If you’ve got the Thai island of Phuket on your cruise itinerary then brace yourself for a destination that’s a mass of contrasts and contradictions.
You can munch on fried insects from a street vendor on Bangla Road whilst drinking out of a plastic bag, all the while looking at the Starbucks and McDonald’s across the street.
You can be in the ultra modern shopping and entertainment mall Central Festival one minute, then trekking through the jungle on elephant back the next and it’s perfectly possible to bump into a gaggle of sequined, high-heeled ladyboys whilst touring the temples and religious shrines.
So you see, to simply go straight from port to the tourist magnet Patong Beach would be a real shame.
Phuket has so much to experience that even a year’s worth of port stops wouldn’t be enough but here are some suggestions to get you off that sunlounger and exploring this hot, heady hotspot in the ‘Land of Smiles’:
Even if you’re not in the slightest bit religious, the temples in Phuket are an incredible spectacle.
One of the newest additions is the still work-in-progress Big Buddha, which sits high on the Nakkerd Hills (yep, you will be if you choose to hike up there!) and it’s pretty difficult to miss this gleaming white marble monument which measures in at 45 metres tall.
Whether you’re feeling young, fit and energetic and fancy the hike or you choose to take a taxi, the approach and the views are as jaw-dropping as BB himself.
The intricate Wat Chalong temple (apparently home to a splinter of Buddha’s bone) and the gleaming golden Buddha of the Wat Khao Rang temple are both also worth an hour of your time in Phuket.
Tip: Remember to cover up, cruise fans, bikinis and Buddhas don’t mix! In the case of the Big Buddha you can borrow sarongs from the visitor centre.
Go on Safari
Just a trunks-length away from the tourist centre of Patong, you’ll find the island’s thick, luscious jungle.
Safari treks on elephant back are easy to arrange but Siam Safari is one provider known for its elephant conservation centre and a high standard of animal care – so you can ride on nelly with peace of mind.
Go on a Junk Cruise
No we’re not slating cruise ships – a junk is a traditional Thai boat, made of wood and with vast sails. If you haven’t had enough of cruising, a junk can be a great way to explore Phuket’s coastline or even another island and you’ll definitely appreciate the mod-cons on your cruise ship afterwards!
Cook with a Blue Elephant
Nope, not blue elephant stew (blue elephants don’t exist, for one thing – and we wouldn’t eat them even if they did!), the Blue Elephant Cookery School is an institution on Phuket and morning and afternoon cookery classes will see you returning back to your cruise with a new skill. Scrap the takeaways – we know who’ll be cooking every Friday night from now on!
If you’re in Patong then Bangla Road is worth a wander, even if you’re going to be happily tucked up back on your cruise ship when the real action happens after dark.
In daylight hours this lively street is a great place to shop, especially if you want to invest in some of the cut-price made to measure tailoring that Thailand is famous for or maybe give the fried insects a go (eurgh!).
Just beware of leaving Bangla Road with more than you bargained for – maybe a pet monkey that its owner has decided to deposit on you and is now insisting on payment for.
No matter what you saw on Friends, monkeys aren’t pets and there’s no way you’re smuggling your cute new pal back onto your cruise ship!
Tip: If you’ve got kids with you, drop them at the brilliant Kids Club Phuket indoor playground on Bangla Road so that you can explore the streets without worrying about what you might see around the next corner!
A Dog’s Life
Dog lovers who may be missing a pooch they left back home can get all their stroking out of their system at the Soi Dog Foundation. The staff and volunteers at this rescue centre for stray dogs and cats do an incredible job but be warned, you will not want to leave the dogs behind when it’s time to say goodbye.
If there’s nothing else that you want to see in Phuket, don’t stay on the ship, come to volunteer here for a few hours. Good karma guaranteed.
If you fancy escaping the heat for a bit then the Chamber of Secrets and The Escape Hunt are two brain-boggling attractions in Phuket that will have you and your family pouring over puzzles and trying to escape locked rooms. Those who like to play puzzle or mystery solving computer games will love these real life recreations.
Tip: Don’t worry about getting locked in at The Escape Hunt. Staff will let you out if you haven’t escaped within 60 minutes. They won’t even make you bang desperately on the door.
A Hole in Ten
For those who find that the mini golf on cruise ships just isn’t themed enough for their liking, the Football Crazy Golf and Dino Park Mini Golf have all the theming you could ever want. The Football Crazy Golf is, you guessed it, golf using footballs (and extra large holes!) instead of golf balls and is active fun for those who fancy themselves as the next Rooney or Ronaldo. Dino Park is brilliant for kids who, no matter how hard you bribe them, just won’t let you relax on that beach sunlounger!
