Living like locals in Phuket will give you a more enriching experience of the Southern Thai island than staying at a beach resort. Rent an apartment, breakfast with the locals, learn to cook some Phuket food, and you’ll leave with more than a taste of Phuket.
Living like locals in Phuket, the Southern Thailand island, is probably the furthest thing from most travellers’ minds when planning a beach escape. We get it – when we need to unwind and have a flop and drop holiday, there are few better places to do it than Phuket, where the beach resorts are some of the world’s best.
But sometimes we all want more from our downtime and want a deeper experience of a place – and engaging with locals, getting an insight into how they live their lives, shopping the markets, and learning to cook a thing or two are some of the easiest ways to have a more immersive experience of a place.
Our first trip to Phuket back in 2007 was to update a Thailand guidebook, so we were moving hotels every day or two to test out as many as we could. It was that fast-paced sort of travel that motivated us to start Grantourismo back in 2010 and focus on local travel, slow travel and experiential travel. It wasn’t until 2014, when we spent a month on Phuket working on food stories for Delicious and Gourmet Traveller that we felt like we’d scratched the surface.
We only stayed in one Phuket apartment that trip (we still had to test out hotels) and I don’t believe that you can ever attempt to get beneath the skin of a place unless you rent an apartment or house, settle in for a bit, learn a little language (even ten words), and develop daily habits and rituals that enable you to connect with locals and develop relationships, even for a short time. Here’s our guide to living like locals in Phuket, Thailand…
Living like Locals in Phuket, Thailand – Settling into a Surin Beach Apartment
Live Like Locals in Phuket – Rent a Phuket Apartment or Villa
One of the first things to do if living like locals in Phuket is your plan is to rent a Phuket villa or apartment. A month is ideal if you have the luxury of time, but most people don’t, so try to rent for a week at least.
While we adore Phuket Old Town for going local, if you’re on holidays you’ll probably want to be by the sea. We love Surin Beach as it’s not only a tourist destination, but is still home to locals and expats, plus the beach is gorgeous and there are great eating, drinking and shopping opportunities nearby.
You’ll find plenty of condominiums, serviced apartments and villas at Surin Beach, The Chava Resort is a great choice. A hybrid of apartments in a resort setting, you have the best of both worlds: the privacy and comfort of a ‘home’, plus hotel facilities, such as a stunning swimming pool, spa services, and breakfast if you don’t feel like cooking.
Psst… Luxury Escapes has an incredible offer – ending in 8 days! (but you can buy now, book dates later; they also have a low price guarantee) – for 8 nights from AUD$1,999/ USD$1,518 per room (valued up to AUD$4,655 / US$3,534) in a massive 160 sqm two-bedroom deluxe apartment with sleek kitchen, living-dining room, and balcony at The Chava Resort. Plus return airport transfers, daily breakfasts, four 60-minute Thai massages, three-course Thai dinner, and jug of sangria to get you in holiday mood! Check availability or book a Surin Beach apartment at Chava Resort here.
This offer also includes the option to upgrade to a Deluxe Two-Bedroom Apartment with Plunge Pool and a 250 sqm Super Size Three-Bedroom Family Suite with two outdoor terraces, valid for six people if you’re travelling with family or friends.
Click through for more Surin Beach apartments. On our last Phuket trip we stayed at Andara, on the headland overlooking Kamala Beach, which has more super spacious apartments with kitchens, a palm-fringed Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a fine Thai restaurant, however, I have my eye on Surin for our next trip.
After booking your Phuket apartment, these are some of the other things you need to do if living like locals in Phuket is your holiday goal:
Get Your Bearings – Do a Tour of Phuket Town
Phuket Old Town may not be on the water, which is why so many visitors overlook it, but it has loads of history and charm and its gentrification in recent years has made it even more appealing. Every second Sino-Portuguese building seems to have had a candy-coloured makeover and every time we visit new cafés, galleries and bars have opened. Even if you’re renting an apartment in Surin Beach, we recommend kicking off your living like locals in Phuket project with a couple of days in Phuket Old Town. Check into the historical gem that is The Memory at On On or boutique charmer Casa Blanca.
