Phuket is a special sort of place — one of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand…and the world. Beach mecca, gateway to the southern Island, and a place that offers a little bit of something for everyone. I’ve lived in Phuket for over five years. If you are coming as a tourist for a few days or few weeks, here’s the top tourist’ hit list for the must-do things. If you don’t knock of all ten points on your ‘Phuket Bucket List’, you’ll be going home disappointed.
Local Tip: Phuket is a perfect counterpoint to Bangkok (see our top things to do in Bangkok list) and is one of the must-visit destinations in Thailand. Even better, besides the list of many things you can see and do while on the island of Phuket itself, you can easily hop off to some of the smaller island getaways within a few hours drive or boat ride such as Koh Lanta, Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Phi Phi, and the Krabi area to name a few of the more popular destinations in Southern Thailand.
Note, this list caters to tourists. There’s a rather different list of things to see and do if you are a longer stay tourist or expat. Here’s our list of the must-see, must-do things in Phuket, as written by an expat local who lives in Phuket!
#1 Visit Phang Nga Bay
Anytime someone goes online to find out the top things to do in Phuket, or the top things to do in Thailand, Phang Nga Bay tops the list. It doesn’t just top the list for the island of Phuket, but for the entire country! This stunning bay isn’t a star because it was in a James Bond movie. It was in a James Bond movie because it was already a star!
This popular bay has it all. It has tight spaces to explore and open areas begging for snorkelers. Photographers should get their waterproof cameras ready for the gorgeous colorful coral beneath the water and incredible limestone landscapes above the water. The calm waters are perfect for kayaking, and I recommend trying to do this on your own rather than with a tour group.
Phang Nga Bay can get crowded because of its popularity with tourists. Koh Ta-pu or Nail Island, is the limestone karst that juts out of the water and is even more famous now after being in the movies. Visitors can spend an entire day here, and for lunch Koh Panyee, a local Muslim fishing village, is a fantastic and equally photogenic option. The village is built on stilts over the water and you’ll wonder how it’s still standing.
From Phuket Town, take a drive to Samet Nangshe Viewpoint where you can watch the sunrise over Phang Nga Bay. It’s worth the drive in the early hours to see this incredible bay at sunrise.
#2 Explore Old Phuket Town
Phuket Town is actually a truly unique gem of a place on the island. The architecture is a mix of Thai, Chinese, and Portuguese, with a bit of colonial thrown in. This mix is a result of the island’s rich history, which a lot of tourists ignore in favor of just going to the beach. But I recommend visiting and even staying, in Old Town. Backpackers on a budget can find some of the cheapest accommodation on the island in Old Town.
There are authentic Thai restaurants, winding lanes, and many great photo opportunities here. There’s also some great bars and cafes. Just outside of Old Town is the Naka Weekend market on Chao Fa West Road. Here you can find just about anything including “tourist crap” as well as secondhand goods (lost a flip-flop?) but it is best known for its sampling of local food and colorful produce. I’m betting you can get some great photos here, too.
Check out the Sino Heritage Walk in Phuket Town if you’re interested in history, or just want to see the best places to take photos. Your guide will explain Phuket’s rich history and the unusual architecture that isn’t exactly what you’d expect on a Thai island. The architecture is Sino-Portuguese. On the tour, you will also visit an old, restored mansion, and have an authentic Thai lunch with some specialties you may not have tried before. Of course, you can do all of this on your own, but the guide’s explanation of the Old Town adds an element of richness to this small town that you might miss otherwise.
Local tip: if you want a fun night out in Phuket Town, consider booking a night at Ka Jok See for a different sort of experience. This is one of the great hidden secrets of Phuket town. However, it’s absolutely packed, with some bookings months in advance around the popular times (New Years). In low season though, you might be able to score a spot if you book a week in advance.
#3 Simon Cabaret Show
Bangla Road isn’t the only place you can see the infamous ladyboys of Thailand. The Simon Cabaret Show displays them at their best. This show started in 1991 and is still a huge attraction on the island, and that’s because it is legit entertainment. Spectacular costumes, sparkly makeup, and a dazzling set are all combined with genuinely talented performers for a great show! Children can attend, and they do, because this is not a sex show. It’s comedy, song, dance, and you won’t want it to end. They have three shows a day and it’s located on Sirirach Road near Patong Beach.
