I’ll be honest, before this trip, Phuket was a place that held little interest for me to visit with my family. From what others told me and what I read, Phuket was an island of overpriced luxury hotels and all-inclusive resorts, overcrowded beaches, and a place that was great 15 years ago.
Thanks, but no thanks, I thought, as my family prefers places a little more off the beaten path where local flavor and culture is still evident. It wasn’t until our recent sailboat charter that departed out of Phuket’s northern Yacht Haven Marina that we were forced to come face to face with the “Jewel of the Andaman” and spend some time on one of Thailand’s most famous islands.
Our Phuket visit was divided into two parts. First, a short “layover” stay on Nai Yang beach to recover from an overnight flight from Shanghai, China where we currently reside, and to prepare for our three day bareboat sailing charter around the northern island of Phang Nga bay.
The second part of our Phuket experience was post-sailing rest and relaxation after lazily cruising for three days. This part of the trip was spent at Kamala Beach, a small beach sandwiched by two of Phuket’s more well-known and touristy beaches; Sirin beach to the north and Patong beach to the south.
Opting for Nai Yang beach and the Dewa Phuket Resort was a great choice for our day and a half, two-night layover while we rested up and prepared for our sailing trip. Nai Yang does not get a lot of press and perhaps this is because of its close proximity to the Phuket International Airport (a short 15 minute drive). This was in fact the reason we chose Nai Yang, knowing we would be arriving late.
What we found when we woke up was an unspoiled beach, devoid of beach vendors, beach chairs, umbrellas or any of the other trappings I was expecting of Phuket. Dewa Resort sits at the north end, right at the entrance to Sirinat National Park. A short walk across a small road (small, really small) and through a grove of huge cypress cedar trees brings you to the beach.
A short five minute walk down the road or a seven minute walk down the beach to the south brought us to the small village of Nai Yang on the beach. Here there are several other cheaper independent hotels and a couple good restaurants on the beach. The female contingent of our group enjoyed lounging by the two generous pools Dewa Resort offers, ordering delicious smoothies and appetizers from the restaurant, and soaking up some much needed vitamin D after the long grey winter months spent back in Shanghai.
What surprised me the most however about Nai Yang, was the small but consistent right-handed wave peeling off the northern point of the beach. After renting stand Up Paddleboards (10/hour) from the hotel, my son, my friend and I paddled north, out across the bay for 10 minutes to reach a wave with no one else on it. We surfed for over an hour hooting and howling as we each caught wave after wave. We paddled and surfed until our arms were nothing more than useless appendages, finally enjoying a slow lazy paddle back to the beach watching the planes take off and land from our unique vantage point.
It was day one and we had just scored an empty line up and more waves than I could count. With 4 days on a 36’ catamaran on deck, I knew this vacation was going to be something special.
Nai Yang is a great beach for a layover stay in Phuket but it would not take much coaxing for me to return with the family for a longer stay and make it a base from which to explore northern Phuket. Don’t let the proximity to the Phuket airport scare you – this is a locals beach that is one of the better I have visited in Southeast Asia and for me, a rather well-kept secret on Phuket normal tourist destinations.
The next four days were spent aboard our chartered Bareboat from Elite Yachting. (I will cover this aspect of the trip in another post coming soon as it deserves it’s own mention and description in order to do Phang Nga and its limestone cliffs and islands justice. It’s a magical place that makes for some of the best cruising grounds Phuket has to offer.)
We returned to Phuket from our sailing adventures ready to sleep in real beds that were not constantly in motion, enjoy endless drinks with ice, and some air conditioning. On the recommendation of our friends who accompanied us on this trip, we booked into the Novotel on Kamala Beach.
My friend Jon, an avid watersports person like myself, had scoped this beach and hotel out on a previous trip in the fall. His talk of good waves, surfboard rental shacks on an uncrowded beach, and good restaurants sold me. Jon nailed it and Kamala Beach proved to be another great find on Phuket.
We arrived tired, salty, dirty, and hot from four days on the sailboat. We were greeted by the fine staff of the Novotel with cold towlettes, drinks, and a view of one of the finer beaches I have seen in Southeast Asia (are you seeing a pattern here?). It turned out the hotel had made a mistake in our booking and did not have two connecting rooms for my family as I had noted in a call to the hotel before arriving. This was quickly remedied and the Novotel staff upgraded us to a two-bedroom beach front suite with our own plunge pool outside our villa and another private pool for us up on the roof.
This upgrade was well beyond the rooms I had initially booked so the Novotel gets very high marks from me for their customer service. This service never faltered during our entire stay and I would highly recommend this hotel to anyone traveling to the Kamala area. Besides the service the Novotel offers an incredible infinity pool looking over the entire Kamala bay, the best snorkeling the bay has to offer is right in front of the hotel, and restaurants are a short 5-7 minute walk down the beach.
Kamala beach has more infrastructure than Nai Yang and therefore does have a touristier feel to it. However, on Kamala beach these elements are tucked away and not as conspicuous as they are on other larger beaches on Phuket such as Patong and Surin. The north end of the beach is devoid of any tourist trappings: there are no beach vendors, no one offering to braid your hair, and nobody selling refrigerator magnets or cheap sunglasses.
The sand, in the words of my 9-year-old daughter, was “like flour.” I have to agree. And, it is clean. Southeast Asian beaches have a reputation, usually befitting, for being strewn with flotsam that washed onto beaches. Kamala shrugs this stereotype off and delivers a beautiful beach and bay.
I ran the beach in bare feet every morning, making it down to the fishing boats lazily tugging at their moorings at the southern end of the beach. There are not many beaches in Asia where I will do this, but here in Kamala there was no worry of stepping on anything unpleasant other than hot sand.
Not to be missed: Wandering down the beach during the day and stopping to have a cold beverage or making a slow stroll to dinner to one of the superb Thai restaurants lining the beach as the sun slips over the horizon.
Kamala beach during the northeast monsoon (late fall to late spring) often has breezes that blow off shore. For this reason, the water is flat and shallow off the beach. For families with young children, this makes it a great choice for swimming and easy snorkeling. During the Southwest Monsoon though, Kamala puts on a different face as it receives the swells that come with the season and can get very respectable waves inside the bay, making it ideal for those looking for more adventurous water sport pursuits.
Phuket has an easy air about it. It’s easy to get around, is laid back, and is a safe place to travel with a family. And it has some gems that are still relatively unspoiled and underdeveloped.
If you are willing to take some chances and stay on some of Phuket’s smaller beaches, the island still offers hints of the unspoiled beauty that must have been abundant prior to the large resorts and throngs of tourists that have descended on it in recent years. If you are willing to look into the smaller bays that Phuket has to offer, you will discover that Phuket truly lives up to its billing as the Jewel of the Andaman.