Known as the pearl of the andaman Sea, Phuket is thailand’s largest island (it is about 50km from north to south and 20km from east to west, roughly the same size as Singapore). this awe-inspiring province offers a profusion of natural delights — intensely turquoise water perfect for lazy dips, soft powder-white sand for leisurely strolls, soaring karst peaks to gawk at and forested mountains to explore. By Tatyana Leonov.
HIDEAWAYS AND HOT SPOTS: There are plenty of areas pulsating with energy in Phuket, but there are also many isolated stretches of sand that are a world away from the frenzy of city life. The west coast is particularly abundant in hideaways. Some of these private beaches are part of a national park (for example, Mai Khao Beach) and not frequented by the masses, while others (such as Banana Beach) are too far from the action for most travelers, making for ultimate seclusion.
ENCHANTING ELEPHANTS: Elephants have played a role in Thai culture for centuries. The white elephant signifies royal power, has been portrayed in Buddhist artwork for centuries and was even featured on the national flag back when Thailand was called Siam. Nowadays, tourism provides the bulk of work for these gentle giants, and Phuket FantaSea, Thailand’s largest cultural park, offers visitors the chance to get up close and personal with them.
SAND AND SEA: The many islands dotted around the main island of Phuket offer visitors the opportunity to explore secret sanctuaries. The Phi Phi Islands, a set of six islets, are the star of the show. Ko Phi Phi Don is the only one with villages on it, and Ko Phi Phi Lee is home to Maya Bay, the shoreline made famous in the movie The Beach. The others are simply picturesque landmasses jutting out of the glistening sea.
RESORT LIFE: After the first wave of tourists arrived in the 1970s, word about Phuket got out, resorts shot up and visitor numbers soared. Today, there is everything from charming beachside bungalows to villas veiled in lush gardens. Banyan Tree Phuket is in the Laguna Phuket resort complex, which houses seven resorts and feels like its own private world.
GETTING AROUND: From Phuket International Airport, the easiest way to reach your resort is by taxi or hotel pick-up service. There are various options for getting around the main island. Local buses are bright blue and have the destination written in English (note that there do not seem to be timetables or designated stops); tuk-tuks (auto rickshaws) offer a quintessential Thailand travel experience; taxis generally cost only a fraction more. If you are planning to move around, renting a car is a practical option, and to explore the outlying islands, book a boat tour.
WHERE TO STAY: Patong is the main tourist hub, and Bangla Road is the heart of the action. If you decide to stay right in the middle of party Phuket, accommodation and dining choices will seem boundless. For the discerning traveler yearning for peace and quiet, there are plenty of resorts. Centara Villas Phuket (www. centarahotelsresorts.com/ centara/cvp) is a charming haven with villas that overlook Karon Beach. Ayara Kamala Resort & Spa (www.ayarakamalaresort. com) is located atop an isolated hill amid lush greenery. Anantara Mai Khao Phuket Villas (http://phuket.anantara.com) is one of the most private and swank beachfront resorts on the island.
THE PHI PHI ISLANDS:Ko Phi Phi Don is the only one of the Phi Phi Islands where you can stay overnight. There are no cars here, and life unfolds at a laid-back pace. Tonsai Village is the hub, where you will find a cluster of hotels and shops, while Laem Tong Beach is situated far from the crowds and offers a more peaceful alternative (it is only reachable by long-tail boat). Zeavola Resort (www.zeavola.com) is the island’s most elegant boutique resort, with a set of rustic wooden huts that resembles a traditional Thai village, a spa and a PADI dive center, for those keen to explore the depths. Situated on the northern tip of Laem Tong Beach, it is a delightful place to sojourn. Maya Bay, a crescent beach enclosed by towering cliffs, is considered to be the main attraction of Ko Phi Phi thanks to its appearance in The Beach , a movie based on a novel by Alex Garland and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Because of its popularity, it is perpetually busy, so try to visit early in the morning or just before sunset to avoid most of the crowds.