We compare the two popular Southeast Asia vacay spots to see which has the best beaches, best food, best shopping, best hotels and more.
Maybe it’s another long weekend coming up, or maybe you’re weary of the metropolitan mayhem that’s Singapore. Don’t get us wrong; we love our island and all its treasures, but a quick break beyond staycations and city surrounds is always food for the soul. Top of the list for relaxing breaks are Phuket and Bali: two popular island destinations for both locals and expats alike. Despite their laid-back beach lifestyles, these Southeast Asian gems are remarkably different. To help you decide, we weighed the pros and cons of each and weren’t that surprised by the tropical paradise that came up trumps…
Phuket: Let’s start with the obvious. Thailand’s most popular island deserves its reputation. Home to more than 30 unspoiled white beaches with clear blue waters, the Pearl of the Andaman sea is a tropical island paradise. There’s a beach here for everyone, ranging from lively (yet not overbearingly crowded) like Kata and Karon beach, to hidden beauties like Freedom beach.
Bali: On the other hand, Bali lacks the pristine beach landscapes of its Thai competitor. Though there are palm-fringed, white sandy coasts (particularly in the hilly region of Uluwatu), plenty of these are are too rocky for swimming or ocean-dipping. What these beaches do have though, are huge ocean swells and a ton of surfing schools for you to catch a wave.
Verdict: For sun-worshippers and beach purists, Phuket’s undisputedly a clear winner.
Phuket: Phuket’s rep as a party island should be a good enough clue. Bangla Road – the island’s hottest nightlife enclave – is packed to the brim with clubs like Illuzion and Seduction, as well as casual watering holes. Phuket’s West Coast also houses sophisticated sundowner spots for you to knock back tipples with outstanding views.
Bali: Over in Bali, its Kuta, Legian and Seminyak districts boast a dazzling variety of nightlife options; think everything from mega clubs with international guest DJs (Skygarden, for one) and offbeat ones like La Favela, to hip beachside beanbag bars like La Plancha, as well as rooftop and cliffside sunset bars. The island also hosts massive dance festivals like Ultra Bali and Dreamfields Festival, with impressive line-ups made up of internationally renowned DJs.
Verdict: Bali bags this category, thanks to its whopping variety of nightlife spots and regular hosting of credible, headlining DJs, catering to (serious) music-hungry travellers. Phuket may be known as a raucous party isle but its nightlife status can come with a sleazy tag – a prominent feature of its after-dark scene are seedy go-go bars.
Phuket: Shoppers expecting to find Bangkok-style mega malls with big-name brands and endless indie boutiques in Phuket will be sorely disappointed. What’s unique about the island’s shopping scene instead, are the huge night markets where you can find vintage goods, handmade bags and jewellery at knock-down prices.
Bali: Bali’s shopping scene is infamous for cool resortwear and home decor. Its many indie boutiques offer everything from cult kaftans, and bikinis to cool interiors and handmade ceramics. Seminyak and Kuta aren’t the only areas where all the action’s at. Just check out our shopping weekend in Canggu guide for the coolest decor and clothing stores.
Verdict: This is a no-brainer: Bali’s where you’ll shop up a (tropical) storm. Just don’t forget to pack all your plastics, ’cause we guarantee you’ll leave this retail paradise with bursting bags.
Phuket: New openings in Phuket’s Old Town – which includes Bookhemian and Chino Cafe Gallery – shows that the Thai island is slowly catching on to cafe culture. Time will tell if it’ll blow up, the way it has in Bangkok.
Bali: Thanks to its proximity to Australia and consequent droves of Aussie expats, Bali’s masterfully soaked up down under’s huge cafe culture. Since the opening of Grocer & Grind, Revolver and Sisterfield’s years ago, the hip-cafe stakes has shot through the roof, with each Balinese district boasting an impressive number of coffee temples and healthy brunch joints.
Verdict: No competition. Bali wins this hands down.
Best local cuisine
Phuket: Plenty of tourists flock to Phuket to eat, so that’s saying something about the local food scene here. Here, you can feast on mouth-watering Thai dishes from roadside stalls, out-of-the-way seafood restos and food stands.
