The largest town on the island and home to around 63,000 people, Phuket Town is the major destination for most holidaymakers. Apart from its beaches and great water sports opportunities, most of its attractions are centered in the Chinatown area around Thanon Thalang, the older part of town. Fine Sino-Portuguese mansions and shops are found here as well as the ornate, carved frontages of traditional Chinese homes and many quaint temples. Put Jaw Chinese temple, Wat Mongkul Nimit, the Phuket Culture Museum and the Phuket Cultural Centre are all well worth a visit.
Steeped in history, slightly run down and now enjoying restoration, the five streets and two tiny soi (lanes) which make up the heart of Phuket’s old town deserve special attention. The heritage of the Baba (Chinese-Thai) community comes to life here in the architecture, dress, way of life and commerce. Temples such as the Shrine of the Serene Light with its peaceful garden and the On On Hotel which served as the ‘flophouse’ in the Hollywood movie The Beach are atmospheric reminders of earlier days when the town was a hub for tin mining.
Breathtaking Phang Na Bay lies on the mainland some 45 minutes’ drive from Phuket, with its hundreds of jagged limestone cliffs and pillars towering above the ocean. The home of sea gypsies, nature’s wonder here is expressed in sea caves, lagoons, tiny islands and glorious views. For a real treat, don’t drive, take a traditional junk-rigged schooner from Phuket and tour the bay, visiting a sea gypsy village and several tiny islets.
Located on famous Patong beach, the Simon Cabaret is a spectacular musical floor show featuring Thailand’s fabulous transsexual ‘ladyboys’. Fantastic, glitzy costumes, great routines and these amazingly lovely creatures create a Las Vegas-style presentation which is both unique and flamboyant. The ‘third sex’ in Thailand, these performers, although born male, live their lives as beautiful and talented women, mostly in the theatrical profession.
The most famous beach resort on the island is Patong Beach, the ideal location for vibrant, neon-lit, raucous nightlife, heavy partying, bars and discos. The beach itself is one of the widest and busiest here, with all kinds of water sport options, bars, eateries and miles of beach chairs and umbrellas. For a quieter, more family-friendly experience, palm-lined Kata Bay Beach is a favorite with surfers and sun seekers who enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle. Isolated coves and small sandy bays such as Nai Ton and Nui beaches are scattered around the coast, giving a delightful and undisturbed remote-beach experience.
Although this massive seated Buddha image, peacefully overlooking both sides of the island from its mountainous home, is a relatively new construction, the site is sacred and the image is now one of the most revered landmarks here. At 145 feet tall, the gleaming white marble Buddha can be seen from afar, and is accompanied by another, smaller gilded brass Buddha image. Donations funded both images, given by devout Thai Buddhists, foreign tourists and resident expats, with overseas donations received through the foundation’s website.
If diving and snorkeling or just experiencing the unique beauty of nature is the goal, a boat trip to any one of Phuket’s surrounding islands is the perfect solution. The glorious islands of Phi-Phi, about an hour’s trip away and the former stars of Hollywood movies, are laid-back yet provide for all visitor needs in an unhurried, schedule-free manner. Phi Phi is a major world diving destination, with dramatic underwater scenery and more than 50 dive sites.
To catch a glimpse of the real Thailand, wandering around the daily fresh markets everywhere on the island is the best way. This is where the locals shop, gossip, buy and sell, and it’s an unforgettable experience, even if much of what’s being sold is totally unfamiliar. Some of the markets are mixed, with household goods, shoes, clothes, cosmetics and much more being sold next to piles of pineapples, mangoes and melons, all at irresistible prices.
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