Thailand's party-heavy destination of Phuket is uniquely quiet these days. Having just opened its borders to foreigners, travelers are seeing what this gorgeous island was like before mass tourism arrived.
Before receiving news that Phuket had opened its borders for international travelers in early July, my assumption of Thailand’s southern province was that it was either a place to lose yourself (through means of partying) or to relax on the beach at one of the nearby smaller islands. No concept of what life was like on Phuket had ever entered my mind outside of what media portrayed it to be, and when arranging travel, I left with little to no preconceived assumptions.
Arriving after more than a day of travel via the extremely comfortable Qatar Airways Qsuite, I was shuffled through Phuket International Airport. I was examined multiple times for signs of COVID-19 despite having already been vaccinated. Though the process might seem complicated at first sight, I was out of the airport within 30 minutes of my plane landing. Once I arrived at my hotel, I had to quarantine myself while waiting for my COVID-19 test results.
I checked into the Rosewood Phuket resort located in Patong town, not too far from its well-populated entertainment district. Each part of the resort was musically decorated in a Thailand design that evoked modernism and traditional styles melded together. Designed by Australia’s BAR Studio, the entire resort was constructed and decorated with a strong sense of place, offering a mood of relaxed luxury.
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Each room contained a plunge pool facing the Andaman Sea, giving you a sense of peace not generally found on this side of town. Walls decorated with different sized tchotchkes spoke to the island in different ways, and the restrooms were as big as the hotel room itself, giving the guest the option of an outdoor shower or bath.
After receiving a negative COVID-19 result, I was escorted on my first outing guided by Daniel Fraser, the co-founder and CEO of the luxury adventure company Smiling Albino, to the Wat Chalong Temple. Built at the beginning of the 19th-century, the Wat Chalong Temple is one of the largest and most visited Buddhist temples in Phuket. It is where visitors can pay their respects to monks like Luang Pho Cham and Luang Pho Chuan.
Cham and Chuan were responsible for leading citizens against the Chinese rebellion in 1876. Each temple wall has a vibrantly painted history of Gautama Buddha’s life. Most rooms are filled with multiple golden Buddha statues in three historic positions representing meditation, generosity, and other lessons. Generally served with locals and tourists, the temple was empty, giving the space an even more spiritual ambiance.
Accompanied by Fraser, I departed for the mangrove-populated Muslim community of Bang Rong the next day. We were scheduled to learn the village philosophy, which includes self-sufficiency and other forms of environmental sustainability. Starting the excursion with delicious traditional Muslim and Thai snacks, we began kayaking through the Bang Rong Canal, exploring the different types of mangroves and local fishing outposts.
Midway through the kayak ride, my right hip gave out, and I needed to be rescued by a nearby longtail boat. Outside of embarrassment and general pain, I was amazed how this community maintained a sense of peace with the environment and their needs. Later in the night, I headed to Raya on Dibuk Road in Old Town. Due to the exterior resembling a local house, Raya feels more like your grandmother’s cozy dining room than a Michelin-listed restaurant. The interior was filled with photos of family, friends, and celebrities that had once visited. Family-owned for more than 25 years and situated in a 130-year old house, each meal from Raya was by far one of the best meals I’ve had in some time. Dishes like Mu Hong (pork belly) and Kaeng Pu Bai Cha Phlu (crab meat in coconut milk) made me realize why this eatery is considered one of the best on the island.
The following day I began to explore the historic Phuket Old Town. Well known to locals and travelers from other parts of Thailand, like Bangkok, Old Town was once a tin trading hotspot for European, Malaysian, Indian, and Chinese traders. Lined with Sino-Portuguese architecturally focused buildings, each street gives you a taste of what Phuket looked like before mass tourism came from abroad. Generally filled with vendors and other travelers, most roads were empty as I walked through them, mainly because of the ongoing pandemic.
