Off The Beaten Track in Phuket
Phuket is generally not a place one might consider being “off the beaten track.” With its golden beaches, turquoise seas, and amazing selection of seafood restaurants, it’s a renowned beach resort destination which sees millions of visitors every year. Being such a popular spot it’s hard to envisage there might be anywhere you can get away from the teeming crowds spread across the island. But for the more adventurous traveller, seeking out the quieter, less frequented spots, all is not lost. With a bit of exploring there are some hidden gems to be found where the hordes of tourists seem a world away, and you can feel as though you really are off the beaten track.
However, getting to most of these “off the beaten track locations” is going involve a do-it-yourself approach to sightseeing. Most tour companies won’t know where these non-mainstream locations are and they certainly won’t be interested in taking you to places outside their arranged tour options. Getting off the beaten track in Phuket is going to involve hiring your own transportation (motorbike) for the day then driving and hiking over some dirt tracks. Obviously there’s a bit of effort involved and, more than likely, a fair amount of perspiration. But the reward when you get there is often the best uncrowded viewpoints and beaches on the island.
Aficionados of Freedom Beach swear it’s the most pristine stretch of sand on the island. The clean white sand, turquoise waters, and low numbers visiting make it the archetypical tropical paradise. Ironically it’s only a stone’s throw from arguably the most crowded and chaotic tourist area on Phuket; Patong beach. In this regard its surprising Freedom Beach doesn’t attract greater numbers to its paradisiacal setting. One can only surmise the major deterrent for many potential visitors is the physical exertion required for the hike out, at the end of the day. The road in can also be hard work for those not used to motoring across rough, dirt tracks.
The access track branches off the main road from Patong to Karon. It’s a pot-holed dirt road which heads into the jungle and winds its way around the first large hill south of Patong. The 1.5 km track to the parking area is actually marked on Google Maps. The first few hundred meters pass through a ramshackle village before snaking around the left side of a hill and eventually ending at the top of the hiking track down Freedom Beach. Once there you can you can leave your bike in relative safety for the day, as there’s a number of locals manning the entry point and keeping a watchful eye over the parking area. Unfortunately access to paradise comes with a price; there’s an admission fee of 200 THB per person. <What is that 200 fee all about? – Stick> Pay your entry fee at the gate and set yourself for the trek down to the beach. The hiking trail is approximately 500 meters and is enshrouded by thick, tropical jungle. Sections of the trail towards the lower end are quite steep and there are fixed ropes to assist with ascents and descents. As you get near the bottom of the hill the trail levels out and a spectacular stretch of white sand can be seen through the gaps in the foliage. Pick your spot along the uncrowded beach and dive into the clear, turquoise waters.
NOTE 1: The hike back up the hill to the parking area is quite arduous. Be prepared to lose a good deal of perspiration on the way. Once you reach the top, you’ll receive a free bottle of cold water from the lady at the gate.
The northern end of Karon Beach:
Karon Beach is not really “off the beaten track” but as far as Phuket’s mainstream beaches go, the northern end sees significantly fewer visitors than most . To get there, follow the coastal road north towards Patong. Approximately 200 meters from the main roundabout (heading north) the coast road takes a hard right. At that point there’s also an entrance to the beach area which goes straight on. Take that and work your way past the artificial lake and restaurants on the right. The cement road eventually gives way to a sand track, which continues for another 200 meters. The line of restaurants on the right finishes towards the end of the sand track. The very last restaurant is owned and operated by a Phuket local called “Tony” and the Thai food and seafood served there is excellent (big portions for a reasonable price). Tony’s restaurant is a great place to have a cold beer or three while the sun sinks spectacularly over the Andaman Sea. The restaurant is an outdoor setting with an unobscured view out over the beach and ocean beyond. For beachgoers an ideal time to visit the northern end of Karon Beach is either earlier in the morning before the crowds begin to gather, or late in the afternoon to catch the brilliant sunsets.
NOTE 3: If you are visiting Karon Beach during the low season (monsoon) there is a high possibility of rough seas and strong rip currents. Take extra care when swimming (better to swim in the designated areas where life guards are on duty) as the beach has been notorious for drowning in years gone by.
Black Rock View Point:
Black Rock Viewpoint is without doubt, the best high vantage view-point on Phuket Island. What is rather ironic is that it looks out over the island’s most famous sunset viewing location, Cape Prom Thep. As hundreds gather almost daily to watch the sun sinking on the western horizon they’re blissfully unaware of a much better viewing location, with very few sightseers, on a hill high above them. This is because Cape Prom Thep is a mainstream tourist destination which is set up to cater for hordes of visitors each day and the tour companies have no knowledge of alternative locations.
Getting to Black Rock View Point is actually not too difficult if you have no problems with a ride over 2 km of dirt road and a 300 meter hike through the jungle. The location as well as the access track is marked on Google Maps and is towards the southern tip of Phuket Island. There nearest well-known landmark is the Karon Viewpoint. From there continue south on the coastal road for approximately 300 meters and you’ll see a dirt road branching off to the right. Take that and follow it until you come to the SECOND fork in the road. Go left at this point and continue on for another 500 meters. The track goes up a hill then levels out. You will eventually come to a large rock with the Thai words “HIN PA DUM” painted on it, and an arrow pointing directly across the road to where the hiking trail starts. Park your bike / vehicle here and take the trail to the viewpoint. The trail is short but quite rough in places with jagged rocks so it’s advisable to wear decent footwear; more so for the hike back out. The view when you get there is quite spectacular. There is a safe viewing area at the very top and a few meters lower, another viewing area which gives a better angle to the western coastline.
