Thailand's largest island, Phuket Province, was once a major trading spot between India and China, but now draws more travelers than tankers. Boasting a coastline abundant with sandy beaches, coral reefs and clear water, Phuket draws a wide range of relaxation-minded visitors, from surfers to shoppers. The city of Phuket, in the southeastern region, serves as the provincial capital.
When looking for things to do in Phuket city, kick off a trip at Wat Chalong, one of the most important Buddhist temples in Thailand. A grand pagoda with a soaring spire dominates the landscape, and paintings within depict the Buddha's life story in artistic detail. The buildings are edged with graceful garden areas that are ideal for meditation, and small market stalls offer plenty of souvenirs.
After a tour through Wat Chalong, it may be time for a beach visit. Hat Patong on the island's western edge is the most popular spot, with restaurants and hotels edging the sandy stretches. Stunningly blue water and palm trees provide a mellow contrast to the many brightly colored beach umbrellas dotting the shore, and jungle-filled hills rise up on both sides of the bay. Hat Karon, a 15-minute drive south, is a quieter spot that appeals to families. The beach's off-shore coral reefs are particularly treasured for snorkeling.
In the northwest corner of the island, Sirinath National Marine Park offers a significant portion of protected land and sea, including Phuket's largest coral reef. Endangered turtles make their way up the beach to nest every year, and a long wooden walkway carries visitors safely through saltwater swamps and mangrove forests.
More natural beauty can be viewed with a tour through Phang Nga Bay, home to 100 islands, including the well-visited James Bond Island. Featured in the 1974 movie "The Man With the Golden Gun," the island's inlet has a signature rocky pinnacle and steep cliffs, but—unfortunately—very few smartly dressed British spies.
Back on the main island, Downtown Phuket is a favorite city attraction, bustling with activity at nearly all hours. The historical district, Phuket Old Town, is suffused with Buddhist temples, picturesque cafés and small museums. Built during an island boom time in the 19th century, the district is rich with colonial-style mansions that seem to melt into the jungle landscapes around them.
With a proximity to the sea, Phuket restaurants specialize in seafood, and one of the most famous is the Blue Elephant Restaurant in Phuket Old Town. Housed inside a sprawling, Chinese-inspired mansion that was once a governor's home, the opulent dining room looks out over banyan trees and landscaped gardens. Breaking with the stately decor of the main restaurant, Blue Elephant's bar area is an illuminated, chic hangout serving distinctive vodka martinis.
With its ample beaches and busy seaside areas, it is easy to find things to do in Phuket. Whether snorkeling among coral reefs or pretending to be James Bond at a hip Phuket city restaurant, travelers can relax and rejuvenate in this top Thailand vacation spot.