What surprised me was the amount of boutique coffee and upscale eateries Old Town had. Each street had at least one local coffee shop and restaurant you could imagine stumbling across in a city like New York or Paris. Places like the locally-owned Torry’s Ice Cream, where the interior was decorated with notes of Sino-Portuguese and Art Nouveau architecture, carried a cool factor and traditional local flavors incorporated into each dessert. Other shops had unique hand-made fashions you could only find there.
The combination of fantastic shopping and fabulous eateries gave me a sense that this place was an influencer’s heaven. I was proven right when having a drink at Club No. 43, where I witnessed a crowd of travelers from Bangkok practicing different poses with their decorative cocktails in hand.
While a good portion of Old Town showcases a unique modern shopping and eating experience, it also carries a solid traditional heritage with various eateries providing culturally rich dishes, such as the Hokkien Noodles, Mee Hokkien. Made with yellow flour noodles and stir-fried with choy sum, pork, fish, squid, shrimp, and fish balls, this local dish is a trip down history that will enchant any visitor.
On one leg of my journey, I took a cooking class with Uncle Nun and Auntie Yai, a deliriously adorable married chef couple who manage the Ta Khai restaurant inside Rosewood Phuket. We made traditional Thailand dishes like Som Tum (green papaya salad), Gaeng Kiaw Waan Gai (green curry), and Tom Yum Talay (spicy seafood soup). All the dishes were prepared with herbs and vegetables native to Thailand and plucked from the nearby garden, making this cooking class especially interesting and worth the time.
As part of the Phuket Sandbox program (where visitors are allowed to roam the island for 14 days before going anywhere else in Thailand), I was instructed to do another round of PCR testing. On the eighth day of my travels, I checked in to the Trisara resort, located north in the Thalang District. Trisara is a luxury villa property that houses the only Michelin and Green starred restaurant (PRU) on the island.
While lodging there, we visited the Underwood Factory, poised to be Phuket’s new modern cultural epicenter. The family-owned factory plans to house one of the most extensive cabaret dinner shows on the island. The creators already have a hand in designing avant-garde furniture for hotels and personal homes in Phuket. While their dinner theater experience has only just begun, you can drop by for a peek at the venue’s interior since most of their avant-garde pieces are on display.
Lastly, I attended a quick farm tour of the Jampa Farm. This unique farm is where PRU sources most of its ingredients and is a beautiful example of how organic farming and restaurants can work together.
While I tried to have no preconceived notions of what Phuket was like before arriving, I left with the idea that this Southeast Asian island offers more than just partying and beaches. It contains culture, history, architecture, art, modernism, and so much more. Just take a walk down any street in Old Town, and you’ll see what I mean.
What to Know About Visiting Thailand Right Now
Thailand has just opened its borders, and Phuket (and Ko Samui) are the only places you can travel if you’re a foreigner. To travel to Thailand, you’ll need a valid passport, a COVID-19 vaccination card, medical insurance (at least $100K), a SHA+ rated hotel booking confirmation, a negative PCR test result 72 hours before your flight, and a certificate of entry from an embassy.
Once on the island, you can expect to be tested at the airport and held in a hotel quarantine until you receive your COVID test results. These results usually take 24 hours and are given directly to the hotel. After this is completed, you’ll begin the Sandbox program, which also requires periodic COVID-19 exams throughout your stay. If you’re interested in checking out other parts of Thailand, you will need to complete a 14-day quarantine on the island.
Upon returning to the U.S, you’ll need to provide another rapid COVID-19 exam result within three days of your departure. While this process may seem a bit daunting, it’s pretty straightforward since most forms are easy to complete.
Keep in mind that Phuket has been locked down for some time now and is slowly reopening. Many stores and bars have yet to open, so if you’re looking for a wild vacation, you probably won’t find it here just yet. Also, consider the pandemic is still affecting different parts of the country, so being respectful when visiting is encouraged. If you’re looking to experience what Phuket was like 30 years ago, this is the perfect time to go. You’ll find beautiful empty beaches and some of the best local attractions minus the over-tourism.