Phuket is one of the biggest travel destinations in the world. In 2022, 9 million tourists visited Thailand’s largest island (down from 15 million in 2018) in search of white-sand beaches, clear waters, and palm trees. Most visitors beeline for resorts and hotels that ring the coastline, which do deliver the goods for beachgoers. The hitch is that the most popular tourist areas generally lag behind in terms of food. Seek out a meal on a major beach on Phuket, such as Patong, and it’s easier to find borscht, a burrito, or a burger than a well-executed Thai curry. Eat at your hotel or resort, and you’re most likely getting a toned-down, overpriced take on Bangkok-style Thai food. Southern Thailand’s bold, colorful, delicious cuisine is almost entirely neglected in these spaces.
At the same time, Phuket’s food scene has one sure-fire bet that’s hiding in plain sight: the island’s landlocked capital. Known as Phuket Town, this tiny, charming urban center is home to what might be Thailand’s greatest density of good eats. It’s also home to a unique culinary legacy that blends ingredients, recipes, and traditions from China, southern Thailand, Malaysia, and even farther abroad. In the last decade, tourist-oriented restaurants, cheesy cafes, and fast food have moved into the town’s Chinese Portuguese shophouses. But mixed in with these are decades-old noodle stalls, casual curry shacks, legendary restaurants, and bustling markets — most of which can be reached on foot, a rarity in Thailand.
Outside Phuket Town, those willing to brave the language gap and get out of their beachy comfort zones will be rewarded. Inland areas and spaces between beaches are full of southern Thai curry stalls, Thai Muslim restaurants, Chinese noodle spots, and even northeastern Thai grill shacks.
For excellent food to go along with the stunning beaches, center your dining in and around Phuket Town, perhaps Thailand’s most underrated food destination, with a few excursions for standout meals elsewhere on the island.
What is the food like in Phuket?
The food of Thailand’s south is the country’s spiciest regional cuisine, and it relies on chilies (fresh and dried), black pepper, and ginger to provide a distinctive sting. Other common ingredients in the south include fresh turmeric, coconut milk, and seafood both fresh and preserved. These ingredients come together in a variety of dips, soups, curries, and stir-fries unique to the region.
The food on Phuket is markedly different. Perched in the southwest corner of Thailand along the Andaman Sea, the island has long had close links with the Straits Settlements, British colonies that included Singapore, Melaka, and Penang, the latter two in present-day Malaysia. These relationships introduced regional culinary practices, but Phuket also felt culinary influences from the greater Muslim world, South Asia, and even Europe by extension.
This exchange expanded significantly in the 19th century, when tin mining on Phuket reached its peak. Immigrant workers, predominantly Hokkien-speaking Chinese laborers from the Straits Settlements and China’s Fujian Province, largely didn’t integrate with mainstream Thai culture, instead clinging to much of their Hokkien identity, including their food. Even today, Phuket is home to some dishes more familiar to people in southern China and Penang (the latter another important Hokkien outpost in Southeast Asia) than to diners in Bangkok.
In strong contrast to the rest of southern Thailand, chiles are used in moderation in Phuket-style cooking, where mild, balanced flavors rule. Many of Phuket’s most famous dishes have Hokkien Chinese names. Fish sauce plays second fiddle to soy sauce. And decades of intermingling between Hokkien immigrants and Thais has resulted in a fusion cuisine, known locally as Baba.
Key terms for food lovers
Hokkien: Hokkien tin miners had a massive impact on Phuket’s culture and food, bringing in dishes from China’s southwestern coast that are still available in restaurants, such as the “Hokkien-style” noodles served at MeeTonPoe and Somchit.
Baba: In places where Chinese and Southeast Asian cultures mixed — Singapore, Melaka, Penang and Phuket — a blend of languages, cultures, and cuisines was born. Known elsewhere as Perenakan or Baba-Nyonya, in Phuket this hybrid culture is generally known as Baba. Today, one of the only remaining aspects of Phuket’s Baba culture is cuisine, as seen in a handful of dishes and snacks available at homes, markets, and restaurants. In particular, a selection of Baba-style sweets and savory snacks can be found at Cham-Cha Market in Phuket Town.
