Phuket, the largest island in Thailand
Phuket is one of the most popular islands in Thailand
Phuket, which is approximately the size of Singapore, is Thailand’s largest island. The island is connected to mainland Thailand by a bridge. It is situated off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Phuket formerly derived its wealth from tin and rubber, and enjoyed a rich and colorful history. The island was on one of the major trading routes between India and China, and was frequently mentioned in foreign ship logs of Portuguese, French, Dutch and English traders. The region now derives much of its income from tourism.
Sino-Portuguese Phuket is the biggest and most touristic island in Thailand
Phuket is the biggest island in Thailand, located in the Andaman Sea of southern Thailand. The island is mostly mountainous with a mountain range in the west of the island from the north to the south. The mountains of Phuket form the southern end of the Phuket mountain range, which ranges for 440 km from the Kra Isthmus. The highest elevation of the island is Mai Thao Sip Song (Twelve Canes), at 529 m above sea level.
It is estimated that Phuket has a total area of approximately 570 square kilometers (including the provinces other islands). Phuket is approximately 536 miles (862 kilometers) south of Bangkok, and covers an area of approximately 134,178 acres (543 square kilometers) excluding small islets. It is estimated that if all its 39 other small islands are included, Phuket Province will cover an area of approximately 145,792 acres (590 square kilometers). The island total length, from north to south, is estimated at 30 miles (48.7 kilometers) and 13 miles (21.3 kilometers) wide.
Phuket’s topology is exceptional with 70 percent of its area covered with mountains which stretch from north to south and the remaining 30 percent being plains located in the central and eastern parts of the island. The island does not have any major rivers except for a total of 9 brooks and creeks.
Forest, rubber and palm oil plantations cover 60% of the island. The western coast has several sandy beaches, while on the east coast beaches are more often muddy. Near the southernmost point is Laem Promthep (Brahma’s Cape), which is a popular sunset viewing point. In the mountainous north of the island is the Khao Phra Thaeo Non-hunting Area, protecting more than 20 km² of rainforest. The three highest peaks of this reserve are the Khao Prathiu (384 m), Khao Bang Pae (388 m) and Khao Phara (422 m). The Sirinat National Park on the northwestern coast was established in 1981 and protects an area of 90 km² (68 km² marine area), including the Nai Yang beach where sea turtles lay their eggs.
One of the most popular tourist areas on Phuket is Patong Beach on the central western coast, perhaps owing to the easy access to its wide and long beach. Most of Phuket’s nightlife and its cheap shopping is located in Patong, and the area has become increasingly developed. Patong means “the forest filled with banana leaves” in Thai. Other popular beaches are located south of Patong. In a counterclockwise direction these include Karon Beach, Kata Beach, Kata Noi Beach, and around the southern tip of the island, Nai Harn Beach and Rawai. To the north of Patong are Kamala Beach, Surin Beach and Bang Tao Beach. These areas are generally much less developed than Patong, and sought out by individuals, families and other groups with a preference for more relaxed and less crowded environs than Patong. There are many islands to the southeast, including Bon Island, just a short boat trip away. There are several coral islands to the south of Phuket, the Similan Islands lie to the north west, and Phi Phi Islands to the south east. Islanders engage in a lively tourist trade, catering to snorkellers and scuba divers.
The name Phuket (of which the ph sound is an aspirated p) is apparently derived from the word bukit in Malay which means hill, as this is what the island appears like from a distance. The region was formerly referred to as “Thalang,” derived from the old Malay “Telong” which means “Cape.” The northern district of the province, which was the location of the old capital, still uses this name.
In the 17th century, the Dutch, the English, and from the 1680s the French, competed with each other for trade with the island of Phuket (the island was named Junk Ceylon at that time), which was valued as a very rich source of tin. In September 1680, a ship from the French East India Company visited Phuket and left with a full cargo of tin. In 1681 or 1682, the Siamese king Narai, who was seeking to reduce Dutch and English influence, named Governor of Phuket the French medical missionary Brother René Charbonneau, a member of the Siam mission of the Société des Missions Etrangères. Charbonneau held the position of Governor until 1685.
In 1685, king Narai confirmed the French tin monopoly in Phuket to a French ambassador, the Chevalier de Chaumont. Chaumont’s former maître d’hôtel Sieur de Billy was named governor of the island. The French were expelled from Siam in 1688 however, following the 1688 Siamese revolution. On April 10, 1689, the French general Desfarges led an expedition to re-capture the island of Phuket in an attempt to restore some sort of French control in Siam. The occupation of the island led nowhere, and Desfarges returned to Pondicherry in January 1690.
