Thailand – Phuket/Phang Nga Bay
Phuket has become one of Asia's best known places for yachting, as well as being a jumping off point for explorations into the best of Southeast Asian cruising and charter
It’s easy to become lost In adjectIves when tryIng to descrIbe Phuket and Its surrounding seas. So remarkable is the scenery that the idea of an Asian coastline in the popular imagination is, in fact, the coastlines of the Andaman Sea. It is no wonder that so many people, both Thai and from overseas, have made the Andaman island of Phuket their home. And they have turned it into a yachting paradise.
The Andaman Sea stretches from the coast of Myanmar for over 1,000 kilometres down past Thailand and into the fabled Straits of Malacca – the approach to Southeast Asia. It is home to maritime traditions that span millenia. From your resort balcony, you can witness the dawn rituals of local fishermen to the modern day sailing regattas that often begin or end in Phuket.
Phuket is located in the middle of the Andaman Sea, about halfway between Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and Singapore. The island is very nearly part of a peninsula that steps out from the Thai coast – a bridge connects Phuket to the mainland. The island is about 50 kilometres from north to south and 20 kilometres east to west, offering plenty for visitors to see and do, both off shore and on.
Phuket’s western shores are dominated by beaches that have quickly become the preserve of tourists, though many gorgeous, top flight resorts lay claim to their own private areas. The eastern shores offer bays and inlets covering the length of the coast. A new line of resorts have begun to open up on the less well known side of the island. But the real attraction are the dozens of private islands dotting the sea of Phang Nga Bay, just kilometres from Phuket.
Modern archaeologists now believe that Phuket was first inhabited by stocky tribesmen who lived as “sea-gypsies”, travelling between bays and coves, and surviving on the abundant sealife and plentiful fruit (plus the occasional spate of banditry). Waves of traders and settlers over the many centuries include Thai, Chinese, Indian, Arab and Malay, all of whom added to what is now an Asian melting pot. This has influenced Phuket on everything from the handicrafts that shoppers find to the delicious melange of cuisine that inspires many foreign guests to learn Thai cooking.
Combine all of these factors with excellent weather, brilliant cruising waters, superb marinas, an international airport and absolutely first-class facilities, and you can understand why so many boaters fall in love with Phuket.
The stuff of hollywood
Phuket offers boaters and visiting yachtsmen a fantastic range of options. Everything from sheltered anchorages to complete marinas with the capacity for deep draft superyachts are to be found. Phuket’s four marinas – Phuket Boat Lagoon, Yacht Haven Marina, Ao Po Grand Marina and Royal Phuket Marina – are all facing Phang Nga Bay, to the east of the island. They offer everything that yachts up to 60 metres might need, and make visiting the countless little islands of Phang Nga Bay easy. The marinas are also where you’ll find the main offices of most chartering companies.
Phang Nga Bay offers legendary cruising waters and no trip to Phuket is complete without spending some time exploring the beaches and coves of the many small islands spread throughout the bay. One island was the site of James Bond’s famous duel in the Man with the Golden Gun, and locals now refer to it as “James Bond Island”. To the southeast of Phuket lie the twin Phi Phi islands, one of which was made famous as the film location of “The Beach”.
That the islands of Phang Nga Bay could actually have a starring role in major films should indicate just how magnificent they are. Limestone islands covered with jungle foliage and littered with beaches of jaw-dropping beauty are everywhere. Rock formations that almost appear to defy gravity leave first-time visitors wondering if they’ve stepped into a mythological realm. There is nothing like the sight of a gleaming white boat set against amazing inlets and blue-green waters of the Andaman.
A number of these islands have become the target of the plentiful tourist boats that regularly ferry passengers from Phuket on short exursions. Phi Phi, James Bond Island and more are now part of the regular tourist route. However, a yacht opens up options unavailable to the majority, and certain charming islands can still be found free of clamour. A new luxury spot located in the middle of Phang Nga Bay is the Six Senses resort on Koh Yao Noi, an island now offering top deck luxury accommodation and private beaches.
