Like many travellers hungry for a cheap beach break, you might be tossing up between a trip to Bali and a trip to Phuket. Flights cost more or less the same from Australia and many cities across Southeast Asia.
Both have beautiful beaches and sunshine. Both offer a plethora of things to do and places to stay for every budget. Street food is same-same-but-different: cheap with varying levels of intensity and generous helpings of fluffy white rice. So what sets these two places apart?
There are endless debates over the pros and cons of Bali and Phuket. Which place is cleaner? Which place provides better value for money? The battle is relentless.
We’re here to lay the cards on the table and see who comes out on top. All you need to do is a pick an airline and nab yourself a place to stay.
Thailand’s monsoon storms last for days, and at times, weeks. The heavy tropical showers are unforgiving and last all day and all night. Gloomy, rainy days are also common on the fringes of high season, so planning a week of guaranteed sunshine in Phuket off-season, is always risky.
Bali, in comparison, has a rainy season between November and April, but there are surprisingly more days of sunshine than rain.
Both wet seasons are officially at their peak in December, but we’ve seen more gloriously sunny days in Bali than Phuket over the holidays in recent years.
Sidekick islands: Phi Phi vs Gili
With their similar climate but completely different geography, the Gili Islands and Phi Phi are hard to compare. There’s a lot more ferrying and boating around in Phi Phi, so it’s not ideal for a weekend getaway. If you land in Lombok’s new international airport, you can be in Bangsal within an hour or so and on the shores of the Gili islands 25 minutes later. The Phi Phi islands are, unfortunately, seasoned tourist traps with razor sharp teeth and they make the island hustlers in the Gili Islands seem like amateurs.
Even as far off as the smaller islands in Phi Phi, an incessant procession of touts trawl the beach, trying to sell you everything under the (hot Thai) sun. Including a freshwater shower.
We hate to say it, but the hard truth of the matter is that Bali’s beaches suffer from rife plastic pollution. When it comes to who has the best beaches, provided you’re not a surfer, Phuket wins every time. Lapped by the calm waters of the Andaman Sea, Phuket is fringed by bigger and brighter beaches than Bali.
We can’t officially include the untouched beaches of the Gili islands, especially the fine white sand beaches and sparkling shallow reefs of Gili Meno. So while Phuket officially wins the best beaches category compared to Bali, there’s something much more special about the deserted island paradise that you’ll find in the Gilis. Did we mention we love Bali?
Crave-worthy cuisine: Som Tam vs Soto Ayam
Thai cuisine is an international export. But Thai food in Thailand is on another planet of amazing. Whole trips could be dedicated to exploring the flavours of varying regions throughout Thailand, comparing coconut curries and pondering your preference of panangs.
In Bali, beyond the fantastic babi guling (slowly roasted piglet, cooked for hours over charcoal and glazed with sugar water. The crackling is out of this world), local dishes are often fresh and pack a punch of the flavour front, bursting with ginger, turmeric, lemongrass and lime. That’s if you can resist a heaped serve of authentic Indonesian cuisine favourites like nasi goreng (fried rice) or mee goreng (fried noodles).
WINNER: It’s a draw.
Upmarket dining digs
When it comes to the dining scene, you’re deliciously spoilt for choice in Bali across a range of cuisines and budgets. In Bali, you’ll find a huge selection of international cafes, affordable fine dining restaurants and organic juice and salad bars. Phuket’s dining scene pales in comparison. The choice, variety and freshness of Phuket’s dining scene has struggled to move beyond club sandwiches and Pad Thai. We can only speculate that the younger and more entrepreneurial wave of Bali expats, compared to Phuket retirees, is the reason for better eating. Thumbs up, Bali.
Kuta vs Patpong
Patong wins the sleaze-bag award hands down. Kuta may have its collection of out-dated bars guarded by nighttime hustlers, but there’s also new, upmarket digs where you can jive without fear of the usual street corner harassment.
In Patpong, however, there is no such silver lining. Without going into the nitty gritty, think pingpongs and small birds at all hours of the day. Smutty activities tend to attract a larger deck of sleazy characters, where as Kuta still has a comparative level of innocence.
If Bali’s nightlife scene were akin to Jazz, Phuket is Rock ‘n’ Roll. You’d probably pick Phuket over Bali if you were planning a stag do. On the other hand, if you’re into international DJs, super chilled beach bars and you don’t want to get your designer sandals dirty, then Bali is the way to go. At the same time, debauchery is never far away from Bali. It’s just a fast boat ride to Gili Trawangan…
WINNER: It totally depends on what you’re into..
Culture and spirituality
The essence of every Asian culture lies in the subtle allure of its spirituality. Phuket’s been a tourist haunt for much longer than Bali. At every turn, it’s evident that its cultural heritage has been repackaged for the benefit of the deep pocketed tourist. The Balinese, on the other hand, are much more cautious about conserving the purity of the culture and customs that make them unique.
Bali is on the international surf radar and has a constant swell throughout the year. There’s a little bit of surf in Phuket, but we hear it’s nothing to write home about.
From the intimidatingly huge swells in Uluwatu (professionals only), to the intermediate surf break in Balian and the cruisy surfing beaches in Canggu and Berawa that are great for beginners, Bali offers every level of surfer an opportunity to catch a wave or ten.
Bali’s yoga scene is life changing.
Ubud is at the heart of everything yoga in Bali, and is fast becoming one of the biggest yoga communities in the world. Closer to central Bali, you have the Desa Seni yoga studio and retreat set in Canggu’s rice paddies. A yoga class at any of the top yoga studios in Bali should be on any visitors’ itinerary.
Thailand has a spattering of Yoga hang outs, but if you’re after a deep dose of Iyengar, some heavy hatha, a chakra healing, an Ayurvedic massage – the Yogic kit and caboodle, then Bali is where it’s at.
WINNER: Bali. Hands down.
Fashion & Shopping
When it comes to shopping in Phuket, it’s really good for two things: fake designer bags and men’s tailoring. They do a great job of copying designer suits and they have a great range of fabrics to choose from. Turn around times are quick – you only need to allow a few days to get a suit and a stack of shirts made.
What’s on offer in the fashion department in Bali, is world class couture. Designers like Lily Jean and Magali Pascal have completely changed the game. You’ll find exquisite dresses and fresh off the runway looks from Paris and New York, crafted in top quality fabrics and created to style the international jet setting crowd. All for less than the cost of a premium label dress at Zara.
Okay. Clearly we’re biased. But there’s a reason we’ve decided to call Bali home. And it’s everything in this article plus so much more.
We’ve done the Phuket thing, and we think you should check it out too. But chances are you’ll keep coming back to the island of the Gods. There’s a deeper sense of spirituality in Bali. This is undeniable. Balinese culture, in its subtle gestures and daily rituals of the people, is endearing and intoxicatingly sincere.
There’s nothing same same but different about Bali. From dolphin watching in Lovina, to the charming and unspoilt beauty of Amed, sunrise treks in Mount Agung and so much more, you practically get a dozen holidays in one destination when you visit Bali. Bali is just more bagus…Sorry Phuket, but you’ve been outdone!