Phuket in a glimpse
Phuket (ภูเก็ต) web, pronounced (roughly) "pu-ged", is Thailand's largest island. It is 48 km in length, 21 km at its widest, and is in Southern Thailand, on the west-facing Andaman Sea coastline, suspended from the southern tip of Phang Nga Province by a pair of short but substantial road bridges.
Phuket nestles in balmy Andaman Sea waters on Thailand's Indian Ocean coastline 862 kilometres south of Bangkok. Phuket formerly derived its wealth from tin and rubber, and enjoyed a rich and colourful history. The island was on one of the major trading routes between India and China, and was frequently mentioned in foreign trader’s ship logs.
In recent times, though, Phuket's top earner has been tourism, which has transformed the island into Thailand's wealthiest province. Expect prices to be a bit higher than on the mainland. The west coast of Phuket was hit severely by the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, but almost no evidence of the damage now remains. Phuket enjoys great popularity as a travel destination. Most beaches are on the west coast, with Phuket Town to the southeast and the airport in the north.
Phuket is hot and humid throughout the year. The hot season is generally considered to be from March to early May. During the summer monsoon season from May to October, mornings and afternoons are still sunny and clear, but it tends to rain in the evenings and water clarity goes down. Locals consider November to February the "cool" season, and the weather is quite tolerable, much more so than in the tourism centres around the Gulf coast. It's comparable to Florida's summer weather in temperature and intensity of rain storms: 25-33 deg C, flying clouds, short and thunderous rainfalls in the afternoons and evenings. Surfing is possible off the western beaches.
Phuket is a melting pot of Buddhists, Thai-Chinese, Muslims and even sea gypsies. The majority of the population in the rural areas is Muslim. Outside of the provincial town, the rural folk speak with a thick Southern dialect which is difficult for even other Thais to understand. The provincial town’s economy having boomed over the past decade has led to a lot of the youngsters leading similar lives to those in Bangkok. Altogether, the lifestyle of the urban Thai-Chinese resembles that of Bangkokians.
Phuket is a large island and you need some form of transport to get around. Public transport is very limited and taxis and tuk-tuks are the only practical means. Another, more dangerous option is rent your own wheels. Hotels generally offer shuttle bus services into Phuket Town, and also have taxi and car hire facilities.
By songthaew or bus
Public transport within Phuket is limited to a radial network connecting Phuket Town to the beach towns. There are a few full-size buses, but most lines are operated with songthaews, basically converted pick-up trucks serving as buses. The fare is 25-40 baht up on distance, and there are no set stops — they pick up and drop off as requested. Most local bus services operate at half-hour intervals and stop at around 18:00.
Most operate from the local market at Ranong Road (Talad Sod or Ban San); those to major beaches go via Phuket Town bus terminal. The main lines connect to Patong, Kata-Karon, Chalong Bay, Rawai-Nai Han beach, Cape Panwa (for the Aquarium), Mai Khao, and Surin-Kamala. There are no "cross-beach" connections, and eg. travelling from Surin to Patong (15 min by taxi) requires an hour-long detour via Phuket Town.
Upon your return, though, often the bus will drop you off not at the main terminal but at a bus stop somewhere in the middle of Phuket Town, where travellers will immediately be set upon by the rip-off tuk-tuk and taxi drivers. Tourists beware!
Phuket has three types of taxi — millions (or so it seems) of small songthaew-style minivans (usually bright red, occasionally bright yellow) called tuk-tuks, a much smaller number of conventional sedan-style taxis (yellow and red, with a "Taxi-Meter" sign on top), and random indistinguishable vehicles that serve as unofficial taxis.
The minivans are universally referred to as tuk-tuks (even though they have four wheels, not three). They have no meter, and their drivers are notoriously mercenary, so always agree a price beforehand and do bargain hard. Short hops around town shouldn't cost more than 40 baht, but good luck getting from Patong to Phuket Town for under 400 baht. Tuk-Tuks should be avoided whenever possible, these are run by what locals call the "Thai Mafia" and charge you 200 baht for less than 1km runs.
Metered taxis are a much better option when available, being safer, more comfortable, and usually cheaper than tuk-tuks. However, they are often hard to find, and during peak periods their drivers will also ignore the meter and demand flat fares. You can arrange one by telephone. It is highly recommended you insist your hotel gives you taxi meter phone number and keep on the front desk. Take the taxi meter land line number from the yellow booth at the right had side of ground floor of airport before you depart, approximately 150 meters to right as you exit arrivals. Use and promote metered taxis and give numbers to hotels and post to trip advisor to help others be safe.