#4 Travel to the Similan Islands
Eighty-four kilometers northwest of Patong Beach is the Similan Islands. These islands make a fantastic day trip from Phuket, and they are also a world-renowned diving destination. Even if you’re not a diver, the clear turquoise water and unique landscape of these islands is yet another photographer’s dream in Thailand. The landscape here is not the same as the limestone formations on other nearby islands. Here you will see dramatic boulders, both above and below the water, and white coral-sand beaches. Beaches here are often deserted, so if you’re on a honeymoon, these islands might be calling your name…
All you divers out there won’t want to miss the colorful coral under the water. These coral reefs are what put the Similan Islands on the map as one of the Top 10 diving destinations in the world. Not just in Thailand, but in the world!
#5 Experience Muay Thai Boxing
This sport has become increasingly popular in recent years, for both males and females, because of its level of difficulty and strength building elements, as well as its competitive aspect.
Muay Thai is also an integral part of Mixed Martial Arts and along with the rise of MMA, Muay Thai has been dragged along for the ride.
Thaliand is the mecca of Muay Thai — the source of the sport and the land with the best Muay Thai fighters.Training for Muay Thai always ends in a competition, meaning you’ll actually use what you learn! Phuket has some of the top-rated Muay Thai and MMA training camps in Thailand.
Many people even come to live here because of these Muay Thai camps, including the author of this article. There are five major Muay Thai locations in Phuket (with perhaps a dozen smaller gyms) and all are staffed with experienced trainers who have all competed in the sport.
Training for Muay Thai always ends in a competition, meaning you’ll actually use what you learn! Phuket has some of the top-rated Muay Thai and MMA training camps in Thailand. Many foreign students come down to train…and eventually fight in Muay Thai matches.
Even if you’re not interested in training or competing, these fights are actually pretty amazing to witness. It’s a lively and competitive sport. During your time in Phuket, many matches will be held in different venues around the island, every couple days. The biggest venue is Bangla Stadium in Patong. Note that if you get a chance, consider seeing live fights in Bangkok at Lumpinee stadium for the best fights in the country (and the liveliest atmosphere).
If you are interested in training, I recommend three of the top training camps in Phuket in my Travel Guide to Phuket.
#6 Visit the Spas and Pamper Yourself
Spas? In Thailand? Really? Yes, and Phuket is no exception. You will find premium spas with incredible luxury for a reasonable price you might not believe. While Phuket is more expensive overall than most other places in Thailand, its spa quality and services are top-notch and still a bargain compared to spas in other parts of the world.
Of all the spa services offered in Phuket, the variety of massages available are probably the most popular. Traditional Thai massage, which involves wearing loose clothing and being stretched as well as massaged, is offered in most spas, as well as other types such as oil, hot stone, and even chocolate. Seems like a waste of good chocolate to me, but I suppose with the right person, it could be very relaxing and certainly indulgent.
Local Tip: If you are on a budget, then forego the spa and go with a massage. If you want a legit massage, make sure to choose a massage place that does not have ladies standing outside. For even cheaper prices, we recommend frequenting a Blind Massage. These are the cheapest Thai massages at $150 baht an hour. And you are supporting blind people. It’s also an experience as these massages shops are often frequented by local Thais.
#7 Visit Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Park
This wildlife park is focused on conservation and preservation of the environment, and that’s why I recommend it. The park here has several endangered animals you can see and learn about. It’s located in the middle of a dense forest where you can also learn about the local flora and visit the Nam Tok Sai waterfall near the headquarters. In the midst of the mangrove forest, you’ll be surprised by a floating restaurant that is well worth a visit! Here you can also see the cute and cuddly gibbons, although you won’t be allowed to actually cuddle with them. This is a rehabilitation project for these unique creatures. The tours are free, but donations are very welcome so that the good work they do can continue.
#8 Go See Sirinat National Park
Sirinat National Park is on the northwest side of the island and includes Nai Yang, Mai Khao, and Sai Kaew beaches. It was founded in the 80s and was largely ignored, but unprotected, before then. There’s a beautiful mangrove forest here, both in fresh and sea water. But the greatest thing about this protected area are the Leatherback turtles which lay their eggs here every year from around November to February.