While Phuket’s historic centre might be compact, its streets are peppered with fascinating museums, incense-filled temples and handsome Sino-Portuguese mansions and shophouses built from the wealth of Phuket’s tin-mining boom and long history of trade. Visit the Thai Hua Museum, Phuket Baba Museum and the Peranakan Museum to get some context and learn about the island’s compelling history. The Phuket highlights small group city tour includes an Old Town architecture walk, a visit to the Buddhist temple of Wat Chalong with its gleaming Big Buddha, a drive to the most southwesterly point of Phuket (and Thailand) to savour the sunset, and a stop at Phuket’s first organic rum distillery for a cocktail.
Breakfast Like the Locals – Eat Dim Sum and Khanom Jeen
There are few faster ways of learning to live like locals in Phuket than joining the locals for breakfast. Phuket’s most popular breakfasts are dim sum and khanom jeen. You’ll have to rise early to join the locals for breakfast on Phuket-style dim sum or siew boi. Aim to be at bustling 100 year-old Juanhiang (Chana Charoen Road, near corner of Tilok Utis 1 Road) between 6am and 8am for some of the island’s best dim sum. Go later and the place will be empty. If they’re sold out, try century-old Boonrat 1 (off Bangkok Road, behind the main market). Sit down and staff will bring you hot Chinese tea (complimentary; let them know when your pot needs filling) and a selection of steamed dumplings and buns, deep fried snacks, and Portuguese-style tarts. Raise your hand when you’re ready for more.
Khanom jeen is eaten anytime from the morning until lunch these days, and consists of fresh lightly fermented rice noodles, doused with a soupy curry and eaten with an array of fresh aromatic herbs and crispy vegetables. In Phuket Town, it’s something of a ritual for local families and friends to go out mid-morning on a weekend to feast on khanom jeen. Join them and – following a few raised eyebrows – you’ll be warmly welcomed and given a few lessons in eating khanom jeen. Instead of waiting, grab a table, go to the counter to choose your curry, then back at the table, select your fragrant herbs and greens. You can either pile them on top and combine everything with your chopsticks or use leaves of cabbage or lettuce as cups to hold some noodles, herbs and leaves, which you can dunk into your curry. Try Po Lamai at the intersection where Satun and Dibuk Roads meet in Phuket Town.
Shop Like the Locals – Shop Phuket’s Fresh Markets
Living like locals in Phuket means shopping Phuket’s local markets, also called fresh markets, or wet markets when they have a wet area selling fresh fish and seafood on ice. Skip the Big C, local markets are not only the best place to buy fresh produce and ingredients, as well as household items and clothing, they provide a wonderful insight into everyday life on Phuket. You’ll see locals doing as much socialising and gossiping as shopping. There are two types of markets.
There are permanent markets in dedicated spaces, such as Phuket Old Town’s main market in a purpose-built building, Talad Sod Satarana (Ranong Road), open from 5am until late daily, although fresh food is mainly sold in the morning. We prefer the more atmospheric and colourful downtown market opposite, off a small soi (lane). Open from the crack of dawn when the focus is fresh produce until late at night when it’s about the street food, it’s one of Phuket’s oldest markets.
The other type of market is one that travels around the island, only opening in certain areas on particular days, such as the small fresh market next to Surin Tesco Lotus Park that sets up on Mondays and Thursdays. Other markets worth shopping at include the Cherng Talay market (Wednesday and Sunday) near the police station on the road to the Laguna Phuket resorts for the fabulous fresh tropical fruits, fragrant herbs and local vegetables, and local food made for taking away; Kata market (Monday and Thursday) on Kata Road, for more fresh produce, as well as crafts, souvenirs and street food; Kamala village market (Wednesday and Saturday), for fruit and veg, local food and snacks, along with clothes and accessories.
Eat Like the Locals – Eat Phuket Food
Skip the Central Thai cuisine and Northeastern Isaan and focus on Phuket food if you’re keen on living like locals in Phuket. Phuket’s unique cuisine is a result of the island’s long history of settlement and trade. It was a port of call for ships sailing the maritime trade routes between China and India, and beyond that, Persia, the Arab World and the Mediterranean, and Phuket’s food reflects these culinary influences. Your best introductions to Phuket cuisine are at the 1950s-era Lok Tien Food Court for Phuket street food (go for lunch and order a handful of dishes, one from each stall) and at century-old Raya restaurant (book a table for dinner, especially on weekends when it’s packed with Thai tourists).
