Phuket has attained international renown as a beach destination, its beautiful shoreline perfect for sunbathing, water sports and nightlife.
However as travel restrictions have been lifted, beaches are not the only focus for visitors to Thailand’s largest island. From socially responsible community-based tourism to the island’s blooming fine dining scene, travellers have a host of new reasons to explore Phuket.
New attractions, new demographics
When Andamanda Phuket water park opened in May 2022, its top visitor markets hailed from Saudi Arabia, India, Australia, Russia and Britain.
One of the newest attractions in Phuket is the sprawling Andamanda Phuket water park, the design of which was inspired by Thai legend and mythology.
“If you're not at one of Phuket's beautiful beaches,” said Brendan Paul Mooney, head of business units - food and beverage, “we hope that your next choice would be to enjoy a day at the great water kingdom.”
A surprise for Andamanda has been where the water parks guests come from. In its first two months of operation, the top five source markets for the park that opened its doors in May 2022 were Saudi Arabia, India, Australia, Russia and Britain, with large numbers of online searches coming from Israel and the Middle East.
“With this in mind we are driving our new retail offering in swimwear geared to accommodate the religious shift,” he notes. Other changes include adding prayer facilities and revisiting food and beverage offerings.
Between January and July 2022, Phuket Airport reported the largest number of arrivals from India (82,154), followed by Australia (32,437), Singapore (30,636), Great Britain (20,305) and Malaysia (14,941). These figures do not include travellers who used Bangkok as their first port of entry.
With the swift uptick of travellers, business is gradually returning to hotels and resorts in Phuket although hoteliers still foresee a couple of challenging months ahead.
While pandemic-related restrictions prevented most international travel, there was a silver lining for Phuket. Thai travellers, unable to book outbound travel, discovered or rediscovered domestic destinations, and Phuket was top of the list.
“We hear a major recession is just around the corner and this will most likely affect the global economy and tourism is part of it,” says Olivier Berrivin, vice president APAC of BWH Hotel Group, whose properties on the island include Best Western Premier Bangtao Beach Resort & Spa. “Still, Phuket was and will remain a top destination and we’re all expecting a slow but steady return to pre-pandemic business levels, probably during the first half of 2023.”
Spotlighting local culture
Local craftsmen and artisans hawking their wares outside heritage shophouses scattered throughout Phuket Town. Photo Credit: Adobe/pierrick
Among the “new” attractions that visitors flock to in Phuket is actually one of the destination’s oldest. With its picturesque shophouse façades and street art providing selfie ops, historic Phuket Town has been a hit with both Thai and international visitors. Shopping and entertainment at the Sunday Walking Street draws huge crowds. Quaint cafés and traditional food vendors complete the tableau.
Another person who hopes to showcase some of the island’s overlooked treasures is community leader Sonthaya Kongthip, chairman of Baan Bangtao Cherngtalay, a programme that promotes traditional activities like rubber tapping. It was featured during Thailand Travel Mart Plus 2022, Thailand’s premier travel trade show organized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand in June this year.
The tour includes a visit to a goat farm and a cooking demonstration to make khao yam, the rainbow rice salad popular throughout the south of Thailand. Tropical fruit aficionados sample varieties of home-grown durian known generically as thurian baan that never make it to market because of their short shelf life.
Guests appreciate the up-close, hands-on experience. “We thought about ways to bring people into our community,” said Kongthip. “We’re proud to have the opportunity to explain what we do, how we live.”
Inviting guests to the table
The minds behind Royd, a new fine-dining restaurant in Phuket Town, intend to tap into prevailing consumer demands for upscale dining experiences.
A survey published by UNWTO just before Covid showed that 70% of travellers weighed food options when selecting their travel destinations, and that Asia-Pacific was the region that would see the fastest growth in food tourism.
Suwijak Kunghae, chef and co-owner of Royd, a new fine dining in Phuket Town, confirms the trend, noting a growing interest in both traditional and modern outlets.
“People are more interested and concerned with culture and tradition of foods,” he said, but at the same time “visitors are looking more for lifestyle experiences, not only cafés, but also food experiences.”
Kunghae, better known as Chef Mond, adds that there is also a market for upscale dining. “Phuket is more than ready for innovative and fine dining restaurants,” he said, and Royd is part of that fast-growing dining scene. “We at Royd are pushing to put Phuket gastronomy on the map, It’s a new journey, a new destination.”
Beyond the beaches, these five unique destinations await discovery.
Phuket: Andamanda Phuket
It’s not just the 12 water slides that are head-spinning at Andamanda Phuket. The massive 9.3ha water park that opened in May 2022 also boasts other aquatic attractions such as a 500m-long lazy river, a 10,000-sqm wave pool that can produce waves up to three metres high, and the death-defying vertical six-storey-high Dragon’s Drop located in the Naga Jungle zone.
Kanchanaburi: Mallika City 124
At Mallika, guests can embrace the past Siamese lifestyle in the reign of the King Chulalongkorn era by dressing in period costumes as they tour through the city, including a swing bridge that would pivot to allow boats to pass on the canal, plus classical Thai dancing, puppetry and martial arts shows, all accurately reproduced under the supervision of historians and architects.
Visitors can see farmhouses, kitchens and markets, and indulge in a meal that reflects popular dishes of the time.
Bangkok: King Power Mahanakhon Skywalk
One of the most breath-taking views of the capital has got to be atop the pixelated King Power Mahanakhon building. Before reaching the top, the immersive 3D panorama starts in the lifts, giving guests a glimpse of things to come.
There are indoor and outdoor observation decks and a hydraulic glass elevator, but the wow shot is from the glass tray on the 78th floor, 310m above street level. Thrill-seekers can try out the ParadropVR experience, which includes skydiving and paragliding over the city without ever leaving the ground.
Chiang Rai: Mae Fah Luang Garden
Photo Credit: Adobe/martinhosmat083
Hundreds of flowering plants grow in the manicured Mae Fah Luang Garden, the photogenic park planted by the late Princess Srinakarindra. The Doi Tung Royal Villa, her residence, is now a museum that showcases her work to eradicate poverty in the northern province of Chiang Rai.
One of the most popular Doi Tung products is coffee that farmers grow 1,200m above sea level, producing quality beans used in blends like the Black Silk coffee that is served exclusively on the national carrier Thai Airways. Tours of the plantations are available, while the Doi Tung Tree Top Walk, a 300m-long wooden bridge 30m above the jungle, is not for the faint of heart.
Chiang Mai: MAIIAM
One of the country’s most notable collections of 20th and 21st century Thai art is now housed at the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, whose striking façade is made up of thousands of mirrored tiles.
Notable works from internationally acclaimed artists include those of the late Montien Boonma whose interest in modernisation and a rapidly changing Thailand shines through or Pinaree Sanpitak whose multimedia pieces are often reflections on femininity and women’s bodies.
The museum itself also hosts headline temporary exhibits, workshops, film screening and educational programmes throughout the year.