Into the west
While the eastern side of Phuket is notable for the marina facilities and Phang Nga cruising, the west coast is where you’ll find Phuket's famed beaches and attendant amenities. The western shoreline of Phuket is essentially one large beach broken up by rocky headlands. Some, such as Patong Beach, are very well known and popular with tourists. If you prefer a more social environment when tanning, then Patong is for you. It is a three-kilometre long crescent bay with plenty of opportunties to windsurf, sunbathe, dinghy sail or go snorkelling. After the sun goes down, the legendary Thai nightlife kicks into high gear, as local residents, expats and tourists from all countries, let their collective hair down. A favourite pastime is driving the stretches of road that connect the various beaches and resorts, looking for something exciting.
Karon Beach, the second beach of tourists after Patong, also has numerous resort complexes behind the beach, leaving a long stretch of fine white sand, which makes a squeaking noise as you walk on it. Karon is considered the most upscale beach on Phuket.
There are plenty of more subdued options. A particular favourite is Naiharn Beach, a quiet spot that offers boats good anchorage. The presence of a monastary at the beach has prevented overdevelopment, and for the expats and locals who seem to take to this spot more than most, that’s a welcome state of affairs. A short walk up to Promthep Cape, which marks the southern tip of Phuket, is a great way to watch the sun go down. Naiharn also features a few hotels, including the Royal Phuket Yacht Club, which overlooks the beach and offers guests unbeatable views of the bay and surrounding sea. During the monsoon season (May to October), swimmers should be very careful as strong currents are present.
There are numerous other beaches that run up and down the west coast of Phuket, and most are serviced by hotels, restaurants and shops of varying quality. But travelling by sea and hopping from beach to beach is possibly one of the best ways to pass time and could easily take up a week or more.
Pearls of the Andaman
Phuket is known as the Pearl of the Andaman, and fishermen and divers will be quick to discover why. There are a number of fishing spots just offshore and to the southwest of Phuket that can appeal to the total novice or the experienced angler.
About ten miles south of Phuket is the Racha Island group, which consists of two main islands. The fishing, snorkelling and diving are all excellent, and longtail boats (traditional Thai-style canoes typically propelled by automobile engines) frequently make the trip carrying tourists to these more remote areas. Boaters will be pleased to know that moorings are available around the main island of Racha Yai.
The main bay of Racha Yai has one of the best white sand beaches around, and is flanked by coral growth. A decent anchorage can be found within the bay at about ten to 15 metres depth. The five-star Racha Resort offers something unique – the Lighthouse, a five-storey guest villa that features a private pool, terraces, sun decks and an observation lounge with a 360-degree view of the Andaman and Phuket to the north. Another 70 villas are available for a picture-perfect stay.
Roughly 60 nautical miles to the northwest of Phuket lie the Similan Islands, which have some of the best dive sites in the world. The Similans are a chain of nine islands, with stunningly clear water, white coral-sand beaches and a vast array of marine life. The Andaman Sea is home to manta rays and whale sharks, which are seen year-round. For the Similan Islands in particular, having your own boat may not be necessary, but the trip is lengthy enough that overnighting is one way forward.
The island groups continue on north of Phuket, straight up to the coastal areas of Myanmar. The Mergui Archipeligo, administered by Myanmar, consists of 800 islands, most uninhabited. With the right permits, the cruising waters here are simply amazing.
For those wishing to venture a little further out into the Andaman Sea, the Andaman Islands (over 400 miles to the northwest, are well worth the time and effort. With Phuket serving as a base for refueling and stocking up, as well as getting an Indian visa and doing some research (you have to present a written itinerary when you arrive at Port Blair). The Andaman Islands, a World Heritage Site since 2002, are largely untouched, with pristine marine ecosystems.
As Phuket has developed into a regional yachting centre, thanks in large part to the expatriate sailors who've chosen to make their lives on the island, so plenty of events have developed as well. There are two main regattas that take place in alternate seasons, The King's Cup, which is timed for the King's Birthday in early December. This is the high tourist season, when bars are packed and beaches are busy (winds tend to be light). During the low season of July, there is the Six Senses Phuket Raceweek, which has quickly become a major fixture in the Asian Racing circuit. Though temperatures are certainly balmy, the winds to be stronger during this time. Also on the calendar in February is the Bay Regatta, which is a leisurely affair that has sailors working their way through the islands of Phang Nga Bay and soaking up amazing scenery and revelry aplenty.