Vegetarian Festival: In 1825, so the legend goes, Phuket was experiencing a cholera epidemic. A Chinese theater troupe was on the island, and in an effort to help, the actors embarked upon a regimen of asceticism, foregoing meat and other foods. For about two weeks in September or October, adherents of Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival honor their sacrifice by following 17 precepts, commonly including giving up meat. During this time, most of Phuket Town’s restaurants go meat-free, proclaiming the menu change with yellow banners. Some adherents take the idea of self-sacrifice (much) farther, walking on coals, climbing ladders made of blades, or piercing their cheeks with swords.
Muu hawng: Fist-sized chunks of fatty pork belly braised in soy sauce, garlic, and a large amount of crushed black pepper make up one of Phuket Town’s most famous dishes and a prime example of Baba-style cooking. The version served at Raya Restaurant is a great introduction.
Kung siap: Shrimp skewered and slowly dried over coals is one of Phuket’s most famous ingredients. Generally, they’re pounded up with garlic, chilies, and shrimp paste in the form of a naam phrik, a spicy Thai-style dip or relish typically accompanied by a selection of vegetables and herbs. Try naam phrik kung siap at Nam Yoi Restaurant.
Khanom jeen: Khanom jeen (or khanom jiin) are thin, round noodles made from fermented rice flour that are prepared fresh, never dried. They’re typically served with curries, topped with the diner’s choice of herbs or more substantial garnishes. The dish is one of the most beloved in southern Thailand, and in Phuket Town, Kanom Jeen Pa Mai is one of the most legendary places to eat it.
Where to eat inside and outside Phuket Town
Nam Yoi is the kind of charming, homey place locals take grandma on her birthday. The casual, almost rural atmosphere, low prices, and solid cooking may make you want to come back every day. A photo menu with English does a decent job of guiding unfamiliar diners through the world of Phuket-style dishes (like the crunchy, funky, Phuket-style shrimp chile crisp) and southern Thai cuisine (such as the rich, fragrant coconut milk soup with shrimp, supplemented with liang, a local green with a minerality similar to spinach or beet greens).
Roti Chaofa Phuket
Southern Thailand’s Muslim community has a distinct cuisine that plucks from Western Asia and South Asia influences that are on display at this open-fronted, casual eatery. Opt for the eponymous (and excellent) roti, ideally paired with kaeng phae (goat curry) or stuffed with egg and minced meat in the form of mataba. Thai Muslim-style biryani, tart and spicy beef and chicken soups, and Guest Salad (a literal translation of salat khaek, a Thai Muslim salad with a peanut-based dressing) round out the relatively short but strong menu here.
Phuket’s signature noodle dish is mee Hokkien, or “Hokkien-style noodles”: yellow, wheat noodles fried with a mix of pork, seafood, and greens until smoky, and topped with a mild, savory gravy and a just-set egg. It’s available at several places in town but MeeTonPoe, with a few branches across the island, has set the standard.
Raya is almost certainly Phuket Town’s most famous restaurant, most definitely because of one menu item: its crab meat with curry and coconut milk. The dish — a spicy, rich, fragrant curry with finger-sized chunks of crab meat, served with thin, round rice noodles — has inspired copycats across the island. A charming location in a former mansion and solid takes on other local dishes, such as steamed pork with pepper and garlic (Phuket-style), are reasons to consider the original.
If there’s a dish that unites southern Thais, it’s khanom jeen, a combination of noodles and curry that’s the centerpiece at Phuket Town’s Pa Mai. When you roll in, you’ll be presented with a plate of the eponymous thin rice noodles, which you can top with your pick of several curries. The dish gets dressed a second time at your table with your choice of condiments and garnishes, which include options like vegetables simmered in coconut milk and crunchy deep-fried anchovies.
