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Three cheers for public holidays! The last long weekend definitely came at just the right time, and I can think of no better way to spend it than with good friends, on my first trip to Phuket.

In my mind, Phuket has always been about beaches, massages and nightlife. But based on my first experience, there is much more to be seen and done if done right. Here are my 5 tips to break away from the cookie-cutter Phuket getaway.

1. Rally the masses
Phuket is the perfect place for a large group holiday. It’s near, so coordinating days off isn’t too daunting, it isn’t financially prohibitive, and it’s simple in what it offers so its easy to get people on board. Put together a group with great chemistry and you’re sure to be in for a good time.

2. Go indie
Instead of booking cheap into the best hotel or resort on Groupon, go indie and spend some time to find a private villa instead. That way, you get a pool and a house to yourself and your friends to go crazy with. Bring out the booze, eat in the pool, wear as small a bikini as you want, whatever!

I booked our group of 8 into a private villa in the Laguna estate with the help of the good folks at Phuket Villa Rentals. I did have my reservations as a first time user, but the experience overall was smooth and very hassle-free. We settled on Laguna 57/5, and arrived to find that the pictures on the site totally did not do the place justice at all! It was massive, beautifully furnished and well-equipped. We even had eggs, butter, bread and soft drinks chilling in the fridge for us! All this privacy and luxury for less than S$300 each for a 3 night stay – an amazing deal!

The beautiful Laguna 57/5 Villa we stayed in. From left – the living area, pool and bedroom decor

The pool at our villa was absolutely sublime. With copious amounts of duty free booze and salty Thai snacks, we spent tens of hours in states of extreme happiness splashing in the water and basking under the sun. The little bit of extra effort to find the right villa was completely and absolutely worth it and I would definitely recommend it to anyone!

3. Hit the water
Say what you want, but no trip to Phuket is complete without a trip out to the islands of the Andaman Sea. Whether booking a group or private tour, this has got to be part of the program, especially if like me, it’s your first time.

We booked ourselves on a island-hopping tour that covered Maya Bay, where they filmed The Beach, Phi Phi Island, Monkey Beach and Koh Khai. To be totally honest, most of them were overly commercialised and overrun with tourists. Maya Beach was so full of tourists that one couldn’t take a proper photo of the beach at all, Phi Phi was like a gigantic campsite, and Koh Khai was like Newton Hawker Center on an island, with touts holding menus pimping drinks and ice cream non stop.

Shots from the day-long island-hopping tour, including Phi Phi, Maya Bay, and Koh Khai

Nonetheless, the islands are a total must see, if anything, for the journey than the destinations themselves. It really is the whole experience of the sun, the wind and the waves all on full blast and ripping into you as you lie on an open deck. If you can afford it, charter a private boat and head for the quieter beaches. The famous ones are great too see and breathtaking from afar but a pain to navigate amidst the crowds.

4. Get a guide
We were fortunate enough to have Tawit as our guide, a lovely guy who picked us up from the airport and ended up staying with us the entire trip. He operates his own car rental/tour service company called Rent A Car Phuket. Its a small, simple operation but we loved having him show us around. When we called him back the next day to take us around, it was clear that he had come prepared with ideas on what we should do, was ready to adjust his plans to fit our whims and fancies, play to the sometimes erratic weather, and make sure we saw a different side of his city. Perhaps the best thing is how he made took care to make sure we experienced something special each time, and we always got to go to somewhere new rather than go somewhere twice even though we enjoyed it.

A big example is the places he chose to take us to eat. All served great, authentic Thai cuisine, but were each were destinations on their own, whether supper by the lake, lunch overlooking the waves crashing on the shore at Bangtao beach, or floating atop the water at a restaurant on a kelong.

Whether on boat rides to a floating restaurant, or by the crashing waves, every meal was a journey, and fresh, yummy local fare was always part of the experience! Thanks Tawit!

And of course, everything came with special tips for the locals – we even got to feed the hungry fishes at the kelong after we were done feeding ourselves, before being taken back to shore by one kind of Jack Sparrow lookalike. If anything, having him around was the reason we got to experience so much in such a short time. If you’re going to Phuket, hit him up at his website and say you’re friends with Crystal from Singapore – and you’ll be treated to the same I’m sure!

5. Skip the sleaze
I insisted on going to the famous Patong stretch just because you can’t really say you’ve been to Phuket till you’ve seen Patong. In short, it was terrible. Noisy, messy, crowded, filled with thumping beats, girls bopping beside poles in the most uninspired fashion and touts advertising “ping pong” shows. I can’t say I gave any of the night spots a fair chance, but I sure didn’t see any places that looked worth entering, and was busy enough trying to avoid eye contact with all the people just waiting to pounce on the tourists on the streets. Probably wasn’t wrong to keep a distance anyway, if this news of more people killed in a burning club  on that strip the night we arrived is anything to go by. If you really have nothing to do in at night, go get a massage. Its probably time and money better spent, and that’s exactly what I chose to do in our 2 hours at Patong. If you’re planning a trip to Phuket, leave this out of your consideration! There are so many more beautiful places in Phuket to be, so give the other places a shot and you’ll definitely see a calmer, quieter, side of the city less amped up on the white man’s dollar.