Ever since December of 2004, the mention of Phuket, Thailand inevitably conjures images of the devastating tsunami that snuffed out the lives of over 200 thousand people in Southeast Asia. While the magnitude of that event cannot be understated, it does, however tarnish a little secret I found out firsthand: The place would be an excellent stand-in for Paradise.
My own visit occurred a year and a half before the tragedy, when the name Phuket would draw more looks of confusion than sympathy. Pronounced Poo-get (as opposed to its more humorous phonetic pronunciation) this faraway resort island encapsulates everything a tropical destination should be. With a rugged jungle-clad interior and sleepy fishing villages on one side, it seemed at first glance to be just another rural outpost. But on approaching the western shore, it became readily apparent that the party was already in high gear and there was a virtual buffet of all sorts of activities.
Most of the action takes place along the three main beaches: Kata, Karon, and bustling Patong.
Hotels range from luxurious spa resorts to tiny seaside hostels, though excellent accommodations can be had from around just $30 a night. The beaches are powder soft, and the few dollars to rent a chair and umbrella are a wise investment. Most of the restaurants are run by European ex-pats, which means that the food is authentic and you’ll always be able to catch your favorite football match in any one of the numerous bars and pubs. The tourists are almost exclusively from Europe—particularly Scandinavia, and to be honest, the only time I saw another American was when I looked in the mirror. This never posed a problem, and the abundant use of English made my stay all the more enjoyable.
A big advantage of Phuket is that it is an excellent base of operations for the fascinating attractions that surround it. Divers will love the soft corals and big fish to be found around the lovely Similan Islands, or the intriguing near-vertical Phi Phi Islands made famous as the film location for the movie The Beach, starring Leonardo Di Caprio. Nearby is world-renowned Phang-Nga Bay, with its towering karsts and turquoise waters made famous by James Bond himself. And to the north is Khao Sok National Park, a lush rain forest setting offering jungle cruises and the chance to take it all in on the back of an elephant—one of Thailand’s most beloved symbols.
Sure, to get there takes at least one full day of air travel, and technically, if you go any further you’ll start to come back, but all that effort will pale in comparison to the paradise you will find. In my opinion, Phuket is the best all-around tropical destination I have ever visited in terms of value, scenery, and things to do. Maybe the Europeans were right not to let us on this magnificent secret after all. The last thing paradise needs is a crowd.