Packed in Phuket: A Lesson in What Not to Do for Chinese New Year

Asia | RTW #8: 7 Continents from Antarctica to Zanzibar | Thailand
Similan Islands Thailand

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I love Phuket, I really do. Honestly, it’s hard to find any part of Thailand that I don’t love. But if you also love Phuket, do yourself a favor and never go over Chinese New Year.

On past visits to Phuket, I’ve typically stayed farther afield, like the Khao Lak area – off-island and a ninety minute drive up the mainland coast. On the few occasions when I have stayed on the actual island of Phuket, they’ve typically been brief trips where I lounged on the beach and rarely left the hotel grounds.

This time I had four nights, a rental car and plans to explore the island in more depth. Unfortunately, my timing was lousy.

For those of you who haven’t been in Asia over Chinese New Year before, let me first say that it’s by far the biggest travel holiday for all of the continent and it goes on for (seemingly) weeks. The actual New Year fell on this past Sunday, right in the middle of my 4-day stay.

I am almost always somewhere within Asia over Chinese New Year, but I guess I’ve typically been in cities: Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore. Cities are fine over the holiday because everyone gets out of the cities. And now I know where they go: Phuket.

From the minute I stepped off the flight at the airport, I knew this was going to be a challenge. The immigration lines were out the door and it took more than an hour to get through. I picked up my rental car and located my hotel – the beautiful Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort & Spa – on the map.

I was told it was about 45-minutes away. But the traffic on the island was so dense it took twice that long to get there. I was so happy to finally arrive at the hotel I almost swore I wouldn’t leave again until it was time to fly out.

Hilton Arcadia Phuket
The view from my suite and my Phuket “office”

But by the next day I realized that might have been a little dramatic. Not to mention there were a gazillion people at my hotel, so how much worse could it be to go out? I spent the first day enjoying the hotel’s prime position on Karon Beach and the comfort of my suite.

My whole plan for the weekend was to book a couple of island-hopping day trips and visit some of the outer islands that I hadn’t seen before.

Seeing the Similans

For my second day, I booked a trip to as far as I could get in a single day, the Similan Islands. It was a 6:30am pick-up at my hotel for what would be a full 12-hour day. My hope was that maybe the rest of the tourist throngs weren’t up for the 2-hour boat ride to get there.

Wrong, again.

We were packed in like sardines on a speedboat for the rough ride out to the islands. Two people were sick and spent most of the ride hanging off the back of the boat. I felt terrible for them. What a miserable thing to pay for.

The Similan Islands National Park consists of 9 densely-wooded islands ringed with giant boulders and powder-white, coral-sand beaches. “Similan” is derived from the Malay simbilan, meaning “nine.” Each of the nine islands has both a name and a number but they are most commonly referred to by their numbers. Today, we would make stops at Island No. 4 and Island No. 8 with some snorkeling thrown in between.

Similan Islands
The Similan Islands

By the time we reached our first of the Similan Islands, Island No. 4, I was glad I’d made the trip. Yes, the island was packed with tourists, but it was just so incredibly beautiful. I hiked up a steep trail to a very high lookout point and then spent some time on the beach before heading just offshore in the boat to our first snorkeling spot.

On the ride over, one of the Russians in our group (they made up more than half of our group of 15) pulled out an entire bottle of vodka from his bag and started pouring shots in plastic cups for everyone. Straight. He was a jovial bloke and wouldn’t take no for an answer since he spoke no English.

True story: two summers ago I was on a bus in the Balkans with some Russians and they also pulled a bottle of vodka from their bag and insisted everyone share in a shot. My point here is that stereotypes exist for a reason. You’ve gotta love their enthusiasm, if not their beverage of choice.

After shots of vodka all-round, we arrived at our snorkeling spot. The Similan Islands are known for some of the best diving in the world, but I have to say the snorkeling wasn’t all that impressive. I guess the good stuff is farther down.

Sail Rock Similan Islands Thailand
Sail Rock, Island No. 8, Similan Islands

Next, we moved on to Island No. 8 which was the most impressive of all. The island is anchored by the magnificent Sail Rock, which you can climb up to get a panoramic view over the island and the turquoise sea.

We had lunch first and then made our way up to the top of Sail Rock. The climb was much easier than the one I’d done on Island No. 4 (which involved hauling myself up sheer rock faces using a rope while wearing completely inappropriate footwear). The view from the top was definitely worth the climb.

And despite the obvious lack of railings or any safety precautions – I would love to know how many people a year fall off this rock, it is bound to happen – I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Sail Rock Similan Islands
View from the top of Sail Rock, Island No. 8

After some time on the beach and swimming in the gorgeous Andaman sea, it was time to head to our second and final snorkeling spot. Visibility-wise, this one was equally as disappointing as the first. But just being in the water felt great since it was 90-something degrees outside and by then we were all on our second shot of vodka. By 4pm it was time to pile back in the boat for the 2-hour choppy ride back.

Island Hopping to Khai Nok

The next day I wanted to do another day trip but absolutely everything was sold out. I took it as a sign and spent the day by the pool. For my last day, I booked a half-day trip to the nearby island of Khai Nok with snorkeling at neighboring Coral Island. Once again, a stunning beach but completely packed with umbrellas and Japanese tourists. Not exactly relaxing.

Khai Nok Phuket Thailand
Khai Nok Island, Thailand

It was so frustrating to be in such a gorgeous place that was so overrun with tourists it was completely impossible to appreciate it. There seems to be no regulation on the number of “independent” speedboat operators or visitors on a certain island.

Chinese New Year in Phuket was literally the opposite of what I’d just left behind on Nikoi Island. I went from complete peace and solitude to a sea of people and fireworks at 1:00am. I couldn’t sneeze without hitting a Japanese tour group.

beach bar Koh Khai Nok Thailand
Beach bar on Koh Khai Nok, Thailand

But I do think the holiday weekend was to blame. I’ve been to Phuket several times before and never seen it this crowded. Just goes to show, you can’t win ‘em all. It was still a lovely time and Phuket is such a fantastic part of Thailand. Hopefully next time I will be smart enough to plan my dates a little better.

Next stop, Australia!