nearby fishing village of Cherng Talay is great to explore. Kamala Beach, just north of Patong is a much quieter place to stay, popular with expats and retirees.

Naiyang Beach – Near Phuket Airport

If you fly in late at night and you need a place to stay staying just five minutes from the airport, Naiyang Beach is a good idea. You’ll find a much more local feel here than at some of the major tourist beaches like Patong, and the nearby Sirinath National Park is worth exploring.

Top 13 Things to do in Phuket, Thailand

1. Enjoy Phuket’s Nightlife!

Renowned for its 24-hour nightlife, Patong is the spot to hit if you’re looking to let your hair down and party! Bangla Road is the main drag with its neon lights and Thai women coaxing you in to drink cheap beers and shots. There are go-go bars, nigh-clubs, lady-boy cabaret shows – you name it! As well as plenty of beach parties, and rooftop bars (even an ice bar), there are also Full Moon Parties taking place on the tiny stretch of sand known as Paradise Beach. Stay at Paradise Beach Backpackers to soak up the full experience or stay at another one of Phuket’s famous party hostels, Bodega.

Nightlife in Patong, Phuket
Nightlife in Patong, Phuket.

2. Hit Phuket’s Beaches!

Once you get away from the bright lights and bars of the main drags, you’ll find some very beautiful beaches and coves lined with palm trees and lush rainforest. It’s the West Coast of the island that has the best beaches; where miles and miles of white sand meet turquoise waters. Karon Beach is often dubbed as the best beach in Phuket but you’ll pay for the privilege of being here. Bang Tao Beach with its 6-kilometre stretch is also a popular beach. Other beaches worth checking out are Freedom Beach and the tiny cove of Ya Nui Beach.

Nai Harn Beach, Phuket, Thailand
Nai Harn Beach, Phuket, Thailand

3. Visit the Big Buddha

The large white Big Buddha statue of Phuket sits proudly on the top of Nakkerd Hill near Chalong in the South of the island. Built in 2004, the monument has become a must-visit for tourists who reach the site by motorbike or tuk tuk. It is the third tallest statue in Thailand.

4. Hire a Motorbike

Getting a motorbike to explore the back roads and villages makes for a great day in Phuket – visiting off the beaten track sea gipsy fishing villages, getting out into the jungle in the centre of the island and finding deserted beaches all to yourself.

5. Go Diving

Phuket is surrounded by excellent dive sites, some of the most famous being Shark Point, Anemone Reef and the uninhabited islands of Racha Yai and Racha Noi. Did you know that there’s even wreck diving in Phuket? The King Cruiser is a ship that was sunk in 1997 and is now home to many tropical sea critters. Diving at nearby Koh Phi Phi is also possible on a day trip from Phuket.

A whale shark spotted whilst diving in Phuket, Thailand
A whale shark spotted whilst diving in Phuket, Thailand.

6. Explore Phuket Old Town

Get away from the beaches and the drunken tourists and soak up some culture. For those who are willing to look for it, there’s a much more sophisticated side to Phuket where you can sip tea while listening to jazz in a street café, haggle over homemade batik at a Malay fabric shop, sample traditional Hokkien Chinese cuisine and admire colonial buildings dating back a century! Where is all this possible? Phuket Town of course! Check out the article here on exploring Phuket’s little-seen Old Quarter.

Phuket's Atmospheric Old Quarter is worth exploring.
Phuket’s Atmospheric Old Quarter is worth exploring.

7. The Phuket Vegetarian Festival

For one week during the month of October, Phuket Old Town sees one of the most spectacular festivals in Southeast Asia. While devotees pierce themselves with sharp objects from knives to sun umbrellas, tourists look on in amazement! Read more in our guide to festivals in the region here.

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival - October
The Phuket Vegetarian Festival – October

8. Take a Boat Trip 

If you’ve had enough of Phuket’s crowds, take a boat trip for the day to explore the surrounding tropical islands. Tourist agencies in all parts of the island can arrange visits to ‘James Bond Island,’ the magical Phang Nga Bay or snorkelling trips any number of the deserted tropical islands surrounding Phuket such as Koh Ma or Koh Yai.