Set in a faded Sino-Portuguese house with antique floor tiles and peeling paint, Raya restaurant serves up Phuket’s finest local food. The elderly matriarch, who you’ll spot near the bar, is the daughter of the original owners, and checks every plate bound for the dining room – if she’s not on the woks herself, that is! Try the nam prik goong seab (spicy prawn chilli dip), pad bai liang (stir fried bai laing leaves), moo hong (stewed pork belly), and, if you reckon you can handle the heat, the gang poo bai chaplu (crab meat curry with betel leaves). If you like things spicy, tell them you want it “Phuket-style” (ie. fiery). This Phuket Old Town 15-taster food tour provides a comprehensive introduction to Phuket food and drinks, taking you to hidden street food joints as the guide introduces you to Phuket’s culinary history and culture.
Learn to Cook Like the Locals – Cook Phuket Cuisine
One of the best things you can do if you’re intent on living like locals in Phuket is to learn to cook a little of Phuket’s cuisine. Sharing much with Southern Thai cuisine and heavily influenced by the culinary traditions of China, the Malay Peninsula, and Phuket’s indigenous food, Phuket cuisine is unique and very different to that of Central, Northern and Northeastern Thailand. While most Phuket cooking schools only teach generic Thai dishes – spring rolls, green curries, mango and sticky rice etc – some Phuket cooking classes teach students how to make Phuket specialties, or will if asked.
The Phuket Thai Cooking Class comes highly recommended, however, some of the best Phuket cooking schools we sampled are at the luxury beach resorts, including Spice Spoons at the Anantara Phuket Layan’s interactive Thai restaurant Dee Plee, where guests pound spices table-side during dinner. Cooking classes at resorts such as Trisara and The Surin offered revamped lesson menus including Phuket specialties when we tested them out. At the Andara, cooks gave us in-villa cooking lessons while making our dinner. We asked them to go off-menu and make the kind of dishes they eat at home. For more info see our guide to the best Phuket cooking schools.
Get a Taste of the Thai Hipster Scene
If you’re serious about living like locals in Phuket then avoid the tacky tourist markets and get a taste of the young Thai hipster scene. Start at Phuket Town’s petite Indy Market (Thursday and Friday 4-10pm; Dibuk Road) beside Limelight Avenue shopping mall. It’s a fun spot to take in the local scene. Young Thai artists and designers lay out their handmade jewellery, retro clothes, and craftsy wares on the ground and you can get anything from your portrait drawn to a manicure. There are plenty of stalls selling street food snacks – everything from dumplings and fish balls to som tam and fish maw soup, and barbecue chicken, and the ubiquitous khanom buang (Thai ‘tacos’). The market is dotted with musicians performing live and there are little bars so you can sip a sugar cane juice, icy cold beer or a cocktail while you sit and munch and watch and take it all in.
After, drop into adjoining Pint Factory (2nd Floor Limelight Avenue; 11am-11pm) and sink into a Chesterfield to select one from over 100 types of craft beers and ciders. Go local and try the Chalong. If you enjoyed the Indy Market, there’s more of the same but with a much greater focus on street food in the heart of town at Lard Yai Market (Thalang Road; weekend evenings) and on a much larger scale at Chillva Market Phuket (Thursday to Saturday 4-10pm; 141/2 Yaowarat Road), where the cafés, bars, and eateries are located in revamped shipping containers, some with rooftop areas where you can kick back with something cold in hand to survey the scene. Before you leave the Old Town, slip into Comics Bar, which has cartoons on the ceiling and walls and live music or Quip Sky Bar, the Old Town’s first rooftop bar, which attracts a crowd of artsy young Thais.
Have you tried living like locals in Phuket before? How did you go? Where did you stay and what did you get up to? We’d love to get your tips.
Image above courtesy of Luxury Escapes.
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