Phuket remains Thailand's showcase tourist destination, despite the 2004 tsunami and recent political unrest. Its palm-fringed beaches, warm waters, lush forests and laid-back atmosphere draw hordes of tourists from around the world.
Like any sought-after destination, mainstream tourism holds center stage on Phuket. People expecting to enjoy nearly deserted beaches might be disappointed with their first Phuket experiences. Big resorts, crowded main seaside areas and a racy nightlife scene are not exactly the makings of a dream vacation on an isolated stretch of sand. But idyllic spots do still exist on Phuket and are accessible for those who know where to look.
One of the positive aspects of Phuket's mainstream success is that an eco-tourism boom is occurring alongside the resort scene. Eco-resorts are found throughout the island, and tour companies and authorities are starting to pay more attention to conserving the island's fragile ecosystems.
Overall, Phuket is one of the best beach destinations in Southeast Asia and one of the best mainstream destinations for those looking to have a vacation with a low environmental impact.
No matter how many other activities seem attractive, there's no denying that the beaches of Phuket are the center of virtually every vacationer's itinerary. The headlining stretches of sand, Patong and Kata, are usually crowded and feature all the trappings of mainstream beach vacation destinations. If you want excitement, both day and night, this is the right part of the island for you.
A majority of the island's beaches are reasonably quiet and uncrowded. Banana Beach (also referred to as Banana Rock Beach) is one of the quietest stretches of sand on the island, mainly because it is accessible only by hiking down a steep path. The occasional strolling vendor might try to make a sale, but this beach is usually sparsely populated. Some popular beaches, such as the resort-heavy Bang Tao Beach , have isolated areas (the northern tip in Bangtao's case) that appeal to those seeking sandy solitude.
The Phuket Butterfly Garden is a popular non-beach attraction. The garden is home to thousands of butterflies and an insect museum. The butterflies are all native to Thailand and many are released into the surrounding jungle after they reach maturity. The venue also has a green program that features recycling and reusable items.
Outdoor adventure sports have become a major part of Phuket's tourism industry. Mainstays like surfing , windsurfing and kayaking are possible, with everyone from resorts to small beachside stands operated by locals offering rentals, tours and lessons. Like other popular Southeast Asian destinations, scuba diving and snorkeling operators can be found everywhere. Kon-Tiki Diving operates at several destinations in southern Thailand, including Phuket. It has been recognized for its eco-sensitive practices and green-focused business practices.
One of the most natural (and most fragile) ecosystems on Phuket is the mangrove forests. As with other rapidly developing areas, the mangroves here were rapidly being destroyed. The 2004 tsunami highlighted these trees' usefulness as a natural barrier to ocean waves. Replanting and conservation are now widespread, and tourism is bringing these areas to people's attention (of course, this also brings more traffic). However, there are low-impact options such as mountain biking along swampside trails and kayaking or canoeing through the narrow, natural canals. The latter option can bring visitors up close with the mangroves' natural residents, macaques, snakes and birds.
Khao Phra Thaeo National Park is one of the best places to experience all that inland Phuket has to offer. The park has some of the island's last virgin rain forest, jungle trekking opportunities, and many of the hikes pass by natural features like the Ton Sai and Bang Pae Waterfalls . Guides are available and advisable for those what want to take on some of the longer trails. Khao Phra Theao is also home to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Center . This center seeks to address the problems of the illegal gibbon pet trade by readying poached or abandoned pet gibbons for a return to the wild. There are free tours at the center, but the project is funded by cash donations from visitors, and most of the staff are volunteers who were introduced to the center as tourists.
Sirinath National Park is one of the better places to experience the island's mangrove forests. There are basic accommodations in the park and a wooden floating walkway that allows easy access to the wetlands without creating much disturbance.
Some of the newer high-end resorts on Phuket have opted for eco-friendly design and practices. The Evason Phuket Resort is one such property. The resort stretches across 64 acres, with low-rise buildings set amongst the garden-like landscapes. With solid recycling, energy consumption and waste management practices, it was the first Southeast Asian hotel to earn the Green Globe Seal , in 2006. The Twinpalms Phuket Resort offers a similarly green focus for sustainability-minded travelers. This resort also has a strong commitment to local businesses, supporting small companies that have eco-friendly practices and are run by local residents.
On the other end of the price spectrum is camping, which is allowed on two Phuket beaches: Mai Khao and Nai Yang, both within Sirinath National Park . There are also some very basic, cheap beachside bungalows in the Nai Yang area.
A new resort, the Thanyamundra Organic Resort , is on a working organic farm. This is one of the new developments by the eco-conscious Thanyapura Hospitality Group, which is developing several green-themed resorts in the region.
Phuket owed much of its earlier tourism success to dirt-cheap guesthouse rooms and seaside bungalows that were light on amenities but cheap enough to encourage a long-term stay. Though there are plenty of four- and five-star venues on the island, there are still some “Lonely Planet”-style backpacker hangouts.
As with most of the largely Buddhist areas in East and Southeast Asia, Phuket is an easy place to be a vegetarian, with widely available meatless dishes. There are several good vegetarian-only places and even a few vegan-centered restaurants.
Finding locally sourced foods is also easy. Fresh, local fruits and vegetables are the norm throughout the islands, and seafood is most likely caught nearby. Night markets and traditional markets , several in Phuket City, are a great venue for getting up close with local products.
Motorcycle or jeep rentals are available on Phuket. However, a high rate of traffic accidents (most fatal ones involving motorcycles) might dissuade some tourists from this option. In tourist centers, taxis and tuk tuks (tiny mini-buses) offer cheap transportation. Air-conditioned mini-buses and standard public buses run regularly between towns and some of the main beaches. In towns and along beaches, converted pickup trucks called song thaew (with wooden seats nailed into the trucks' beds) are a cheap option, with most trips costing less than $1.
Biking is possible, although the same hazardous road conditions that making motorcycles a risky proposition also apply to foot-powered two-wheelers. Tour companies offer guided tours for those who don't want to deal with the hassle of pedaling alone in unfamiliar terrain.
Phuket is definitely one of the most visited areas in Southeast Asia. Aside from the crowded beaches, high-end resorts and riotous nightlife, there is plenty of nature and venues that are committed to conserving the natural environment, making sure that Phuket's tourism boom is as green as possible.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.