Finally, many beaches have little shacks with "TAXI" signs, sometimes unofficially supported by a hotel, offering quick transport at high prices. They are usually pricier than the tuk-tuks, with most fares exceeding 500 baht, but they are usually air-conditioned and more comfortable.
By motorbike taxi
There are also motorbike taxis (motosai). While you should never hop on the back of just anyone's motorbike, motorbike taxi drivers wear bright numbered vests and are usually the cheapest way to go. However, these are more dangerous than a tuk-tuk, for obvious reasons, and are not comfortable for long trips. However, if you just need to get around town, they are a great way to go.
By car or bike
Renting web a car or motorbike to explore the island on your own is a cost-effective way of getting off the beaten track. However, given the driving habits of most locals and the resulting carnage on Phuket's roads every year, the risks do demand careful consideration. Driving habits are Thai style ignoring all the rules and keeping going at all costs, not much worse than Naples, but like there it keeps traffic moving. Traffic lights have just made things worse in the last few years.
Due to the geography of the island with its winding hilly roads and poor vision, Phuket certainly gets more than its fair share of accidents. In fact, the death and injury statistics are more than high. More than 10,000 people are injured and over 250 killed every year in road accidents in Phuket. Nine out of ten accidents involve motorbikes.
Drive very defensively at first and watch what the locals do. Of course, it helps if you are accustomed to driving on the left side of the road, which in itself could be enough to distract some North American or European drivers. Be aware that many motorcyclists will drive on the wrong side of the road to cover short distances, and undertaking is a very common occurrence on Phuket roads. Driving under the influence of alcohol is both illegal and dangerous, and driving at night also increases the risk of accidents — even if you're sober, many others aren't.
Motorcycle and scooter rentals start at around 200 baht/day, coming down to 150 baht/day for rentals of a week or more. Although both drivers and pillion passengers are required to wear helmets, this rule is sometimes ignored by locals, and farang riding around without one are more likely to be taxed 300-500 baht (seems to be another rip-off for tourists, as the official fine for driving without a helmet is 200 baht) by the police if caught. You must carry a valid driving licence with you, or you'll be slapped with a 500 baht fine. Police can check for motorcycle licences, and not having the correct licence type may result in a fine. Your licence will be confiscated if you're fined, and returned when you pay the fine at the appropriate police station. There can be police check-points on the way, and regular check-point locations include the northern end of Patong Beach Road, Chalong Circle and the northern end of Karon Beach. If you do wear a helmet chances of being stopped should be low though.
Renting a car usually costs between 1,000-1,200 baht if you want to go for an ecomonical one like a Toyota Vios (stay away from the jeeps). Several rental companies are located in and around the airport. Avis is located within the airport while Hertz, National and Sixt are located within walking distance of the airport (across the road). Bookings can be made online for these. Reputable local car rental companies are also present, which are often a little cheaper.
Be careful to check the level of insurance on a hired car, as many local companies say they have 'full' insurance when in fact it is only a very basic level. Motorcycle rental generally includes little or no insurance, so take extra care if you decide to opt for the motorbike option.
For a bit of island hopping the longtail boats are a great way to do so. Prices must be negotiated and are approximately 500 baht per hour or no more than 1,800 baht per day.
Particularly in the summer monsoon season, there are strong currents on many of the beaches and drownings are a depressingly common occurrence; four tourists died during a single 3-day stretch in June 2009. Heed the warning flags on popular beaches and play it safe if off the beaten track.
Crime as of late has definitely increased in the Phuket area among farangs (tourists) and you should keep this in mind and be vigilant of anyone who wants to befriend you or trick you into gambling (which is illegal) and anything else you consider out of the ordinary. Katoeys (ladyboys) are notorious for pick pocketing as you walk around the tourist areas at night. Also muggings do take place regularly. Avoid walking down unlit sois; stick to the main roads. If something looks/sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Tourist police can be contacted locally using 1155. They have a good basic understanding of English, so if in trouble these people should be contacted. Thai police speak hardly any English and normally take the side of the locals even if it is their fault. Always insist on Tourist Police if you have any run-in with the Thai Police. Use only metered taxis and ask hotels to call, take down driver license plate and taxi license number before you get in. You can use receipt from taxi to complain to police or find lost property, so take a receipt and license numbers.