The Burmese attacked Phuket in 1785. Captain Francis Light, a British East India Company captain passing by the island, sent word to the local administration that he had observed Burmese forces preparing to attack. Than Phu Ying Chan, the wife of the recently deceased governor, and her sister Mook then assembled what forces they could. After a month-long siege, the Burmese were forced to retreat March 13, 1785. The two women became local heroines, receiving the honorary titles Thao Thep Krasatri and Thao Si Sunthon from King Rama I. During the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), Phuket became the administrative center of the tin-producing southern provinces. In 1933 Monthon Phuket was dissolved and Phuket became a province by itself. Old names of the island include Ko Thalang.
On December 26, 2004, Phuket and other nearby areas on Thailand’s western coast suffered extensive damage when they were struck by the Boxing Day tsunami caused by the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake. The waves destroyed several highly populated areas in the region, killing as many as 5,300 people nationwide, and tens of thousands more throughout the wider Asian region. As many as 250 people were reported dead in Phuket including foreign tourists and as many as a thousand unreported deaths of illegal Burmese workers building new beach resorts in the Khao Lak area. Almost all the major beaches on the west coast, especially Kamala, Patong, Karon and Kata, sustained major damage, with some damage also being caused to resorts and villages on the island’s southern beaches.
By February 2005 many damaged and most undamaged resorts were back in business, and throughout 2005 life slowly returned to normal for the people of Phuket. As of November 2005, following strenuous recovery programs, there is little obvious remaining tsunami damage other than at the most remote beaches, and the tourist industry, which drives the Phuket economy, has now almost fully recovered.
The compact Phuket International Airport www.airportthai.co.th/airportnew/phuket/html(IATA: HKT) (ICAO: VTSP) is in the north of the island, and is Thailand’s second largest hub, second only to Bangkok. There are very frequent flights to/from Bangkok as well as direct flights to many other airports in the region, including Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, and direct charters to Europe and Australia in the high season.
- Australia – V Australia www.vaustralia.com.au, and Jetstar www.jetstar.com.au have direct flights from/to major cities in Australia.
- Malaysia – AirAsia www.airasia.com, FireFly www.fireflyz.com.my and Malaysia Airlines www.malaysiaairlines.com have direct flights from/to Kuala Lumpur.
- Singapore – SilkAir www.silkair.com has 32 flights a week. Low cost alternatives are Thai AirAsia www.airasia.com and Tiger Airways www.tigerairways.com.
- Germany – Air Berlin www.airberlin.com has nonstop flights to Berlin(ends 26 April) and Munich.
- Vietnam – Air Asia www.airasia.com operates direct daily flights from/to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon)
Other low cost direct connections include Hong Kong, Jakarta, Macao, Seoul, Medan and Busan
There are some charter flights in high season from European and Asian countries such as Sweden, Taiwan, Japan, etc. The airlines charge a very cheap fare.
Several domestic discount airlines fly here, including Air Asia www.airasia.com. Tickets from Bangkok can cost under 1000 baht one-way if booked well in advance, or around 2000 baht (including taxes) if bought on the day.
Thai Airways www.thaiair.com flies from Bangkoks Suvarnabhumi airport several times every day, as well as once daily from Chiang Mai (but there are no direct flights in the opposite direction). Additionally, they sell tickets from/to many domestic and international destinations with stopover in Bangkok – which are usually cheaper (especially international) than if you book separate tickets. Cheapest (non-exchangeable and non-refundable – though taxes are refunded even in the unfortunate case of no-show, if you call them later) one-way ticket from Bangkok, as of April 2008, costs 2320 baht – worth checking if you book just a few days before flight, as low-cost airlines may cost only 200-300 baht less in this situation, but you get world-famous Thai Airways service, and free onboard meals too.
Bangkok Airways www.bangkokair.com has a monopoly on direct flights between Phuket and U-Tapao (Pattaya / Sattahip) and Ko Samui. They also have 4 daily flights from Bangkok – fares are around 1700 baht inclusive of taxes when purchased on the airline website.
Destination Air Shuttle www.destinationair.com offers direct seaplane transfers (some of which operate seasonally) between Phuket and Ko Lanta, Ko Phi Phi, Krabi, Ranong, Trang, the Similan Islands, and other popular Andaman coast destinations.
To get from the airport to your destination, there are several options:
- Limousine (blue) taxis from the airport are expensive, costing 500-600 baht to Patong Beach or Bt 400 Phuket Town. The airport co-op booth tucked away towards the back is a little cheaper than the competition. Despite the name, most “limousines” are Toyota Camrys with leather seats, though you may be lucky and get a Mercedes.
