I was walking in the middle of Phuket Town when I was stopped by a young French couple, struggling with a map.
“Excuse me, can you tell us where the beach is?” the girl asked.
“Not here” I replied. “You’re in the wrong place for the beach”.
I ended up recommending they go to Karon Beach the following day.
In this internet age, you would think it’s quite easy to research the best place to stay for your desires but it’s obvious so many people don’t. Backpackers arrive at Kata Beach expecting nightclubs and loud music bars, families and the elderly go to Patong expecting an idyllic beach holiday. Sorry guys, you’ve chosen the wrong place.
Phuket’s a much bigger island than many realise; public transport is limited and taxis and tuktuks expensive compared to the rest of Thailand, so choosing the right area to say is important. I’m not going to recommend any hotels, resorts, guesthouses or hostels; you know the type of place you’re looking for, your own budget, you know the large online agents like Booking.com, you’ve read the reviews on Tripadvisor. But let’s have a look at some of the major resort areas. I’m not trying to suggest where you might want to stay but more where you shouldn’t be.
I’ll start with the already mentioned Phuket Town. There’s no beach, it’s a municipal centre, has a fairly attractive and interesting Old Town area and some good local style nightlife. Worth a night or two if you’re travelling around and have plenty of time or for a night before travelling elsewhere from the main bus terminal, but if you’re taking a ferry it’s just as easy to get there from the beaches.
If it’s nightlife you want the Patong is the place to be: big, bright, brash, in your face but fun nonetheless. The beach is not the best, with jetskis and parasailers taking up much of the space, constant hassle from both legal and illegal vendors, and it’s busier and dirtier than many other beaches in Phuket. On a rainy day, however, Patong has more activities than anywhere else: massages, cinemas, bowling, shopping, Kidzania and a huge selection of bars and restaurants. Its nightlife is by far the best on the island with several nightclubs and literally hundreds of bars, together with an array of restaurants of variable quality. The nightlife can be on the seedy side, especially on Soi Bangla with its girlie bars full of scantily clad working ladies, ladyboys and sex-show touts, but you you can actually stay in Patong and avoid Bangla if you want. It’s the place to go for the younger crowd, same-sex groups, single men, party animals and pissheads but families, couples, the elderly and other less gregarious people may prefer to stay elsewhere.
Karon is the second largest tourist area in Phuket but it’s very different. Many believe Karon to be the best beach on Phuket but when a place is deemed to be the best, it often attracts too many tourists, and this can be the case on Karon Beach in high season, when sunbeds are full and the beach is busy; I won’t say packed, though, as many tourists are intrinsically lazy and don’t bother to walk five minutes to a slightly quieter part of the beach, which would also enable them to get away from the jetskis and the parasailers for a more relaxing beach experience.
Nightlife in Karon is much less frenetic than Patong. There are enough restaurants and bars to keep you amused, including a couple of live music bars near Karon Circle, but there are no nightclubs and few places catering mainly for the young.
In low season Karon used be just about dead, partly because of its notoriously dangerous beach at this time, where every year drownings occur, but the Chinese are there year-round so it’s now a much busier place.
Kata is similar in character to Karon, its neighbour, though the beach is more of a large bay rather than a long stretch of sand. The huge Club Med resort is just across the road, hence the ends of the beach are much busier than the middle as there’s no through road to the centre of the beach unless you’re staying at Club Med. I like Kata, also Kata Noi ihas a decent beach but the whole area is dominated by the Katathani Resort
Mai Khao Beach in the north of the island is a long stretch of often-deserted sand, with minimal facilities outside of a few large, expensive resorts that border the beach there. It’s a long way from anywhere else on Phuket, the airport excluded.
Bang Tao beach is another long stretch of sand but much of it is home to the Laguna complex, a village of large resort-style four and five star hotels. Great if you’re happy to stay in this type of complex for your entire holiday as other nightlife and facilities nearby are somewhat limited, though you don’t have to travel too far to find good restaurants, bars and shopping.
Kamala is a more family orientated centre with good hotels and plenty of bars, restaurants and shops close to the beach.
Surin Beach used to be the trendy party beach with its exclusive beach clubs attracting quite an upmarket younger crowd. Not any more, as the beach has been declared a “virgin beach” with the clubs demolished and all sunbeds, umbrellas and commerce prohibited. Sad.
But that’s better than its neighbour Laem Singh which is currently closed to the public. This much photographed beach can no longer be reached from the road as the local landowners are not allowing the public to cross their land! So, effectively, there’s no access.
Nai Harn is much used by locals and expats. Not a huge amount of accommodation in the area but the demand for good food by the local expat community has made it a good area in which to stay, with a diverse selection of restaurants and several bars.
Nai Yang is near the airport. Not recommended for a long stay but good for a couple of nights either directly before or after a flight.
You should bear in mind that swimming can be dangerous on all West Coast beaches from May until November. Far too many tourists and locals drown as a result of ignoring lifeguards, flags and signs. Please don’t become a statistic.
The East coast has some excellent hotels but average beaches with poor swimming.
Beach bums might like to find some of the quieter beaches on the island: Yanui; Ao Sane; Nui; Freedom Beach; Banana Beach and a few others. Not necessarily a place to stay but, for example, a tourist staying in Nai Harn or Rawai could easily visit Ao Sane and Yanui.
Once you’ve chosen where you want to stay then the hotel is down to you. Families will probably want a hotel with kids’s facilities and a pool, backpackers might consider staying in more than one part of Phuket, single men should take into account any fee the hotel charges for entertaining young ladies (ask how much is the joiner fee), in which case guesthouses with no fee are sometimes more suitable.
This is just basic information. Have an idea of the type of place you prefer then do your research. This saves the dreaded “It’s too noisy!”, “It’s too quiet!”, “There’s nothing to do here!”, “The beach is too far away!” type comments every hotel owner hates to hear.
Get it right and you’ll have a better vacation.