Content last updated - November 2016 - please contact me if you have an update!
Now I just got back from a few days in Cape Panwa, located in southern Phuket. Its a little off the beaten track of the "big" Phuket tourist beaches of Patong, Kata and Karon, so I thought I might give you some details of our visit there.
Cape Panwa is the southeastern corner of Phuket - which was what caught my eye - when I was planning a trip to Thailand and wondering where to stay in Phuket, I looked for somewhere a little different, but still with a good beach - Cape Panwa had the right characteristics. A beach, a nice hotel, choice of restaurants, easy enough to get in and out of. I don't think Cape Panwa is for everyone - its pretty quiet - and its quite a trip to get to the hot spots of Patong - if night life is your thing Cape Panwa may not be the best choice of a beach location for you.
Cape Panwa - Airport Transfers
Our flight to Phuket arrived at Phuket International Airport (HKT is the code, no I don't know why either) at a reasonably early hour. Knowing that hotels in Thailand generally have a midday check-out time, we were not too worried about rushing to get to hotel we'd booked: Kantaray Bay. So I thought we might take the bus. Yup - contrary to what the taxi drivers will tell you - there is a perfectly feasible way to get to Cape Panwa while avoiding the expensive limousin and taxi transfers. It works like this:
Outside of arrivals at the airport - turn left and walk to the end of the building, you will see the Airport Bus stop - clearly signposted - along with its timetable (it runs about once an hour, details on the website). Cost is 85B per person. They will take big luggage underneath - but our luggage was carry-on sized and the bus was empty. You will need local currency - but there is a exchange counter at the airport (and ATMs).
Eventually (over an hour) the bus will arrive in Phuket City aka Phuket Town aka Phuket. Phuket is not a large town, but by the time you get there the new bus station may be operating which will probably mean this bus will drop you a little further from the centre. Now again the taxi's will descend. You still don't need them.
Instead what you need to find is where the songathews that run Phuket - Cape Panwa leave from - at the moment its in the market area, again in may move soon. Pick up a free local map before you leave the airport - for us it was a quick walk of no more than 5 minutes and about three blocks to find the songathews.
The songathews are blue and open sided, you are looking for one which says Panwa and/or Aquarium (yes they are all labelled in English and Thai) on the front- keep asking you will get pointed in the right direction - unless you ask the taxi drivers - they will tell you the bus is broken/finished/too dangerous - ask someone else -like a bus driver!
Having found the right bus - hop on - it will leave - whenever - about every 30 minutes seemed to be the schedule - they start quite early but finish around 4 or 5pm. You are going to the end of the line - you which is the parking area for the Phuket Aquarium - but you can get on or off at any point - just wave the songathew down on the road - or knock (or push a bell if there is one) to get off. Price? About 45B/person - depends on what they think they can get away with. Keep an eye on what the locals are paying and rather than asking just hand over a 50B note and look like you want change.
Cape Panwa Beach
So to the all important question - what's the beach like at Cape Panwa. Well which one is the real question. The "official" Cape Panwa beach is really short rocky stretch with an Army base at one end and the Aquarium at the other -you can access the water (there are steps) - but no actual sand. It looked clear and we saw the odd person swimming, but I wouldn't be keen between the small boats and the rocks. However because the hotel we were staying is owned by the same company that owns the Cape Panwa Hotel - we could use "their" beach - which is as close as you get to a private beach in Thailand. (In short all beaches are public - but in this case the hotel's grounds are the only access to the beach - so they make it private).
Its a nice beach - quite small - a bit shallow at low-tide, but importantly (for some) - its not a surf beach. As the surf can get rough and dangerous on practically every other beach in Phuket in low-season (August when the weather is supposed to be bad) - this makes it a perfect spot for people with young children. There are also four pools between the two hotels - so the swimming is good!
Cape Panwa - Car Hire or Not?
If you want to hire either a self-drive car or a car with driver (aka a taxi) - then you will find something - probably through your hotel. Alternatively many tourists will hire a motor cycle - this is cheap, but risky, when you remember that the bike is uninsured, you are probably uninsured (unless you happen to actually have a bike license) and the traffic on Phuket - is a little crazy. We just walked and took the songathew to town.
Cape Panwa - Nightlife
What nightlife? Yeah if you want clubs, discos, or shows - Cape Panwa is not for you. Its easy enough to get a taxi or shuttle over to Patong or Kata - but its a long way - 40 minutes plus each way. It makes more sense to stay for a few days at Cape Panwa for a few days of chillaxing and then move on.
That said there are a number of restaurants and bars outside of the hotels - which were reasonable value for money. If you have a fridge in your hotel room (and you will there is nothing below mid-range in the hotel front at Cape Panwa) - then stock up on the cheap beers in the little supermarket (30B - 50B/ can for Singha, Chang, Heineken). At night a bunch of typical Thai food carts will appear to do their thing with lovely noodle soups, satay etc - dirt cheap - and yes it is safe.
Cape Panwa - Things to Do
When we were there (August) most of the tourists seemed to be English and seemed determined to spend all day every day on the same sun-lounger (free by the way at the beach - you pay on most others in Phuket) - to each his own I guess.
There are some things to do - the Cape Panwa Aquarium - is insanely easy to get to and cheap (100B for tourists) - worth a few hours - if the rain comes or the sun is too much - nothing world-class but pleasently enough done.
I am sure you can hire boats and yachts locally - we saw some beautiful boats - and the area is sheltered with quite a few islands nearby.
The day trip to Coral Island is a popular option - you can stay over if you want to as well.
On the weekend there are great night markets in Phuket Town (or City as its officially known as) - Cape Panwa is closer to town than the west coast beaches so it can be a good option to arrange a trip up for the evening if you want to check it out. You will need some form of transport or a taxi though, because the songathews will stop too early to get you back again.