Lots of life-size (we think!) dinos and even a prehistoric themed bar and burger joint will make their day. Photos of your little Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm in the Flintstones-style car are essential.
Tip: Phuket Adventure Mini Golf is pretty good too.
Ever wondered what your hamster feels like? Grab a friend, a swimsuit and give the Rollerball Zorbing course a go. This activity (which, we’re assured, is great fun, despite how it sounds!) involves two of you and a ton of water in a giant inflatable ball, rolling around a zorbing course. You will get wet and you will scream a lot, but you will also have a blast. Just avoid if you’re prone to motion sickness, as inside that ball, rolling down a hill, would be the worst possible place to get sick!
Shop and Stop
If traditional tailors, amulet markets and street vendors aren’t your idea of a great shopping experience, the shiny, happy Central Festival Mall might be more up your (high) street. And once you’ve finished your shop, drop in style at the SFX Coliseum Cinema, where luxury seats, blankets and complimentary treats await for less than the price of a standard ticket at the multiplex back home.
Play Tarzan and Jane
High ropes courses and ziplines on cruise ships are great but even ocean views can’t compete with climbing across a jungle canopy.
If you loved to climb trees as a kid, the Xtrem Adventures and Cable Jungle excursions take it to the next level – a much higher level – with treetop aerial adventures to conquer. Don’t look down!
If you’re not on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship with a FlowRider Surf Simulator, there’s no need to be a sad surfer. Ride some waves at the Aloha! Surf House in Phuket, a beach front surf club with its own double FlowRider (sssh, don’t tell Royal Caribbean!). They also serve great burgers for when you’ve worked up an appetite and the white sands of Kata Beach are just a few flip-flopped steps away. A great compromise if you’ve got kids who don’t want to laze on the beach all day (but you do!).
Those interested in martial arts or other types of combat fitness will find Thailand to be a great place to broaden your experience past your local gym or sports centre. Popular places to book into for a lesson in Phuket include the beach front Maximum Fitness and Combat Center, the Phuket Dragon Muay Thai Camp and the Training for Warriors Centre. If you go, be sure to buy a t.shirt and wear it when you’re back in the ship’s gym for extra cool points.
Fancy recreating those iconic scenes from the Mario Kart tournaments of your youth or would it be more like Wacky Races?
Either way, Phuket has several go kart racing tracks if you feel like getting the adrenalin pumping when in port.
Phuket Kart, Patong Speedway and Phuket Offroad Fun Park are just three places you can go to rev your engines.
Just watch out for stray banana skins!
Swap Patong for Kamala or Karon
All of the above are beaches, just in case you were wondering who Kamala and Karon are! Patong beach is a real tourist hub in Phuket so if you fancy escaping the masses, jump in a taxi (or cross braving a tuk tuk ride off of your Thailand to-do list!) and head to its nearest neighbours, Kamala above and Karon below.
This spot in Phuket does exactly what it says on the tin – it’s a hill where you’ll find monkeys just waiting for you to buy a bunch of bananas from the oh-so-convenient waiting fruit vendor and feed them.
It’s a brilliant opportunity to get up close to monkeys in their home environment and makes a nice antidote to the captive monkeys that you’ll see with their owners in the busy tourist areas. Best of all, it’s free (save for the price of a bunch of bananas).
Tip: Feed the big monkeys first, leave babies alone and whatever you do, don’t go empty handed!
Many things aren’t as they seem in Thailand but if you’re keeping things family friendly then the Upside Down House and the Trickeye Museum are waiting to boggle your mind.
Get photos of you walking on the ceiling at the perfectly set-out upside down house, to confuse your facebook friends, then give the outdoor maze a go.
Just make sure you give yourself plenty of time – you don’t want to get stuck and have the ship set sail without you!
The Trickeye Museum is another fun place to get snap happy. Clever sets, props and optical illusions mean you can get photos of you floating, shrunk, being eaten by a shark and loads more. It makes punking your pals back home easy and is a perfect way to spend a rainy day in Phuket.
Whether you want a traditional Thai experience in Phuket, or you’re up for something more modern, the range of activities, from touring temples to posing for trick photos, means that there’s something for everyone. You could almost forget that the incredible beaches exist. Almost.