Editor’s note: We encourage our readers to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for up-to-date information on how to safely travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With its ancient sites, peaceful spiritual practices, friendly people, and tastebud-tingling cuisine, Thailand (or, “The Land of Smiles”) has long attracted visitors to its corner of Southeast Asia. It’s one of the most visited countries in the world, but with borders closed for more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its status as a favored tourist destination changed significantly. However, a careful reopening program debuted in July, and fully-vaccinated visitors were allowed to travel to the country’s most popular resort island, Phuket, without having to quarantine. Beginning November 1, Thailand will ease rules again and welcome vaccinated visitors from 46 approved “low risk” countries, including the United States, with no quarantine or minimum stay requirements.
Alongside Phuket, the capital Bangkok and other top destinations like Krabi (whose Phi Phi Islands were made famous in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach), Phang Nga (you’ll find those spectacular limestone sea cliffs here), and Chiang Mai will reopen as part of the country’s new “Test & Go” plan. You’ll still need to produce negative pre-departure and on-arrival PCR tests and carry COVID-19 insurance covering at least $50,000, as well as download the user-friendly Thailand Pass.
Once you’re familiar with the health and safety protocols, you can focus on the fun part. Beach lovers looking to chill out in style will love Phuket’s palm-fringed beaches kissed by the turquoise-hued Andaman Sea. Then there’s the history, culture, fantastic food, and gorgeous sights to soak in here, too. Once considered too crowded for comfort, experience the magic of this beautiful island without pre-pandemic visitor numbers before Thailand fully reopens its borders in January 2022.
Packed with luxury-meets-local experiences from serene spa rituals and immersive organic farm lunches to ethical elephant encounters, here’s what to see, do, and experience in this pretty slice of paradise.
Stay at Rosewood Phuket
If the sleek architecture and private pools at suite- and villa-only hotel Rosewood Phuket don’t put heart emojis in your eyes, then its secluded setting on Emerald Bay, where a tangle of jungle meets Phuket’s pretty coastline, should do the trick. The Insta-worthy lily pond reflecting pools and giant temple-style doors in the lobby add a “wow factor” to arrival. The property exudes a luxe residential feel thanks to the original artwork and touches of Thai-inspired decor featured throughout. Stay highlights include a hands-on cooking class with local chef couple, Uncle Nun and Auntie Yai, followed by lunch at Ta Khai restaurant, any of the treatments at Asaya Spa, and sundowner cocktails at chic poolside bar, Mai.
Explore a Morning Market
Thais shop daily for fruits, fish, meat, and seafood at morning markets like Kathu Fresh Market in Phuket’s Kathu District. It’s an authentic way to experience the local culture, discover native foods (hello, mangosteen and rambutan!), try classic street-style snacks, or grab bags of delicious curry and rice to go. After exploring the market, stroll down the street to Ketho Dim Sum for a Phuketian-style breakfast of freshly steamed dim sum dishes like fluffy pork buns (char siu bao), a bowl of congee rice porridge (khao tom), or a plate of refreshing Southern Thai rice salad (kao yum pahk dai).
Swim Along a Secret Beach
Phuket is famous for its beautiful beaches. A peaceful and private spot for swimming and snorkeling nestled on the northwest side of the island (between Bang Tao and Ni Thon), Banana Beach rewards swimmers with glimpses of colorful reef fish. (Just keep an eye out for the myriad black spiny sea urchins that dot the rocks close to shore!) Accessed on land via a steep bamboo-lined trail, the beach is best reached by rented longtail boat or a chartered yacht cruise with Asia Marine, if you’re feeling extra fabulous.
Visit a Buddhist Temple
At Phuket’s largest Buddhist temple, Wat Chalong, Thai locals visit daily to make merit or manifest good karma by offering flowers and food to the resident saffron-robed monks. Built in 1837 and located in Chalong Bay, the grand stupa of this historical landmark allegedly houses a little piece of bone from Buddha himself. Climb the water dragon–adorned stairs across three floors—each one decorated with intricate paintings depicting Buddha’s life story and filled with golden statues of The Awakened One in a variety of poses—to the top for lovely views of the temple complex and beyond.
Eat Lunch at an Organic Farm
Before sitting down to lunch under a shaded lakeside canopy, collect fresh eggs, cuddle the odd chicken, and pick fresh herbs from the garden at a working organic farm in northwestern Phuket. Built on the former site of an open-air tin mine, Hideaway by Jampa at Trisara Farm is the rustic fine-dining concept from Trisara, one of the island’s most luxurious five-star resorts and home of its only Michelin-starred restaurant, PRU. Every Saturday afternoon, lucky diners (including non-hotel guests) can watch chef Kla Prakobkit and his team create dishes for a seven-course tasting menu, including charcoal-grilled tiger prawns with charred seablite from the live fire and open concept kitchen.
Experience the Culture in Old Phuket Town
With its brightly painted Sino-Portuguese shophouses, eclectic street art and galleries, ice cream and craft coffee shops, plus boutiques filled with take home treasures, Old Phuket Town is well worth leaving the beach for a day. Every Sunday until 4 p.m., historic Thalang Road transforms into the bustling Lard Yai or Sunday Walking Street Market, which is packed with stalls and vendors, making it a great place to shop, sample street food, and people watch. After, for a memorable meal, head to Phuket’s most famous and charming restaurant Raya for a bowl of crab meat curry and vermicelli-style noodles (keang nua pu) and southern Thai dry roasted curry (kua kling), among other specialties. Round off the evening with a few cocktails at the sleek and refined DibukHouse or slightly edgier CLUB No. 43.
Support Rescued Elephants
Admired for their strength, loyalty, and intelligence, elephants are a national symbol of Thailand and an important part of Thai culture. Interacting with these majestic animals has been a major tourism draw for decades, but thanks to places like the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, visitors can now do so in a much kinder way. Since opening in 2016, the sanctuary has been a pioneer of ethical elephant tourism in Phuket by rescuing, retiring, and rehabilitating elephants after decades of abuse in tourism and logging industries. Step inside the 30-acre jungle refuge and watch the herd (including original rescues Madee and Kannika) as they happily wander, feed, and enjoy bathing rituals in the lagoons and mud pools. Half-day tours feature an educational presentation, the opportunity to meet the elephants, and a vegetarian meal. A full-day tour and immersive week-long volunteer program includes pitching in on all aspects of running the sanctuary like food preparation, maintenance, mucking out the area, and working with the elephants.
If you’ve fallen in love with Phuket, book a trip here.
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