Jade waters lapping powder-soft beaches. Check. Coconut palms at jaunty angles. Check. Great food. Check. And oh-so friendly hospitality. Check.
Phuket was just like those other idyllic tropical islands glowing out of billboards, but with one major difference. It was cheap. CHEAP.
It’s why tourists flocked there in their millions. It’s why Phuket quickly became one of Asia’s most popular destinations.
But, unfortunately, Thailand is a lot less affordable than it used to be. Prices have increased. The Thai Baht’s strengthened. The Pound has, well, taken a pounding.
Phuket has also striven to shake off its budget, slightly seedy, image and is now fully geared towards upmarket tourism. Luxury resorts. Plush restaurants. Trendy cafés, and all that. It’s the wealthiest province in the country and prices are up to double that of the mainland.
That said, there are still plenty of bargains to be found. You just have to look a little harder.
The best places to start are markets. Nowhere does markets better than Thailand. First off, they’re mostly at night when the pesky heat has relented somewhat.
Then, there’s the vast array of food, clothing, and handicraft on offer.
Scores of stalls. A kaleidoscope of lights and colours. Big smiles and bigger bargains.
You soon get swept up in the undertow of the ambling crowd.
The next thing you know, you’ve bought several branded T-shirts, around £4 whose veracity you’re not sure of, a couple of pairs of sunglasses, £2.50 too brightly coloured to be worn back home, and portions of meat charred beyond discernibility, yet taste so good they leave you dribbling for more.
There are great night markets in the resort towns of Patong, Kata, and Karon Beaches, but my fave was the Sunday night Walking Street Market in Phuket City, at the heart of the pretty Old Town.
The Old Town is not at all what I expected of Phuket. With its colonial Chinese-Portuguese architecture, it looked more like down the coast in Singapore or Malaysia than Thailand.
The multi-coloured houses with elaborate facades and shutters made the perfect backdrop for this more modern market, which is as popular with locals as it is with tourists.
There’s a wide and slightly confusing selection of local delicacies to try.
The fish-organ soup didn’t sound very appetising, and the horseshoe crab salad looked and smelled like something from the Precambrian Era. But the prawn fritters and the coconut crab curry noodles were yum and then some.
There are also seating areas to scoff your exotic nosh, drink cheap-yet-strong cocktails, and sing along to some fantastically-bad live music.
For clothing and handicraft, make sure to shop around first to gauge prices.
And don’t be afraid to haggle. Haggling is good. Just smile inanely and relentlessly as you do so.
Phuket Old Town also has loads of trendy cafés, yet they’re affordable. One of the best, though, doesn’t actually sell coffee. Torry’s are instead purveyors of fine teas and even finer local ice cream. My coconut flower flavour scoops left me ooh-ing then ah-ing with every spoonful.
With boutique hotels and guest houses, and a distinctive 1920s colonial style, the old town is a lovely place just to hang out.
However, if you’re into beach resorts, a good option is the brand new OZO Phuket in Kata Beach.
It’s an excellent and very reasonably priced 4-star hotel. It’s on the main strip of tourist shops and restaurants, but backs onto a wild arc of Andaman Sea framed by palms and jungle rolling up and over the hills.
Another way to save money – and have more fun – is to ditch the tour groups and go off exploring by yourself. Car hire is cheap and motorbike is even cheaper, starting at around £5 per day. And with Phuket being the biggest island in Thailand, there’s far more to see than you’ll have time for.
For a start, there are an incredible 40 beaches to discover. From the busy and boisterous Patong, to the remote and fantastically named Banana Beach.
Then if you still have time, there are 32 smaller islands scattered off the coast, many of which can be visited on day trips, and are serviced by public ferries and tour boats.
Away from the sea, one of the most popular attractions is the Big Buddha statue. 45 metres big in fact, and sits atop the monkey-infested Mount Nagakerd and gazes serenely over the surrounding jungle, hills, bays, and lesser isles.
It’s so hot up there, that once you’ve taken a fabulous selfie, that’s all you’ll be able to do, too.
Another popular free attraction is Wat Chalong, Phuket’s most revered Buddhist temple. Situated between Mount Nagakerd and Phuket City, it’s the usual affair of beautifully ornate architecture all gold and glittery in the sun.
Wade through the heat and tourist throngs up to the 3rd floor of the tallest building for a panoramic view of the temple complex, complete with the soothing sound of chimes and chants drifting on the breeze.
Don’t panic when the tranquillity is violently shattered by what sounds like bombs and automatic gun fire. You’re perfectly safe.
It’s just worshippers paying thanks to granted wishes by chucking hundreds, sometimes thousands, of firecrackers into a large oven-like construction just opposite.
Come sunset, two of the best places to witness the evening spectacle are Karon Viewpoint on a pass between two bays, and the nearby craggy Promthep Cape that falls off the southern tip of the island. That said, most places on the west coast have great vantage points.
Watching the sea and sky catch fire as the sun drops into Andaman. One of the original pleasures of Phuket.
You can’t get better, and cheaper, than that.
Book the holiday
Stay there: Rooms at OZO Phuket start at £74 per night, B&B. Find out more on ozohotels.com/phuket
Get there: Thai Airways has return flights from London to Phuket via Bangkok from £520 – you can book on thaiairways.com.
More information: visit tourismthailand.org.