No Asia beach guide has ever been complete without at least a litter of mentions about the effervescent Land of Smiles. With its stunning whitewashed coastlines sprawling across the perimeters of the East all the way to its West, Thailand has evolved from its backwaters status of a long gone past to become one of the most wildly popular drawing cards in beach tourism today; a firmly imprinted destination in the mental map of holidaymakers from all over the world.
Surprisingly, mass tourism has not spoiled Thailand’s paradisiacal atmosphere the way one might assume it would. Even with Phuket’s once-edgy beach front becoming increasingly mainstream, the initial qualities of its buzzing atmosphere has far from faded, and the island continues to lure the crowd with its good looks and flamboyance. On the flip slide of this lies Krabi, Phuket’s hippy half-sister that is only just beginning to make waves with offbeat travellers. Krabi’s burgeoning scene has inevitably opened the nation up to a community of laidback sun sloths looking for less crowded corners, its natural charm and bohemian appeal providing a sense of place to those chasing roads less travelled.
Despite sharing a blissful co-existence and the obvious similarity of being a beach ideal, Phuket and Krabi cannot, however, be more different from each other: one is wild, dramatic, sensational; while the other, remote, rugged, and wonderfully antiquated. Forethought is required to get the best out of these destinations. Choose one, or even both if time and budget allows; the secret doesn’t so much lie in what you do than in setting your expectations right before you hit the ground running. Because as far as Phuket and Krabi goes, these two sister islands are really just same same, but different. And expecting something that is characteristic of Phuket to prevail the same way in Krabi will most likely result in disappointment; vice-versa.
In any case, for all curious beachcombers out there who have always hoped for a detailed showdown between these two island heavyweights, you will be happy to stand by this battleground as their mettle now gets put to the test, their spirit and resilience particularized over a series of challenges in a bid to determine if there is, indeed, a bucolic beach champion of sorts between the two that will trump well over the other.
Sit back with a piña colada in hand and a beach parasol overhead – this battle’s about to get real.
Round 1: The Getting There
Image credit: Basheer Tome
Score: Krabi 1 – 1 Phuket
Let’s start nice.
Thankfully for us, travelling to Krabi and Phuket is short and cheap to the point of being inconsequential – this is assuming you’re flying in from Southeast Asia. If you’re coming from far out, chances are both destinations are going to be just as expensive; meaning that either way, one doesn’t really hold a better competitive edge over the other.
For those of us from around the region, celebrate with good tidings because during non-peak, non-promotional periods, fares can start from as low as SG$38 for a one-way ticket.
SG$38? You know you’ve had cab rides more expensive than that.
Round 2: The Getting Around
Image credit: Eustaquio Santimano
Score: Krabi 2 – 1 Phuket
How do I say this? Phuket is highly notorious for having the most expensive transport system in the whole country. It’s rip-off central, and it’s no secret the number of Taxi Mafia conspiracy theories surrounding this premise. Taxi and tuk-tuk prices are exorbitant, to say the least, and a 10-minute ride can sometimes cost you as much as US$11.
Yes. That’s right. All things considered, getting to Phuket might actually end up costing you less than getting around Phuket.
Krabi, on the other hand, is not just a hundred times more relaxing on the pocket, but also equipped with more options for consideration: open-air buses, motorcycle taxis, converted pick-up trucks – it’s all very communal around here. But communal is good, because communal is cheap. And better yet, prices are usually negotiable if you’re up for haggling – something you won’t get anything out of even when attempted in Phuket.
Round 3: Average Cost of
Score: Krabi 3 – 1 Phuket
Now, this is kind of a tricky one to weigh because the average cost of anything really is dependent on your own spending habits and comfort requirements. The rule of direct proportion will, however, dictate that the more luxurious you need your vacation to be, naturally, the more expensive it will get.
On the grander scheme of things though (and transport mafias aside), Phuket and Krabi are generally wallet-friendly places to holiday in; and the full spectrum of touristing won’t come down hard on your pockets, whether or not you’re running on a tight budget. Meals in local eateries can cost as low as US$1–2, a beer can cost you anywhere between US$2–5 depending on the bar you’re at, and island hopping and adventure sports are definitely much cheaper compared to those offered in neighbouring countries. Even the full suite of spa services (massages, manicures, pedicures, the likes) will beckon your wallets with warm and comforting arms. On the other end of the scale, if you’re a globetrotting patron of the finer things in life, you’ll also be inclined to find that lapping in luxury in Phuket and Krabi really doesn’t cost you anything compared to the likes of Bali, Boracay, or the Andaman Coast.