This pint-sized, semi-open-air food court, located smack-dab in the middle of Phuket Town, is a virtual crash course in the local cuisine. One stall sells loh ba (deep-fried porky bits served with a sweet, fragrant dip) and another offers mee Hokkien (Hokkien-style fried noodles). Close your meal with o-aew, a Phuket-only dessert of shaved ice.
Hokkien Chinese dominate Phuket Town’s noodle game. This decades-old shophouse restaurant specializes in yellow Hokkien-style noodles, served in broth and supplemented with dumplings and fish balls. Pair your bowl with steamed fish with curry paste, essentially a fish curry steamed in a banana leaf, a ubiquitous side dish at the more traditional Phuket noodle restaurants.
Look for the line to find Go Benz. Thais from Bangkok flock to this restaurant, where an intensely savory, salty, MSG-heavy rice soup is supplemented with braised pork off-cuts, including impossibly crispy cubes of Chinese-style pork belly.
Ro Ba Mae Ya Nang
Loh ba consists of bits of pork, tofu, or starch, deep-fried in oil until crispy, and served with cucumbers and a dip fragrant from five spice powder. The dish appears in other places with Perenakan/Baba-Nyonya legacies such as Singapore, Melaka, and Penang, but Phuket is the only place you’ll find it in Thailand.
Mingalar Coffee Shop
The staff who cleaned your hotel room and the cooks who made your dinner were, more likely than not, from Myanmar. There are thousands of Burmese immigrants in Phuket, and their wares and food are reflected in a tiny strip of shops and restaurants behind Phuket Town’s morning market. Seemingly transported straight from Yangon, Mingalar is where you come for tiny glasses of sweet tea, naan served with pigeon pea dip, or rich, pleasantly oily curries served over rice.
Around the island
Laem Hin spans a rambling, semi-open-air pier that juts into Phang Nga Bay. It’s a classic Thai seafood restaurant with a kitchen that’s better than most competitors. In addition to the standard tubs of live seafood and Chinese-influenced dishes, the Local Food page of the menu dips into southern and Phuket-style dishes (even if the English translations don’t always make a lot of sense).
Mor Mu Dong consists of elevated dining platforms winding through a mangrove swamp. Thais come here for relatively obscure dishes that often take advantage of local herbs and plants, such as the spicy stuffed fish, mackerel packed with curry paste and fried; sea grape salad, which revolves around a type of crunchy seaweed; and rice tinted a beautiful shade of cobalt by butterfly pea flowers.
An expansive, vibrant, colorful compound that spans a bar, bakery, and restaurant, Project Artisan stands out in Phuket’s pool of largely mediocre Western-style food. The menu spans from poke to bruschetta with something for just about everyone. The inviting, casual vibe inspires long, lingering meals.
An American chef helms this new, buzzy restaurant in the middle of the island, but the cooking predominantly plucks from the larder of southern Thailand (the name is southern Thai for “Phuket Market”). Occasionally dishes dip into other areas of Thailand and abroad as well, especially when it’s time for the creative, fun desserts.
The Intercontinental Phuket Resort has brought together a Portuguese chef and an in-house fermentation expert in one of the island’s most eclectic, forward-thinking fine dining restaurants. Leaning on locavorism, the 10-course tasting menu features an array of delicate, beautiful bites and sips, combined in surprising, often thought-provoking ways.
The best places to drink on Phuket Island
Phuket Town is overrun with cafes, many of which are thematic to the point of parody and expensive even by Western standards. This erudite, low-key, indie-themed cafe, housed in a rambling shophouse, brings the focus back to Thailand. The beans are domestic and are treated with respect, and the baked goods are excellent, a rarity in these parts.
American microbrew culture has arrived in Thailand. This Phuket-based brewer offers seven or so taps at a time, including beers that dip into Thai flavors and aromas, like the Bussaba, a weissbier brewed with ginger flowers. On a hot Phuket Town day (which is most of them), try a glass of Frozen Beer, churned to a slushy, refreshing consistency.