NOTE 3: If you decide to go down to the lower viewing area take extreme caution as there’s a sloping rock surface which drops away precipitously. One slip and you’ll tumble more than 100 meters to the bottom. If you go to watch the sunset it’s advisable to take a flashlight with you for the hike down. The thick foliage on the trail will quickly reduce visibility. Without a flashlight you’re at risk of a fall from the many trip hazards along the way in the dark.
Tri Trang Beach:
Tri Trang Beach or, more precisely, the cliff line above the beach’s western end is a great spot for a late afternoon drink while looking out over Patong Bay. Unfortunately it’s not a great position for a sunset view as the cliff line faces east. However for a quiet, uncrowded spot for a drink at the end of the day it’s certainly one of the best in the area. If you arrive there at around 4 PM you can park up and do the walk along Tri Trang Beach, have a swim and then head back up the hill for a well-earned thirst quencher. As the sun sinks behind you the skies darken and the twinkling, bright lights of Patong Beach make for a nice setting as you look out across the Bay. The bars also double as restaurants and serve a nice selection of Thai cuisine. At the right time of year – the high season (December – March) – the calm seas in the bay often have passenger liners anchored directly in line with Tri Trang Beach.
NOTE 4: Although Tri Trang Beach is a nice uncrowded location for a meal and a drink in the early evening, it’s a bit of a hassle to get there as access involves a drive through the congested streets of Patong. To get there you’ll need to go along Patong Beach 2nd Road (Song Roi Pee Road) then turn right at the southern end and take the road to the beach. When you get to the roundabout, turn left and follow the road around the coastal route until you arrive at Tri Trang beach. The bars / restaurants are on the first incline after passing the beach.
Monkey Hill is another location popular with Phuket locals for getting their daily rounds of late afternoon exercise. The 300 meter high peak is located near Phuket Town and is distinguished by the array of TV station transmission towers protruding from the top. To get there you’ll need to get onto Damrong Road and turn left at the intersection of Soi To Chae (the site is clearly marked on Google Maps). There is a parking area at the bottom of the hill which gets quite crowded with locals around 5 PM each afternoon. The main attraction of the place is the view-point the top of the hill and the large number of monkey’s which hang around there waiting for hand outs from the locals and visiting tourists. The hike to the top is by-way of the 1.9 km sealed road which has a reasonably gentle incline. Most hill walkers are able to get to the viewpoint in about 30 minutes. For those wanting a more challenging climb to the top, there’s a hiking trail which snakes its way through 2 km of jungle before topping out at the TV transmission towers at the very top of the peak. Some sections of the jungle trail are quite arduous. On the steeper stretches there are fixed ropes in place to assist with ascents and descents with haul ropes. There is actually 3 different routes which, depending on your fitness level and upper body strength, can be quite challenging. The standard route is not too bad and most hikers, although feeling rather fatigued, are able to make the climb. There are two waterfall ascents which branch off the main trail and these are a significant step up, in degrees of difficulty, from the standard route. The most challenging is the hike straight up the waterfall to the viewpoint. The upper 100 meters has a continuous run of fixed ropes and the gradient is sometimes between 50 – 60 degrees. Upper body strength is a definite requirement to haul yourself up this section of the trail.
NOTE 6: The hike to the top via the jungle trail can be quite strenuous if you don’t have a good level of fitness. The dirt trail is also very uneven with rocks and protruding tree roots along at least 80 per cent of the way. Using good footwear such as sneakers or hiking shoes is highly advisable. The waterfalls sections can also be slippery with slime or moss. Wearing flip-flops is not a good idea as they provide no grip on the rock surface. Suffice to say there’s a high risk of slipping and falling if using inappropriate footwear.
NOTE 7: A lot of visitors to the view-point will invariably want to feed the monkeys with the peanuts and bananas that can be bought at the small shop there. Be careful as the monkeys have been known to snatch and bite on various occasions.
The northern end of Patong Beach:
Okay, so Patong Beach is definitely not “off the beaten track” but who cares when there are a bevy of seriously attractive Russian ladies around in the high season. Compared to the rest of Patong Beach, the northern end is less crowded mainly because getting there on your scooter is a ball-ache. Unfortunately the one-way road system means you’ve got to go all the way down second road (Song Roi Pee) then turn right at Sawatdeerak Road, and right again on to the beach road, before traveling approx. 1 km to the parking area at northern end of the beach. The best time of day to go there, around 5 PM, also coincides with the traffic jam of locals getting out of Patong after their day’s work is finished. The hassle though is worth it as the sunset views and people watching are top-notch.
For anyone who’s interested, a more serious appraisal of getting “off the beaten track” in Phuket can be seen on my website: http://www.megaworldasia.com/latest-trip-report/off-the-beaten-track-in-phuket/
Your “off the beaten track” specialist in South-East Asia.
The author can be contacted at : email@example.com
His website of travels in Asia can be found at : www.megaworldasia.com/