This December marks the tenth anniversary of the devastating tsunami that struck Southeast Asia. But Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, refuses to be defined by the tragedy. On a recent visit there, I discovered what makes this beach retreat so special and why, a decade after enduring one of the biggest natural disasters in world history, it’s stronger than ever.
Phuket has long been a holiday destination of choice for travelers based in Asia, Australia, and even Europe thanks to a bevy of direct flights that touch down in the Andaman Sea. But for North and South Americans, the island remains a bit off the radar, added either as a tropical afterthought to a culture-heavy Asia itinerary or ignored entirely. Why travel 20 hours just to sit by a pool?
In reality, there’s such a mix of culture, cuisine and adventure in Phuket that a stop here should be a must, not a maybe. Here’s how to plan:
> What to See:
One theory states that Phuket’s name is derived from the Thai words for mountain and jewel, which, regardless of its veracity, turns out to be an apt description of the island’s lush, hilly interior. Families should devote considerable time to exploring the jungle here, which is thick with waterfalls and rubber trees. A must-do: a hike to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project to observe the small apes in their native habitat in the Khao Phra Thaew rain forest.
Phang Nga Bay on Phuket’s east coast offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Towering limestone karsts, one of which, Koh Tapu, gained fame after appearing in 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, rise from the sea, cutting a striking figure against the ocean and sky.
The bay also boasts secret lagoons, accessible only during low tide, floating Muslim villages with mosques built on stilts, mangrove forests, and deserted beaches. Though you will undoubtedly share the view with a crush of other visitors, hooking up with a good boat company (I can recommend Siam Adventure World) can help you avoid the crowds.
Pretty views aside, the excursion is fascinating for children. My daughter marveled at the thought that humans have lived on these craggy islands for 10,000 years, and was equally astounded at the glimpses of “sea gypsy” life she saw in the floating villages.
She bonded with one child who was working as a canoe paddler over his Lionel Messi jersey (soccer fans can communicate regardless of language), but drew back as a group of smaller children surrounded her hoping to sell postcards. She was a bit beyond her comfort zone, but that’s exactly what I’d hoped for–a beach trip that gets well beyond the resort experience.
> Where to Stay:
The majority of Phuket’s resorts are located on its western shores, and accommodations range from budget-friendly motels to the world’s most glamorous high-end resorts, including the original Aman Resort, Amanpuri. But as the island’s popularity has grown, so have the crowds along the beaches.
On my trip, I stayed at the new Anantara Layan, which is built into the jungle on the fringes of a national park. Its 77 oversized rooms border Layan Beach, where the occasional Thai family pulls up on a longtail boat or a local fisherman casts for lunch. At night, the only sound is the chorus of crickets.
I was traveling with my daughter, and we were joined by another family that flew in from Hong Kong. The girls could traipse around the resort safely, wandering from restaurant to pool to beach, where they learned to kayak and paddle board through the bathtub-calm waters.
For obvious reasons, the resort is ideal for families, though it’s equally romantic for couples looking for a private retreat (especially the pool villas, with outdoor showers and plunge pools).
Parents: book the rooms on the beach for easy access to the main pool and restaurant area. Couples: try one of the hillside suites for romantic views over the bay. It’s worth mentioning that the founder of Anantara also own all the Four Seasons in Thailand, so for a fraction of the price, travelers get the same level of design and detail.
> What to Eat:
You can’t talk Thailand without talking food, and the eats in Phuket were fantastic. I could spend weeks there trying new restaurants without repeating a place. My daughter and I enjoyed an especially memorable meal at Silk, a restaurant Tatler magazine once named the best in Phuket. The sunset views and easy-to-please kid’s menu made it a serious favorite for us both.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Many hotels, Anantara included, offer culinary classes. There, the experience begins with an early morning trip to the local market to select ingredients, followed by a morning of cooking, and, finally, lunch.
Final word: The emerald island of Phuket may be many things–a family-friendly escape, a honeymoon hideaway, a nature lover’s paradise, even stag party central–but tragic, it is not.