For scuba diving Phuket is where many people believe to be the best place in Thailand. However, this is not true. Koh Tao is the most popular place to learn to scuba dive, but not the best. The vast number of divers & competing dive centres, combined with limited dive sites and average visibility spoil diving in Koh Tao. Without doubt, the best place to dive in Thailand is the Similan Islands. Located too far from Phuket to enjoy a day trip, the Similans are most often visited on a liveaboard diving cruise. It’s possible to do day trips there, but divers need to be based in Khao Lak, not Phuket. They also need to be prepared to spend 2-3 hours on a speedboat and $150 for 2 dives. In addition, the Similan Islands are closed from mid-May until mid-October. Diving Phuket is possible all year round, it’s cheaper than the Similans, and it’s easy to enjoy a 2 or 3-dive day trip without breaking the bank or spending many hours travelling.
What & Where is Phuket?
Phuket is Thailand’s largest island, and like all Thai islands, it’s located in the south of the country. Koh Samui, Koh Tao & Koh Chang are in the Gulf of Thailand on the east coast. But Phuket is on the west coast of southern Thailand’s isthmus. That means it’s in the Andaman Sea, which is effectively part of The Indian Ocean. Its location means that although it’s open to tourism all year round, the seasons are dependent on the Indian Monsoon. Therefore, October to May is the best time to visit.
Compare Diving Phuket to Diving Similans
This is not an easy or fair comparison for a couple or reasons. It’s like comparing apples & pears, not apples & apples. Diving Phuket compared to diving Similans depends on what you want from your trip and how much you’re prepared to sacrifice.
Day trips from Phuket to Phuket dive sites are easily possible and available all year round. Almost every trip departs from Chalong Pier in the morning, and the boats are large enough to accommodate everyone comfortably. The dive sites are either east or south of Phuket. Sailing east takes you to King Cruiser Wreck, Anemone Reef, Koh Doc Mai and Shark Point. Travel a little further and you end up at the world-famous Phi Phi Islands, where diving at Bida Nok & Bida Nai is always good. Sailing south from Phuket takes you to the Racha (Raya) Islands, which see far fewer boats and tourists, but have some really good diving.
As already mentioned, diving day trips to the Similan Islands isn’t really an option. If you’re prepared to do lots of travelling for 2 expensive dives, then there are a couple of dive operators who offer this, but we don’t. The day would involve 2+ hours in a minivan or taxi before getting on a speedboat for another 1.5 hours, and then do the same journey back.
Divers staying in Khao Lak can choose from a selection of Similan Islands & Richelieu Rock day trips because Khao Lak hotels are all near to the piers. Some trips are on a speedboat or catamaran all day, and others transfer divers to a large boat to dive from and eat lunch on.
Liveaboard diving is possible from Phuket to local dive sites and to the Similans. Guests who are staying in Phuket have plenty of time to join a Similan Island liveaboard that departs in the evening, but not one of the few that leave in the morning. This is for the same reason as joining a day trip. In addition, there’s some liveaboard diving in Phuket as well. Phuket liveaboards offer trips from May to October at the dive sites which are not in closed national parks or in areas exposed to wind & waves. Then during the high season of October to May, they can go to either the ‘local low season’ dive sites or to the Similan Islands. In addition, there are some wonderful diving locations not far from Phuket that are only available from October to May. These are Hin Daeng/Muang & Koh Haa.
Diving Phuket during the rainy or low season is a lot more popular and enjoyable than many people may presume. The diving & weather conditions are less predictable than during the high season, but that doesn’t mean diving Phuket from May to October is a waste of time or money.
Visibility is not really affected because this is not dependent on the waves or weather. On a cloudy day there is less colour in the shallow corals than on a sunny day, but that’s about the only effect on visibility during the low season.
Weather is less predictable, and rainstorms are common, but unlike in temperate zones, the falls heavily and then stops quickly. The warm and humid climate also ensures that anything that got wet will soon dry out. When you go diving you get wet and the rain doesn’t affect the sea conditions for divers until they’re at the surface. Expect less sunshine and star-filled night skies in the low season, but in general the weather is fine. Winds are stronger during the low season, and this of course produces waves.
Waves can be larger and more frequent during the low season than the high season, but they are rarely an issue for boats or divers at these sheltered dive sites. Phuket diving sites are mainly on the east side of Phuket Island, and that area is protected from easterly winds. This includes Koh Phi Phi’s Bida Islands.
Therefore, diving Phuket and Phi Phi can be enjoyed all year round, with very few disadvantages. In fact, some people prefer to visit a dive site where there are fewer boats and divers. The fish are there all year, and are sometimes easier to spot in the low season. When dive sites are crowded many species look for peace and safety in deep water, away from divers.
Non-Diving Phuket Tourist Activities
There are many other activities to do in Phuket besides scuba diving. Other water sports include jet skiing, paragliding and sometimes surfing. There is a go-kart track, a shooting range and more. We discourage tourists from visiting Phuket Zoo, Aquarium, elephant sanctuaries and especially the dolphin show. Some of these places may claim to care for the animals, but they are just money-making businesses who have a constant flow of new tourists from around the world.
Places to go include many temples, some of which are off of the beaten track and not on travel brochures, but still very much worth a visit. Phuket is quite famous for its nightlife, which began in Patong Beach, but has now spread south to Karon & Kata, as well as Chalong. However, the busiest and most lively place is still very much Soi Bangla Road, in Patong.
Getting to Phuket
Phuket has a large International Airport (HKT) that was rebuilt in 2016. Dozens of flights land every day from countries all around the world, thus insuring competitive flight prices. There are lots of domestic flight options to Phuket, including from both of Bangkok’s airports, the north & south of the country and even Pattaya. On the west side of Thailand there is no train system at all and no plans to build one, meaning that travel is by road or by air. There is a bridge that connects Phuket to the mainland, at Phang Nga province. Ferries connect Phuket to Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Koh Lipe, Ao Nang and many other surrounding islands and beach areas. There is also no shortage of private speedboat charter options.
Getting around Phuket
For several reasons, there is very limited low-cost public transport on Phuket island for tourists. It is claimed that the local mafia have for many years controlled the situation so that they can manage private taxi fares. Meter taxis are on the island, but they are very difficult to use unless from the airport. Public buses tend to only go from Phuket Old Town, whereas foreigners usually stay in or want to go to west coast beaches (Patong, Karon, Kata, Surin, Kamala) and Chalong in the south.
Many tourists hire motorcycles, which range in size from 100cc scooters to 1,000+cc sports bikes and choppers. The warm climate makes motorcycling very enjoyable but there are many dangers. These include crashing, being ripped off, and being caught by the police. However good or experienced a rider you may be, Phuket’s roads are notoriously dangerous. The twisty turns and hills are fun, but other drivers are either sightseeing tourists or locals in a rush. Many are also drunk or speeding, or both. Crashing while wearing shorts and t-shirt will definitely result in injuries and most probably a hospital visit. Damage to the bike results not only in you paying for repairs at full (or inflated) rates but also you paying the daily rental fee for all the time that the bike is being repaired. This is because they claim lost earnings. There are also scams where the rental shop claims that you damaged the machine when you didn’t. They threaten violence until they get what they want. Finally, even though most driving licences can be used in Thailand, the local police will easily be able to find any infringement if they choose to and try hard enough. This includes crash helmets, traffic signals, staying in the correct lane and many more.
Phuket can be a wonderful place to visit, and there are many fun things to do there. Be prepared, be safe, don’t pay private enterprises to see or touch wild animals. In addition, respect local people, culture and laws.