An open-air alley with a handful of tables run by some friendly folks, Good Vibes P-Town is a refreshingly down-to-earth contrast to Phuket Town’s hyper-themed cafes and cheesy cocktail bars. The owners make a few largely skewer-based drinking snacks for a clientele that mixes local customers and in-the-know foreigners. Occasionally there’s live music.
Located in an imposing heritage building in Phuket Town, this posh, speakeasy-like venue serves thoughtful, well-executed (if occasionally overwrought) cocktails. Lots of guest bartenders and promotions provide a new experience on every visit.
Around the island
Looking for the type of beach bar where locals actually go? Consider Beach Pig. Located on Bang Tao Beach on the island’s western shore, the vibe here manages to be cool, family-friendly, comfortable, and stylish all at the same time. There’s a menu that includes Western-style bar food as well as decent Thai dishes, and a drinks menu that goes beyond the typical Phuket beach shack.
Chalong Bay makes a short list of intriguing rums from local sugarcane. Visits to the distillery can be arranged in advance, and the on-site bar offers cocktail workshops as well as a menu of rum-based cocktails that centers Thai fruits and herbs.
The best food markets
A tiny market at the edge of Phuket Town, this is one of the best places to look for local dishes. Several stalls serve Chinese-influenced Phuket specialties, such as fresh spring rolls and fried noodles, but nearly half of the market is dedicated to vendors who serve the city’s widest array of local sweets and snacks, many of which aren’t found elsewhere in Thailand.
Phuket Town Market
Phuket Town’s main market is split into two zones. There’s a mostly open-air section, north of Thanon Ranong, where you’ll find photogenic piles of pineapples, stacks of stink beans, and other produce, as well as a few covered stalls selling Burmese items and a prominent piece of street art by the Thai artist Alex Face. To the south, a two-story covered market is home to more produce vendors, butchers, seafood, dried goods, and a rustic food court on the basement level.
The best hotels in and around Phuket Town
Dating back nearly a century, the On On Hotel had a cameo in 2000’s The Beach as a dodgy, cheap crash pad — which, at the time, wasn’t far from the truth. A major renovation in 2012 made it a solid, charming midrange option, strategically located in the center of Phuket Town, steps from some of the island’s best eats. Rooms start at $55 during the high season.
If you want to see the ocean from your room but don’t want to be far from all the amazing food in Phuket Town, consider a stay at Sinae Phuket. Located on Cape Gecko, less than five miles from Phuket Town (and a half mile from the beaches of Siray Bay), the resort offers expansive rooms and villas that seem to tumble down a jungly hillside. Rooms start at $220 during the high season.
Opened in 2022, the Hotel Verdigris has brought a level of sophistication and modernity that was lacking in Phuket Town’s hotel scene, especially among its midrangers. There’s a pool — a relatively rare amenity in Phuket — and a strategic location just outside the tourist scrum. Rooms start at $223 during the high season.
Phuket’s tin mining legacy is woven into the design aesthetic of the Slate through rustic wood, azure hues, rust, steel, and southern Thai graphic motifs. Posted on the island’s northwestern shore, the hotel offers some distance from the crowds yet sits close to the water on Nai Yang Beach. Rooms start at $229 during the high season.
Villas, bungalows, and cottages ramble around the hilly, green landscape at this earthy resort near Kamala Beach on Phuket’s western shore. Outdoor showers and private pools accentuate the feeling of being in the jungle, and the two-story Tree Pool House options offer a particularly elevated perspective on the surroundings. Rooms start at $527 during the high season.
Austin Bush is an American writer and photographer based in Lisbon, Portugal. He was previously based in Bangkok, Thailand, for more than 20 years, from where he contributed to just about every major food and travel publication, as well as to more than 30 guidebooks for Lonely Planet. In 2018, he wrote and photographed the James Beard Award finalist, The Food of Northern Thailand, and his next book, The Food of Southern Thailand, will be out in 2024.