One will be tempted to declare this round a tie, but let’s not forget that the battle is between Krabi and Phuket, not Krabi-and-Phuket vs the Rest of the World. Cheap as Phuket is at first glance, it has nonetheless been called out time and again for being the most expensive province to travel in within the borders of its own country.
Krabi, on the other hand, is a fuss-free barefoot beauty with just as much charisma and charm, but with a lower-key nomadic groove that assures one of better-priced touristing – something that Phuket will always find almost impossible to beat.
Round 4: The Nightlife
Krabi 3 – 2 Phuket
Finally, one that Phuket wins hands down.
While Krabi has to its nightlife a charming, laid-back feel so harmless it brinks on the side of bland; Phuket’s after-dark scene welcomes you with blazing neon lights and a no-holds-barred, down-and-dirty atmosphere; handing out free hall passes to anyone who wants to party their way through the night from the clubs to the sands – and anywhere else in between. Even in the light of day there is something wickedly sultry about this island, promising an epic, never-ending supply of parties no matter what time you arrive.
That is not to say that Krabi has nothing to offer after dark. There is still a considerable number of entertainment opportunities when the sun goes down, although definitely not in the same league as Phuket’s. Here, the vibe is a little more eclectic, relaxed, with a slightly rustic ambience that just may appeal to your inner bohemian.
Round 5: Food
Krabi 3 – 3 Phuket
Food is a serious thoroughfare in Thailand, the kind you prepare for by arriving empty-stomached on an idle morning of a long weekend. It doesn’t matter where you go – Phuket, Krabi, Bangkok, Pattaya, or even beyond, you will find that here, food is not so much a matter of sustenance than a true carnival-eqsue experience bursting with a kaleidoscope of colours, tastes, and sounds.
Between the two, Phuket trumps in variety, diversity, style, and quality; while Krabi, in price. Both promise a sensory overload, blending an impressive plethora of influences from around the region to create perfectly powerful flavours that are distinctly Thai in nature.
This round comes close to looking like another tie, but Phuket holds out strong. Food in Krabi is generally a simplistic, pared-back affair that is safe for both the gut and pocket; but in Phuket, this scene is celebrated with great passion, characterised by innovative interpretations of the country’s age-old traditions fused with the new.
Round 6: Beaches & Sidekick Islands
Krabi 4 – 3 Phuket
Spanning an impressive 4708sq metres with 80 surrounding islands, Krabi trumps Phuket’s 543sq metre-stretch and 33 islands on any given day. But just for the fun of it, let’s delve a little deeper.
Both islands encompass the holy holiday trinity of bleached powder sands, emerald waters, and cyan skies; promising lazy days of sun slothing and beaching. Both islands are the stars of the country for their jewel-like brilliance. And both are glossy gateways to a smattering of unsullied islands that beckon with even more crystalline waters.
So what puts Krabi above Phuket then, besides mathematical statistics?
While both islands continue to share accessibility to the popular Ko Lanta, Ko Phi Phi, and James Bond Island, Phuket exclusively unlocks famous hotspots like the Similan Islands, Coral Island, and the Rok Islands; which, by itself, reads pretty impressively – except that once again it struggles to bring to the table something that comes to Krabi almost effortlessly: serenity.
Krabi has in its hand, an endless list of smaller islets that, precisely because they don’t fall much under the spotlight, prove to be more idyllic as an experience. A huge fraction of them are unheard of to most, from the rustic Bamboo Island to the transcendent Ko Tup which allows you to traipse its sandbar into the neighbouring Chicken Island. Krabi’s island hopping gives you glimpses into the kind of stuff that castaway fantasies are made of, deliciously unspoilt and flanked by dramatic landscapes that will lull you into a perfect island rhythm. Even its mainland beaches are unlike Phuket’s frenetic seafront drag, offering instead a harmonious and more subdued beachside experience that comes with an air of quiet invincibility.
Round 7: The Chill Factor
Krabi 5 – 3 Phuket
It’s really not fair to continuously award points based on quantified technicalities, but unfortunately, that’s kind of how it’ll roll again in this round.
