Destination Guide : Phuket, Thailand #1

Located just under 900 kilometres Southwest of Bangkok, it is similar in area to Singapore, measuring 54 kilometers north to south, and 21 kilometers east to west at its most distant points. About 70 percent of the land area is mountainous, with the highest elevation at 529 meters. The terrain is richly varied, with rocky headlands, numerous beaches of differing sizes and character, limestone cliffs, jungle-clad hills, small estuaries, lagoons, and tropical vegetation of all kinds. It is surrounded by over thirty smaller islands of similar topography, many of them prime tourist attractions in their own right. The permanent population is estimated at roughly a quarter of a million, and Phuket is the only island in Thailand to have full provincial status.

A sightseeing tour to see some of the island's varied attractions is desirable, as is a half day walking around the main town with its curiously Chinese-Mediterranean ambience, which mixes modern convenience stores with ageing mansions, traditional shops, and old European-style buildings.

Nothing, however, beats the liberated pleasure of renting a vehicle for a few days, and equipped with swimwear and sun oil, setting out to revel in the spectacular beaches, the rugged coastlines, and the lush island interior. For the more adventurous, it's a pleasant 90 km drive from Phuket to Phang Nga with its fascinating marine rock formations, and location of "James Bond Island" from the film Man with the Golden Gun. If time permits, a further 86 km brings you to the stunningly beautiful coastline of Krabi.
The plethora of islands surrounding Phuket - from the well known such as Phi Phi to other often deserted jewels - allow endless opportunities for playing Robinson Crusoe in paradisiacal surroundings. For active folks, almost every land and water-based sport is well catered for.
Looking at the map, Phuket vaguely resembles a stretched triangle, with an irregular indented coastline as if nibbled by fish of different sizes, the deepest bite on the West Coast representing Patong Bay. The airport runs along the base of the thumb-shaped northern tip where the Sarasin Bridge connects to the mainland.
The West Coast is blessed with over a dozen world-class beaches, whilst the less attractive East Coast is home to prawn farms, fishing ports and the location of Phuket town. Travelling clockwise from the town past Cape Panwa, the site of an old Sino-Portuguese mansion, and Chalong Bay with its boat piers and seafood restaurants, you reach the long-established beach resort of Rawai with its adjoining Sea Gypsy village.
As you turn northwards from Promthep, the southern tip, the magical series of superb beaches begins, starting with tranquil Nai Harn, venue for the annual King's Cup Regatta, followed by Kata Noi, Kata, and Karon beaches which lead to the island's most famous and most developed resort of Patong.
North of Patong, come the tranquil beaches of Kamala, Laem Sing, and Surin, leading up to the developed Bang Tao Laguna complex, formerly a tin mine. Quieter, more secluded beaches follow, small Nai Ton, then the long graceful sweep of Nai Yang where sea turtles lay their eggs, from November to February.
Finally, the longest of Phuket's beaches, Mai Khao completes the series of seaside jewels with over 9 kilometres of white sand. During the rainy season from May to October, some of these beaches experience strong currents and undertows. Bathers should always respect the "no swimming" red warning flags, and avoid bathing on deserted beaches during this period of the year.