#9 Diving and Snorkeling
Diving and snorkeling are THE most popular activities on the island. With over 33 beaches and numerous surrounding bays and islands to explore, it’s easy to see why. If you have your own gear, and it’s not too cumbersome to travel with, bringing it with you could save you money on some pricey rental fees. You can buy cheap gear in Phuket if you look hard enough, but you must be sure it meets safety specs.
You can go snorkeling just about anywhere on the island, on any beach, no tours necessary, but there are tours you can book to take a boat to fantastic snorkeling locations a bit further away. Near Phuket, some beaches are better than others for snorkeling such as Surin, Laem Singh, and Ya Nui. For diving, there are reputable operators all over the island. Some areas are not available for diving or snorkeling during the low season due to choppy waters and dangerous currents.
#10 Take Thai Cooking Classes
If you’ve had Thai food, then you know why there are so many cooking schools throughout the country. People want to take those fresh, spicy flavors home with them. Phuket has so many cooking schools to choose from, and they are all worthy of your attention. There are a variety of schools here, for all cooking levels, that are offered at different times, so you can find one that works with your schedule, or lack of, during your time on the island.
You can check out my Guide to Phuket for recommendations of just a sampling of the cooking schools available on the island.
#11 Beach Hop
There are so many fantastic beaches on Phuket, there’s no way you can visit them all unless you live here for quite some time. If you’re visiting and want to get a sampling of the best Phuket has to offer, then beach hop your way to these three beaches.
Nai Harn Beach on the southern tip of Phuket is popular with both locals and expats, but is very laid back and never crowded. It has all the services you could want, so no need to pack a lunch. The bay here is protected and provides a great view of the sail boats and luxury yachts anchored offshore.
Banana Beach is still one of the “secret” beaches on Phuket, and has only one restaurant, a really good restaurant, to prove it. The restaurant serving fresh seafood has been there for decades, but this tiny beach is still undiscovered by all but a few tourists. It’s shallow, blue water is perfect for snorkeling. There are some sun loungers here set amongst the palm trees. To find it, go to the T-junction as if you’re going to the airport. At the T-junction, turn the opposite direction away from the airport and follow the signs to Naithon Beach. You’ll go through Naithon, past Andaman White Beach Resort, and then start looking closely on your right. You may see a few cars parked, and if you are very lucky, there will be a sign for Banana Beach.
Kata Noi Beach is the most secluded big beach on the island. It’s a stunning little sandy bay near the more crowded Kata Beach, but it is a bit hidden and pretty quiet due to its location surrounded by trees. The water here is so blue and the soft sand is so white. There’s just a few bars and two resorts, and a convenience store here. At the northern end of the beach, surfers sometimes have some luck catching some pretty good waves here.
#12 Big Buddha
At the southern end of Phuket, near Chalong Bay, is Big Buddha, a recent addition to the island and an impressive attraction. From pretty much any point on the south end of Phuket, you can look up and see Big Buddha looking down to admire Chalong Bay, Kata, and Rawai. Big Buddha sits atop Nakkerd Hills and the view from up here is spectacular. At a cost of around 30 million baht, this 45 meter tall Big Buddha is sure to impress, and so is the view.
#13 Prom Thep Cape at Sunset
Promthep Cape is the prime spot for taking pictures at sunset on Phuket. It’s at the southernmost tip of the island and you’ll find hundreds of tourists here, mostly Thai, sitting on the wall facing west, waiting for the sun to go down. Tourists come by the bus load, but that doesn’t diminish the beauty of the sunset here. The cape is elevated so it’s easy to get a great shot of the sunset without anyone’s head in the way. People watching is pretty entertaining as well.
It’s also easy to wander all the way down the hill to the edge of the water, but a bit more challenging to get back up. But if you make the trek down the hill, you’ll be rewarded with some alone time and you can watch the sunset undisturbed. Take a headlamp to help you get back up the hill.
