Lying off the west coast of Thailand in the Andaman Sea is Phuket, the country's largest island. With the number of visitors to this island at an all-time high, Phuket is one of the country's most popular destinations, its beauty and versatility drawing in the crowds year after year.
The beaches are the clear high point of Phuket's charm, with stretches of white sand hugging the west and south coasts of the island; some for beach-bums, and others for water sports enthusiasts. The notorious nightlife is another draw, as is the universally-loved Thai cuisine and various sights to explore. All in all, it's clear to see that despite what you may have heard, Phuket is more than just a gap year destination.
If pristine sandy beaches and crystal clear water are what you're after, then the western coast of Phuket is the place to go.
Despite being an island, Phuket doesn't leave you feeling surrounded by coastline and limited to beach hopping. There's plenty more to see and do that doesn't involve a towel and a swimsuit.
Climbing up to the 45-metre tall Big Buddha statue on top of the Nakkerd Hills in Chalong is a great way to get panoramic views of the island, and to see this incredible figure up close. Either go early in the morning to avoid the heat, or at sunset to see the island bathed in a magical orange glow.
A stroll through Phuket City's colourful old town is another way to spend a pleasant few hours. Located on the east side of the island, this area is full of brightly coloured colonial-style mansions, shrines and temples, as well as charming cafes and restaurants. Late afternoon is the ideal time to go, avoiding the midday sun.
For many, visiting elephants is synonymous with a trip to Thailand. However, in recent history some wildlife attractions have been accused of abusing these beautiful creatures, so it's important to avoid supporting unethical elephant tourism. The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary claims to be the first ethical sanctuary on the island, offering a new home for old, sick, and injured elephants who have suffered mistreatment in the past. Here you can observe the animals in their indigenous habitat as they roam freely through the sanctuary's 30 acres of tropical jungle, giving you an authentic experience of how these creatures truly live in the wild.
As it's surrounded by coast, Phuket has some amazing seafood on offer in restaurants and street food stalls across the island. Head to one of the many seafood markets to check out the catch of the day before it ends up on your dinner table later that evening.
If markets selling cooked food are more your scene, check out the Walking Street Market in the city's old town. Called Lard Yai by locals, this market descends on quiet Thalang Road every Sunday from 4pm until 10pm, with many people going exclusively for the food and drink. Sample the local speciality hor mok, a kind of fish custard made with fish, chillies, eggs and coconut milk, or go for the slightly more familiar pad Thai. The aim of the market is to revive the old town's historical charm, so it's great to support business here.
Although delicious and authentic, street food isn't the only way to dine in Thailand. Phuket also has plenty of restaurants to try, such as Blue Elephant, which serves up delicacies including zingy lime sea bass and rich massaman curry, and Suay Restaurant, where the chef will prepare a selection of dishes for you to try.
It's no secret that after dark, when the neon lights switch on and the bars and clubs open their doors, Phuket has a wild side.
The beach town Patong is the best place to go to make the most of the nightlife, and Bengala Road is the go-to spot for all party-seekers. After the sun goes down, the road is pedestrianised to become a 400 metre stretch of open-fronted bars, clubs, and street performances. Often the only stop for a night on the town, this road is one to remember for your trip to Phuket.
Patong is also home to the Simon Cabaret, Thailand's most famous 'ladyboy' cabaret show. Expect an evening of extravagant outfits, impressive performances, and familiar songs in a luxurious venue.
Phuket FantaSea is another after-dark show designed to entertain as well as teach you about Thai heritage. The experience is contained within a 140-acre complex which includes a show, a buffet and a theme park. Spend an evening here drinking to get to know the glamorous side of Phuket's heritage.