Krabi holds a population of 25,000 to Phuket’s 65,000; not too much of a difference – except that Krabi is close to 9 times the size of Phuket. And while Phuket expects 7.4-million tourist visits annually, Krabi gets by with a modest 3 million.
If you’re a sucker for personal space, Phuket’s boiler room vibe (both in temperature and human density) may prove to be a problem to you, particularly during peak seasons. Granted, neither is isolated enough to make you feel like you’re the last person on Earth, but Krabi certainly comes close enough with its more-than-ample elbow room. The mellow scene here ticks all the boxes if you’re looking for lazy days of sunbathing rather than night after night of bar-hopping and hard partying. Even as visitors continue to increase over the years, Krabi’s atmosphere remains delectably laid-back and unhurried, giving you an abundant supply of seclusion any time you call for it.
After all, it isn’t exactly a getaway until you actually manage to get away (from people).
Round 8: The Accommodation
Score: Krabi 5 – 4 Phuket
It’s a little hard to let Krabi win yet another round solely based on the ‘because it’s cheaper here’ card; because in all honesty, if you’re looking for cheap, Phuket’s got cheap too. Hostel rates can start from as low as SG$4/night, with hip accommodation choices like Bed Hostel, Dfeel Hostel, Fulfill Phuket Hostel, and a whole ton more offering a sense of the great modern-day hipster backpacker’s living at prices so low your dinner will probably cost more. Don’t think that just because Phuket is generally more expensive that it doesn’t know how to ride the cheap accommodation bandwagon too. It does.
On the other end of the Phuket accommodation spectrum however, lies a scene so saturated with decadence that Krabi will find itself hard-pressed to keep up, even with hotel heavyweights like Ritz Carlton, Sofitel, and a smattering of sprawling beachside villas peppering its humble island – because in the game of luxurious seafront touristing, whatever Krabi can do, Phuket can do far better. With its expansive thatched bungalows and world-class sanctuaries, everything is immaculately presented and can be quite the visionary playground for adults, fulfilling an impeccable degree of excellence for those who can afford perfection.
And perhaps this is where Krabi will continue to fall flat – at least in the near future – in providing an effortless paradisiacal escape for the world’s elite, set amidst the romanticised glamour of a Southeast Asian beachside backdrop.
Round 9: The Itinerary
Krabi 6 – 5 Phuket
One’s a buzzing beach town with all the amenities and infrastructure to match, the other rocks the countryside coastal vibe with the perfect laidback boho flair to match. Yet, despite their contrasting qualities, both are in their own frontiers a holiday destination not to be trifled with.
Put aside the beach activities and water sports: both islands brim with an identical abundance of opportunities for adventures on the coast. From the conventional time-honoured snorkelling to the more venturesome bungee jumping; what you run of time to do at one place, you’ll get to do at the other. The more salient difference, however, comes from the other half of their strongly distinctive characters.
Think about it like having a double degree: Both share a major in their paradisiacal island life atmosphere, but while Phuket’s strength lies in being a non-stop boomtown of sights, sounds, and action; Krabi’s beauty is in its natural diversity and the great outdoors. Just as how you won’t get to experience the radiantly rebellious metropolis bustle of Phuket in Krabi; similarly, you’d be hard-pressed to find dramatic limestone cliffs of mystical proportions and solitude in Phuket. And it is this very difference that paves two completely parallel paths into a profusion of adventures and exploring opportunities beyond white sands and glossy beaches; all waiting to be undertaken by the traveller if only depending on their personalities. Whether it’s full moon parties and food trailing in Phuket, or rock climbing and dirt bike riding in Krabi, it is almost impossible to say who trumps whom itinerary-wise; either way, it is more likely that you will run out of time than things to do.
It’s a tough one, but both are clearly winner material in this round.
The Verdict: Krabi 6 – 5 Phuket
Now was that close or what?
To be perfectly honest, Krabi and Phuket will always be Thailand’s very own Tale of Two Cities, both enigmatic in their own right, delivering the quintessential beachside ideal with their own iconic blend of experiences. While Krabi may have won this battle by a hair, the truth of the matter is that the real winner will ultimately vary from traveller to traveller, depending largely on their own personal preferences and desired experiences.
And it is just as well, for both islands are unapologetically handsome in their strengths and shortcomings.
For greater spontaneity, try both on for size; Krabi and Phuket are two of Asia’s most celebrated beach destinations, and both come with an equally prepossessing beauty that underpins the ideal idyllic life under sun, sand, and sea.