#14 Day trip to Phi Phi Island
Nearby Koh Phi Phi is a fantastic day trip from Phuket. This small island is shaped like an “H” and has recovered from being totally wiped out by the 2004 tsunami. In fact, it has recovered in a big way! It’s crowded during high season with young people who are ready for the beach during the day and a party at night. Koh Phi Phi Don is the bigger of the two Phi Phi Islands and the restaurants, bars and shopping here, and especially the beaches, are fantastic. There’s also a viewpoint here where you can get a postcard quality photo of the island and the Andaman Sea.
Koh Phi Phi Leh is where the famous Maya Bay and Viking Cave are located just a short 30 minute longtail boat ride away. Maya Bay was made famous by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie The Beach. To visit Maya Bay’s beach, you’ll pay about 400 baht, and visits to Viking Cave are now restricted, so check beforehand if you can actually go there.
#15 A Night Out Bangla Road
Phuket is famous for its nightlife, all thanks to Bangla Road. This is where it all happens at night. You can walk down Bangla Road and see partiers, ladyboys, people in costume for various reasons, or no reason. Everyone will be having a good time, or maybe they are just in awe of all the unusual sights walking down the street with them. This vibrant street is a must see, but keep an open mind and a good sense of humor about you as wander down Bangla Road. It can only be fully appreciated in the late-night hours or the wee hours of the morning. There are tons of shopping, restaurants, and bars to keep you entertained, but none compare to people watching here.
#16 Karon Viewpoint
Formerly known as Kata Viewpoint (and still is to most locals), Karon Viewpoint is south of both Kata and Karon beaches and provides an amazing view of both. The Thai name is Koh Sam Haad which means “Hill of the Three Beaches,” because that’s what you will have a view of when you reach the top. The closest beach is Kata Noi, then Kata, and then Karon Beach. There are some small shops where you can get a drink and chat with the famous Reggae guy who is always there selling accessories.
#17 Phuket Town Weekend Night Market
Also known as Naka Market, this mix of secondhand goods, knockoffs, curios, and great local food is a big attraction on the weekends. It’s just outside Phuket Old Town on Chao Fa West Road. If you’re not shopping, no problem. Go for the entertainment value. There is a covered section and an open section. The covered section is older and sells a lot of secondhand goods and clothing as well as touristy souvenirs. In the newer section, you can find all kinds of electronics, toys, jewelry and bags.
The best part is off to the right of the main entrance. The food! This is why the weekend market is worth visiting. Spicy sausage, corn on the cob, fishcakes, and other local delights will tempt your taste buds even if you’re not hungry. You can grab a beer here too.
Things really get started around 16:00 and close around 21:00. Get there early, before it gets insanely crowded, especially if you need to find a parking space.
#18 Surin Beach Celebrity Point
Surin has earned the nickname “Millionaire’s Row” because of the high-end luxury resorts that attract celebrities and the million dollar homes that sit atop the hillside with stunning views of the Andaman Sea. The beach is stunning, which is why these high-end luxury resorts are so popular here. Tourists flock to the area, but not all of them stay here. Some just wander the area admiring the scenery and the homes most people can never afford.
Surin Beach draws tourists from all over, especially because of the upscale restaurants and wine bars that are uncommon on the rest of the island.
#19 Stroll Around Laem Ka Beach Coconut Grove Around Sunset
Laem Ka Beach in the south near Rawai is truly a hidden gem. It’s becoming more well-known, but certainly isn’t anywhere near being “popular.” Here you can find a gorgeous beach amongst the coconut palms. Get a coconut from one of the local vendors and sip the cool, refreshing water while watching the sun go down in one of the sun loungers on the beach. Be aware that during low season, there are no vendors or chairs here and the gate to the beach might even be closed. If so, move on to Rawai or Nai Harn Beach for your sunset stroll.
#20 Watch the Sunset at one of the Kata Hill Restaurant Shacks
Kata Hill has great views of the southern section of the island, but a real reason to come here is to grab some great local food at one of the restaurant shacks before the sun goes down. You’ll find these great local places on the road between Karon Viewpoint (formerly Kata Viewpoint) and Kata. Find one that looks good to you, order what sounds good to you, and enjoy your dinner and a cold beer while watching the stunning sunset.