All culture and chutzpa aside, Phuket is a beach destination. Always has been, always will be. When left pure and unadulterated, the island’s undulant seas and white-hot sands have near timeless appeal.
But there’s the rub. Phuket’s beaches have succumbed in recent times to a county fair-like herding of people, a great mass of tourists packed tight between banana boats and parked jet-skis. Each year, millions of would-be holidaymakers eager to live out their most indulgent fantasies flock to Phuket. Yet their tropical vacations don’t always add up to isolated sandy expanses and fruity cocktails with umbrella straws. Between grift, go-go bars, and taxi gangs, this southern paradise in its worst moments is a land muddied by wretched excess.
Last June, the local government began its latest fight back against the swell of indecency and obstruction. Efforts to clean up the beaches — and, with them, the island’s reputation — began in earnest, with most structures built on the sand demolished or burned to the ground. Gone were bars, restaurants, beach chairs, umbrellas, and the ubiquitous massage sala. Vendors were told to share space with other vendors, only allowed to set up shop on cordoned-off wedges of beach.
The changes didn’t come without hiccups. The umbrella issue was a bone of contention for tourists, many of whom also clamoured for the return of beach chairs, and vendors protested on economic grounds. The streets of Patong remained as aggressive as ever. Sunbathers swarmed Kata. The smell of raw coconut oil on hot skin was redolent from Nai Yang to Nai Harn.
Although tourism is transforming, the surge of visitors and vendors hasn’t lessened. But there are alternatives if you crave peace and quiet in paradise. To escape the madding crowds, make the effort go in search of Phuket’s hideaway beaches, where travellers might still enjoy a true tropical getaway (cocktails with umbrella straws included).
The quiet Banana Beach lies just south of the more popular, yet almost as quiet, Naithon Beach and north of the exclusive Trisara Resort. Famous among snorkelers for its motley underwater life, this jungle-veiled gem has plenty to offer beach bums, as well. The trouble is finding it. Only a modest wooden sign nailed to a tree (a sign which disappears altogether from time to time) marks the way to beach. From there, a narrow red-earth path leads to a patch of white sand that cleaves coconut palms and sapphire waters. Few visitors make it to Banana Beach, which keeps it secluded, off-the-grid, and as close to perfect as can be expected.
On the northwestern corner of the island is Mai Khao Beach. Although not much of a secret, this 11-kilometre tract of shoreline has little going on outside of family picnics on weekends. That could be a result of its border with Sirinath National Park, or perhaps its distance from the electric nightlife of Patong. Whatever the case, Mai Khao stays more or less empty until April, when baby turtles hatch and embark on their long journey to the sea. Outside of this annual event, the most popular attraction is watching planes skim the air above the water and land on the seaside runway.
Fifty kilometres from the airport, Ao Sane, the southernmost beach, suggests that Phuket has a few secrets left tucked up its sleeves. Although visible from Nai Harn Beach — as fine a spot as any to enjoy a sundowner — Ao Sane has managed to remain a hideaway. That’s because getting there, though easy, isn’t obvious. It requires driving through a private yacht club, under a tunnel, and along a rolling, potholed road until it meets a gravel parking lot. There awaits an intimate beach with three bays speckled by large, smooth rocks, a setting
tailor-made for reading under a palm tree. Snorkelling is good here, too, since the rocks form an ideal habitat for marine life. But Ao Sane hasn’t totally escaped the clutches of development: there’s a group of bungalows on shore, ranging in quality from basic to mid-range, and a restaurant that caters to hungry day-trippers.
Not all remote beaches are well-kept secrets, nor are they vacant and lonely. That can be a good thing. Vigorous human activity provides entertainment, breaks up the monotony of gentle breaking waves and soaring birds. The crescent-shaped Laem Singh Beach between Surin and Kamala blurs the line between untrodden and buzzing. The aquamarine sea is an obvious draw. So too is the wild, remote vibe. Still, before officials banished chairs, Laem Singh could get a little too intimate at times.
With the flotsam gone, the beach fills with sunbathers, but doesn’t feel excessively crowded. There’s plenty of room to breathe, even if the amber sands play host to the occasional evening party, a trademark of a vacation on a Thai island.
A winding road from the airport leads to Phuket’s most famous beaches, all on the west coast. It’s no surprise, then, that millions of visitors tend to congregate here. On the less frequented eastern side of the island, the standout beaches stay low-key. Ao Yon is a prime example.
Just six kilometres from Phuket Town, Ao Yon feels a world removed from the pageantry of the bigger beaches. Although not a true swimming beach (it has a rocky seabed just offshore), it does offer idle days with postcard-quality views and tranquil evening walks along an empty shoreline. It is the definition of a hideaway, as well, located at the base of a hill and kept hidden from plain sight by overgrown trees and shrubs. The tide caresses the shoreline as it rolls in, leaving the water still and blue.
On weekends, kayaks, dragon boats, and yachts in port decorate the bay. It’s an image of perfection, the still shot of the holiday that many tourists dream about before they reach Phuket.
The beach has always been central to life and leisure on Phuket. As society grows around — and sometimes on — the sand, the search for quiet expanses, where a vacation can be a singular experience, will depend on the official pledge to protect it. In any case, a handful of beaches here still capture the essence of a perfect island escape. Let’s hope that these world-class sanctuaries remain as picturesque tomorrow as they do today.
BY CRAIG SAUERS