Phuket City and the Island
While cruising and exploring around the beautiful coves, beaches and inlets of Phuket and the surrounding islands can easily take up weeks of time, ignoring the inland areas of Phuket would be a mistake. While the major resorts and hotels offer gorgeous food and spa treatments abound, it is worth taking a stroll around the small towns and markets to get a feel for Thai life and culture. Street vendors offer traditional Thai snacks and food, while shopping for handicrafts and wicker furniture, perhaps as a new addition to your yacht, can last for days.
Thais are very welcoming to guests, and not just for tourist dollars. Learning basic greetings and queries in Thai will be very much appreciated and result in a rewarding time ashore.
One of the main areas for high-class resorts and hotels is the popular Patong Beach. North of Patong, there are bungalows and a small number of resorts. The Laguna Beach Club, Sheraton Grand Laguna and Banyan Tree are all in the vicinity. The Evason Six Senses Resort overlooks Chalong Bay and is easily one of the finest places to stay in Phuket. Another first class option is the Twin Palms Resort in Surin Beach, which features boutique luxury and impeccable service. For a taste of absolute luxury with design that fuses traditional detailing with modern chic, try the Indigo Pearl. Then again, consider “one of the most seductive hotels in the world,” the Sri Panwa. Perched high up on a southern cape overlooking the Andaman to the south and Phang Nga Bay entrance to the east, you can’t really go wrong.
Fuel and fresh water for boaters is available at all four marinas. There are also fuel and water barges in Ao Chalong and Patong, and these barges will also deliver. Some of the outlying islands, such as Phi Phi Don and Racha, also have refueling facilities.
Phuket Boat Lagoon Marina is halfway along Phuket’s eastern shore. The marina basin is dredged to between 3.5 and 4 metres, and the maximum LOA is 35 metres. The marina has 168 serviced berths with a 60-tonne travel lift, hard stand for 80 boats and stack storage for 60 speedboats. Simpson Marine, one of Asia’s foremost service and brokerage firms is based out of Phuket Boat Lagoon Marina. There are also hotel and resort facilites, plus serviced apartments and restaurants in the immediate vicinity.
Yacht Haven Marina is on the northern side of Phuket, in the channel that separates Phuket from the mainland. The minimum entry depth on the channel at low tide is 2.5 metres. There are 158 serviced berths with single or three-phase power, and accommodation for vessels up to 60 metres. Just 15 minutes from the airport, Yacht Haven has plenty of shoreside amenities, plus repair, maintenance, provisioning and yacht management services.
Royal Phuket Marina shares the same approach channel as Phuket Boat Lagoon, each berth offers electricity and fresh water, broadband internet, telephone and cable TV. At the fuel dock, yachts can fill up on diesel or unleaded petrol, or have sewage removed. Hardstand facilities include a 60-tonne travel lift, five-tonne forklift, cradles and pressure washer.
The newest entry on the Phuket marina scene is Ao Po Grand Marina, which opened its doors two years ago, and has become a popular location for charter operators such as Sunsail, owing to the closer proximity to popular cruising areas in Phang Nga Bay. It also handles plenty of superyacht traffic.
For more serious repair work, there is the Ratanachai Slipway, Phuket’s main commercial shipyard, with full repair services for any boat type. Services include machine shops, welding, carpentry, fibreglass work, painting and engine repair.
Aside from arriving on your own yacht, Phuket is served by an international airport that is one of Thailand’s busiest in terms of passenger travel. While not a physically large airport, it does have every service necessary to make arrivals and departures stress-free. There are numerous taxis and limousine rental services to whisk you from the airport to your hotel.
For visiting superyachts, there are two main companies that provide service. Asia Pacific Superyachts is a region-wide network of offices that provide support and logistics for superyacht visits. Their headquarters is in Phuket.
Newer to the scene is the Yacht Support Group, which began supporting visiting yachts to Indonesia, and now has representatives throughout the Asia Pacific.