Phuket is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand and the gateway to the Andaman Sea where some of the world’s finest scuba diving can be found
Phuket is commonly referred to as Thailand’s jewel in the Andaman Sea – it’s a large island solidly collected to the mainland in the South of Thailand, and ideally positioned for boats to run northwards up the coast to the world famous Similan Islands, and also run southwards to Hin Daeng/Hin Muang and a host of other, lesser-known sites. As such, in terms of convenience, it’s hard to beat – simply jet into Phuket Airport, which is served by many direct international flights and a host of domestic carriers from Bangkok. From there you can arrive at the door of your liveaboard tour operator within a couple of hours.
I’ve been diving with a couple of Phuket dive operators: I did a two day liveaboard with Colona Tours to Hin Daeng/Hin Muang, Shark Point and Koh Bida Nok, and a day trip to Koh Bida with West Coast Divers. Both companies were competent, responsive on email when booking and have a good set-up regarding their boat and scuba gear. [For what it’s worth, I went with Colona as part of an assignment for Asian Diver, and with West Coast Divers as a paying customer]. I didn’t have any complaints about diving with them at all. Usually I do liveaboards running from Khao Lak or from Koh Lanta.
I’ve described the major dive sites accessible from Phuket previously on Divehappy – the Similan Islands to the north and Hin Daeng/Hin Muang, Koh Bida and Koh Haa to the South. There are other sites that Phuket dive boats visit, like Shark Point, the wreck of the King Cruiser, and Koh Racha Noi – these sites are good but not star attractions – the King Cruiser wreck is in a state of collapse and not particularly safe.
Phuket, then, is a gateway to these dive sites and the first choice for many people. However, Phuket’s reputation means that it is probably the most expensive place to visit in Thailand – even more expensive than Bangkok. That has a lot to do with the huge amount of wealthy expats who live there. By European standards, Phuket is still cheap – but compared to the rest of Thailand, and especially if you’re a budget traveller, it’s a lot harder to find real bargains. At least, that’s been my personal experience in the five or so visits I’ve made to Phuket. That doesn’t really matter if you’re only going to Phuket to go scuba diving, where you step off the plane and onto the boat – but if you’re planning to do some diving and have a beach holiday as well, you should check which part of Phuket you’re staying in carefully – and the reputation of your hotel too.
The infrastructure around the mountainous island is well advanced, but roads still twist and turn so that journeys take twice as long. There are few metered taxis in Phuket – you usually need to negotiate every time and prices are expensive compared to elsewhere. Because Phuket is Thailand’s most popular tourist destination, Phuket hotels tend to be on the expensive side too, although there are good cheap options if you look around. Check Agoda for the best hotel deals in Phuket on your particular holiday dates. Read the previous guest reviews carefully.
Moreover, the very popularity of Phuket means that its main beaches like Patong are permanently packed with tourists seeking sun, sea and sleaze. The wild nightlife scene around Patong Beach is all a matter of taste: if it’s what you want, it’s heaven – if you’re looking for peace and quiet, it’s not so good. See this page about the best beaches in Phuket if you’re looking for a more laid back vibe.
While Phuket gives good access to the Similan Islands and Southern Thailand sites like Hin Daeng, you can get to them equally as well from other, cheaper Thailand destinations too. For the Similan Islands, Khao Lak is a great departure point because it’s geographically much nearer the islands themselves, thus making the boat journey there shorter. Khao Lak itself is a small town that has a burgeoning collection of resorts and is generally more peaceful than Phuket. See current Khao Lak hotel availability on Agoda. Getting to Khao Lak is easy – fly into Phuket Airport and take a taxi north to the town. It’s around an hour’s drive – the same time it takes to get to Patong beach in Phuket proper.
Similarly, if you want to explore the Southern Thailand dive sites like Hin Daeng/Hin Muang, Koh Bida Nok and Koh Haa, then going to the islands of Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta is a good alternative. Again, you can fly into Phuket and catch a ferry out to either of these islands. Or you can fly into Krabi airport and get a ferry from there. For Koh Lanta you can get a taxi that uses the car ferries which run each day until late. It’s a bit more hassle to get to than Phuket proper, but the reward is enjoying a much more laid back vibe with less people and less buildings.