Thailand’s paradisiacal island of Phuket has an outsized reputation as a hotspot for beachgoers, but there’s a whole other side to this popular yet multifaceted travel destination. These 10 activities are unmissable for adventurers.
1. Hike to the Island’s Famous “Big Buddha.”
One of Phuket’s most famous landmarks is a 130-foot-high alabaster Buddha, perched at the top of the Nakkerd Hills, and visible from much of the island. A visit to the top plateau, with views of Kata Beach, the Karon Strand, and the channel islands of Chalong Bay, should be on any Phuket visitors’ list. There’s a road to the top, of course, but there’s a newer, nicely sign-posted trail to the top that starts from Karon Beach as well. The path is steep in parts, and there are even ropes strung in some sections to help hikers pull themselves up in some sections, so start early and bring water. With luck, you’ll be one of the first to reach the plateau in the morning and have the glorious view all to yourself.
2. Learn to Surf On Phuket’s Consistent Breaks.
Phuket’s west coast has been slowly and steadily gaining a reputation as a surfing destination. Don’t expect huge waves or tubes (which makes Phuket perfect for beginners) but even if you’re more experienced, there’s plenty of good spots to check out. For beginners, beeline to Kata Beach, where you’ll find board rentals and instructors aplenty. This is the primary surfing spot in Phuket, as it boasts a consistent surf, so expect plenty of company out on the waves. If you’re a surf aficionado who wants to beat the crowds, take your board to spots like the north end of Kamala Beach, Nai Harn Beach, or the north end of Patong Beach.
3. Or, Take it Up a Notch, and Enroll in Kitesurfing School.
Surfing is already an incredible experience, but being pulled across the water by a kite while spinning off the top of a wave is a whole other level of adrenaline. Phuket is one of the best kitesurfing destinations in Thailand, with good wind all year around—if you’ve never tried the sport this is an excellent place to get your feet wet. Sign up for a lesson with Kite School Phuket, whose instructors teach at Nai Yang Beach and Chalong Bay depending on the season.
4. Go Scuba Diving or Snorkeling in Crystal-Clear Water.
Phuket is ranked among the top diving destinations worldwide, so it’s well-worth devoting a day fully to exploring its glorious underwater scenery. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced diver, take a day trip to nearby Phi Phi Island, where you can explore the King Cruiser wreck (a former car ferry) that lies near colorful, coral-covered Anemone Reef. Another unmissable nearby spot is Shark Point, named for the leopard sharks that patrol the area’s sandy bottom. Or, head to the rarely-crowded Racha Islands (Racha Noi and Racha Ya), just south of Phuket where you can snorkel and dive in crystal-clear water. If you have the time, Phuket is also a great place to achieve your PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certificate.
Yes, you’re already on a beautiful island, but as #4 has already hinted, there’s even more islands to explore with Phuket as your base. Most are easily accessible by boat—private speedboats or larger crafts are easy to hire—and many are less than two hours away from Phuket’s shores. Definitely put “James Bond Island” (actual name, Khao Phing Kan) on your list, as this famous spot provided the backdrop for the James Bond flick The Man With The Golden Gun…and it’ll provide you with a selfie backdrop that’s Instagram gold. More must-sees are the twin Rok Islands of Koh Rok Nai and Koh Rok Nok, where you can snorkel key spots like the Clownfish Reef, a magical spot filled with the colorful fish straight out of Finding Nemo. Also within striking distance is Coral Island, the dual Phi Phi islands, and popular Koh Panyee, with its picturesque “floating” village built over the water that’s backed by a giant limestone monolith.
6. Or, Hop on a Bike.
Cycling is always a good way to get a different perspective on a new place, while still covering more ground than just walking. There’s plenty of places to bike in Phuket, but a favorite cycling destination is the quiet, beautiful island of Koh Yao Noi (Little Long Island), about an hour’s boat ride away. It’s sleepier spot where the people make their living from fishing, rice farming, and rubber tree plantations, and biking across the island is a chance to experience the natural side of Thailand and meet locals. Bike paths lead through a small market town, past rice paddies, and through areas of natural jungle.
7. Take a Thai Cooking Class.
Thailand is gorgeous, but let’s face it, the delicious food is an equal draw. So taking a cooking class—and learning how to make some of the famous dishes yourself—is a much better souvenir to spend your baht on than anything you can purchase at the market. Many classes combine market tours with lessons on, say, making curry paste from scratch, popular dishes like pad Thai, or beloved desserts like mango sticky rice. Popular schools like Kata Thai Cooking Class and the Phuket Thai Cookery School offer chef-led lessons daily.
8. Spend Time With Elephants—Ethically.
You won’t find crowds queuing up to ride on an elephant’s back at the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, and in fact, this peaceful place where rescued elephants are rehabilitated and retired educates guests on exactly why elephant tourism is so damaging to intelligent pachyderms. In short, the practice is cruel and inhumane, involving breaking an elephant’s spirit into submission and then working it until death. Instead of riding the elephants, at this sanctuary, you can learn about them, feed them, and observe them as they roam, play, and bathe. Simply being near these gentle giants is a feel-good experience that just might change you forever.
9. Train in Muay Thai (Thai Boxing).
Muay Thai is a popular combat sport throughout Thailand that involves striking and clinching techniques using the fists, elbows, knees and shins. You can and should attend one of the high energy matches—fights happen three times a week at the popular Bangla Boxing Stadium on Bangla Road—but we say, go one further and actually try out some of the fighting techniques yourself. There’s many boxing gyms throughout Phuket where you can sign up for a lesson, either with a group or in private. Some of the best facilities include Tiger Muay Thai in Chalong, Sinbi Muay Thai in Rawai, and the Sumalee Boxing Gym on the eastern coast.
10. Do Go Chasing Waterfalls.
Phuket’s mountainous terrain contains many dramatic waterfalls well-worth seeking out for an afternoon. Once there, be prepared to splash right in alongside Phuket locals. Don’t miss the Kathu Waterfall, where a series of drop pools lead to the top; the Bang Pae Waterfall, where an easy trek brings you to a milky-white chute of water with ample swimming space at the base; or the Ton Sai Waterfall, an excellent spot for bird-watching as well.