- Metered (yellow) taxis (ignore the touts and turn right as you exit the airport building, there is a stand at the end) cost 300+ baht. You may stumble upon a freelance taxi driver that will take you from the Airport to Patong for the flat fee of 400 baht. If the driver is pleasant, you may wish to ask for his mobile number for the return trip later. The same driver can take you from Patong to Phuket Town for 350 to 400 baht.
- Minibus services (basically door-to-door share taxis) charge 150-250 baht per seat. Any travel agent can arrange a ride for the way back to the airport, but if you want one from the airport, you’ll usually need to charter the whole thing for over 1000 baht.
- Municipal a/c Airport Bus service (every day 6:30-20:45, every 60-90 minutes) to Phuket Town bus station costs 85 baht; local buses run from there and Ranong Street Market to all the major beaches until around 18:00 for about 25 THB. To and from Patong and Kathu the best transfer point is at the Surakul Stadium. After getting off the respective bus just cross the street and wait for the continuing bus there. It is a very convenient and comfortable spot, with no touts or hustlers, plenty of shade and a mini mart for drinks and snacks. — The bus will stop anywhere along its route upon signalling the driver (“bus hiking”). A very informative website is here: www.airportbusphuket.com.
Departure tax is now included in the ticket price. The airport is notionally divided into Terminal 1 and 2, with some charter and low-cost operators using the second, but these are only a few hundred meters apart and connected by an air-conditioned walkway.
There are no direct train services to Phuket. But many trains leave from Bangkok central station going south all the way to Singapore. The most comfortable are the sleeper trains (~685 THB for a berth in a 2nd class a/c car. Travellers by train must get off at Phun Phin railway station in Surat Thani province and continue for another 5 hours by regular bus to Phuket. Do not buy the bus ticket until you actually see the bus and can make sure it is not standing room only as it picks up passengers at the popular Ko Samui ferry. If full wait for the next one.
Buses to mainland destinations including Bangkok, Chumphon, Hat Yai, Krabi, Phang Nga, Ranong, Satun, Sungai Kolok and Surat Thani use the BKS terminal off Thanon Phang Nga in Phuket Town.
The most reliable buses from Bangkok are the public BKS www.transport.co.th buses from the Southern Bus Terminal to Phuket. The journey takes 13 hours. There are also 2 private bus companies, Phuket Travel Tour and Phuket Central Tour. Khao San Road operations have a bad reputation for theft, often turn out to include a “surprise” transfer to a minibus at Surat Thani, and are best avoided.
From Phuket bus terminal to your final destination, you can take a motorcycle taxi, tuk-tuk, meter-taxi, or bus. A motorcycle taxi into Phuket Town will be about 10-20 baht; to most beaches 100-200 baht (negotiable).
A local bus to one of the main beaches will cost around 15-30 baht. It’s not unusual for the tuk-tuk drivers at the bus terminal to tell arriving travellers that the local bus service has finished, even though it hasn’t. If you are of the hiking/backpacking type, the local bus station, which will take you to Patong Beach is about twenty minutes away. When exiting the bus terminal, make a right onto Phang-Nga Rd. Continue down Phang-Nga until it terminates at Yaowarat Rd., then turn left. Within a few steps you will see a roundabout. Once at the roundabout, keep right. By keeping right, you will find Ranong Rd. Within 100 to 200 meters you will find the local bus stop.
Before exiting the Phuket bus terminal, grab a free Phuket map from the information window. While supplies may always not be on hand, the map is a great way to get your bearing before jumping-off.
Phuket is directly connected to the mainland by the Thao Thepkasattri Bridge. From Bangkok, take Highway 4 through Nakhon Pathom, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Chumphon, thence through Ranong province’s Kra Buri and Kapoe districts, Phang-nga province’s Takua Pa and Thai Muang districts and onto Phuket island. The total distance is 862km.
Ferry services connect from Rassada Port in Phuket Town to Ko Phi Phi and on to Krabi on the mainland twice a day, taking 90 minutes and costing 350/650 baht one-way/return, for each leg. It’s usually a pleasant ride, but can be rather bumpy when it’s windy.
There are also speedboats to Ko Racha (2 hours), the Similan Islands (about 3 hours) and other islands in the high season only. Boats and yachts can be chartered at Chalong Bay, the Boot Lagoon, the Yacht Haven and Royal Phuket Marina.
It’s possible to visit Phuket by cruise ship. For cruises from Singapore, try Star Cruises www.starcruises.com.