Bali: In Bali, street food culture isn’t as predominant (or as safe) as Thailand’s. For a taste of authentic Balinese cuisine, head to famous Warungs (Warung Made is one such institution), local upmarket restaurants like Sardine, or make pitstops at acclaimed foodie haunts like Naughty Nuri’s (for BBQ ribs).
Verdict: It’s a tough call, but we’re giving this to Phuket for its ace street food culture.
Phuket: The resort culture in the two islands are similar, with both destinations offering big-name luxury pads, mid-priced family resorts and budget hotels.
Bali: But what tips the scale in Bali’s favour, is its huge villa culture. Perhaps owing to its larger size (it’s 10 times larger than Phuket), affordable villas are a dime a dozen here, making private pool sanctuaries easily affordable for most travellers.
Verdict: This goes to Bali for its wide variety of accommodation.
Phuket: Both Phuket and Bali are big players on the spa scene. The former offers spas at world-class resorts and hotels, with mid-range spas aplenty, offering rub-downs and foot massages at low prices.
Bali: Not to be outdone, Bali too has heaps of cliffside and beachside spas with pampering packages, too-luxe-to-be-true wellness centers, and budget spas with affordable massages, manis/pedis and scrubs at shockingly affordable prices.
Verdict: It’s a draw; staunch spa-goers will be hard-pressed to find big differences between the islands’ offerings of pampering escapes.
Best upscale restos
Phuket: Despite their laid-back island lifestyles, both destinations offer an array of upscale restos with international dining standards and fare. Phuket’s upmarket dining stars include the classic Blue Elephant, hilltop Italian resto Acqua and buzzy Siam Supper Club.
Bali: Unfortunately, Bali’s bountiful lineup of sensational restaurants far outweighs its Thai competitors. International chefs work their magic at opulent, Michelin Star restaurants promising decadent cuisine and divine surrounds. We could rattle on and on about faves – which include the award-winning Kayuputi and Mozaic Restaurant – but this comprehensive list is a good start.
Verdict: With so many amazing addresses to tantalise the tastebuds, we’re sold on Bali’s epicurean scene.
Phuket: Phuket loses out in this category thanks to its status as a tourist wonderland. A basic itinerary at the island is usually packed with massages, water activities, island-hopping and partying. Unlike temple-strewn Bangkok, it isn’t known for being a spiritual or historic destination.
Bali: Culture vultures will find little fault with Bali. Made up of a predominantly Hindu population, the island retains its unique cultural identity with its thousands of temples and altars and heavy emphasis on religious festivities. Bali’s rich cultural legacy has clearly influenced its younger generation; its thriving art and design scene sees an effortless fusion of contemporary and traditional styles. Tourists looking to muscle in on this will be spoilt for choice with the island’s countless art galleries, markets and shops.
Verdict: Bali takes the culture cake with its successful resistance of tourist commercialisation and preservation of its heritage.
Best things to do
Phuket: Perhaps due to its small size, Phuket’s choices of activities are limited to sun soaking, water sports and partying. Its winning attraction (in our opinion) is its location as a great base for island hopping to lesser known isles.
Bali: In Bali, travellers of all kinds are catered to. With lush mountains to hike, yoga retreats for spiritual healing, chilled beach bars and ancient temples to explore, there’s simply so much to do – one visit is never enough.
Verdict: Bali far surpasses Phuket in this category, with its wealth of diverse activities for tourists.
Between the whole team, we’ve done countless trips to both islands, but if there’s one place we’ll keep coming back to, it’s the Island of the Gods. From the looks of this list, Bali’s the island to be, thanks to its intoxicatingly vast number of things to do and ample choices of places to stay and dine. That being said, your choice of destination is dependent on your priorities and preferences. Simply put, swoon-worthy beaches and local food? Go to Phuket. Everything else? Head to Bali. Whatever you pick, your beach getaway’s guaranteed to be incredible. Just be sure to pick a fab locale to stay at and plan a great itinerary.
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