9. Muay Thai Boxing

Patong Boxing Stadium is where most tourists head to take in a Muay Thai Fight during their stay in Phuket. However, only a fraction of those tourists decide to try Thailand’s national sport for themselves. There are many Muay Thai Camps located all over the island. A member of our community, Donna, spent some time at Tiger Muay Thai in Chalong, on the east coast of Phuket and highly recommended it. You can check out her article about her experience Muay Thai Training in Phuket here.

Two women fight in the ring, Muay Thai
Muay Thai, Thailand’s National Sport.

10. Visit Phuket’s National Parks

Khao Phra Thaeo is Phuket’s largest national park, home to virgin rainforest and wildlife, it’s well worth the 400 THB entry fee for the day. Located in the northern part of the island, the park offers hiking trails, waterfalls and monkey-spotting. There’s an 8-kilometre trail here for those wanting a long sweaty hike. Thailand’s second national park, Sirinath National Park is located near to the island’s airport and Nai Yang Beach. The park is home to mangrove forests, saltwater swamps and a nature trail for visitors. It’s tame but worth a visit and is a good way to get away from the crowds.

11. Volunteer at Soi Dog Foundation 

If you love animals, why not volunteer for a day or two at the non-profit organization, the Soi Dog Foundation, which was established to help care for the abandoned street dogs and cats of the island. In 2003, when the foundation began, there were over 50,000 stray dogs roaming the island with no one to care for them. The foundation works to manage the population and provide medical care and social interaction for those animals in need. You can find out more and register to volunteer online via their website.

12. Go Surfing at Kata Beach

At Phuket’s popular beaches, there are tons of watersports available for those who despise lazing in the sun. At certain times of the year (June to September), you can even learn to surf in Phuket! With gentle waves and many places to hire a board or take cheap lessons, Phuket is a great place for beginner surfers, with Patong Beach and Kata being the places to go.

Kata Beach, Phuket
The waves at Kata Beach, Phuket, Thailand.

13. Visit Bang Pae Waterfall

Located in Khao Phra Thaeo National Park in the North of Phuket, Bang Pae Waterfall is a beautiful spot that can easily be reached by motorbike or tuk tuk. Standing at over 10 metres high, it is arguably the largest, and most beautiful, waterfall in Phuket which means that it is by no means a hidden gem! Go early in the morning to avoid crowds and don’t be disappointed if you find that the waterfall has dried to a trickle in the dry season (January – May). While Thai people pay just 20 THB to visit the falls, foreigners will have to pay 200 THB which is the standard national park fee.

Bangkok to Phuket: Getting there

From Bangkok, to get to the island of Phuket, you can either take a short flight, a bus or even the train if you’re feeling adventurous.

  • Flight: Cheap local airlines like AirAsia, Vietjet Air, Nok Air, 12GO and Thai Airways have daily flights from Bangkok which takes just an hour and a half to reach the island. Flights are around $30 US or less if you book in advance. The best thing to do is to check Skyscanner to compare the cheapest prices.
  • Bus: If you’re on a tight budget, from Bangkok, the bus to Phuket is the cheapest way to go taking around 14 hours to reach the island (which can be reached overland.) 
  • Train: There is no direct train to Phuket from Bangkok. You will have to take the train to Surat Thai from Hua Lamphong Train Station and then take a bus the rest of the way (4 hours approx.) to Phuket. Check train and bus times and prices from Bangkok to Phuket on 12Go.Asia.

Where to go next?

  • Koh Lanta: An island where we spent 6 months, Koh Lanta is much quieter and less developed than Phuket, especially the mangrove-clad East coast. Great for couples, families and those wanting a peaceful beach escape.
  • Railay and Tonsai: If you’re in the mood for some adventure then Railay and nearby Tonsai is the place for you! With rock climbing, trekking and snorkelling adventures, this bohemian beach attracts rugged hippie sorts.
  • Krabi: Explore Krabi town and find out what the rest of Krabi Province has to offer!

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