Tourism Tattler foreign correspondent, Adam Jacot de Boinod visited Phuket − a rainforested, mountainous island in the Andaman Sea − and reports on Thailand’s most popular beaches, high-end seaside resorts, spas and restaurants.
On an island buzzing with tourists reminding one of everything but the destination I felt a need to stay at hotels that are in sympathy with their surroundings and express a feeling for Thailand rather than the many others that are simply smart but bland. I wanted the exotic experience with all my senses awakened by water and smells, birds and animals.
Phuket is an island that is certainly built up with traffic. Some have faith in their fate with side cars moving bumper-to-bumper carrying families intent on drying their washing at the same time. Mopeds have three year olds standing up between the legs of their parents with the rest of the family up behind them. Amongst the many roadside stalls and shops are bride shops placed randomly next to mechanic’s garages (giving a whole new notion to the garage calendar!).
Thais believe that if they dress in a certain colour each day it will bring them good luck. The code is: Monday: yellow (lueang), Tuesday: pink (chom poo), Wednesday: green (kiaw), Thursday: orange (som), Friday: blue (nam ngem), Saturday: purple (muang), Sunday: red (daeng). Black (dam) is unlucky for conservative people and is reserved for funerals; unless, of course, you are young in which case it’s seen as edgy and sophisticated. Even haircuts on different days of the week have their own significance. On Sunday: long life; Monday happiness and health; Tuesday: power; Wednesday: great misfortune; Thursday: protection of the angels; Friday: lots of luck comes and on Saturday: it brings success in important undertakings.
It was on a Saturday when I arrived first at The Sarojin, a boutique hotel, up north of Phuket in Khao Lak. The rooms are very Zen. There are stones and slate on the bathroom floor beneath the showers, absorbing the water beautifully in the heat, and logs to put shampoo on and driftwood acting as decoration. The contemporary Asian style with strong symmetry allows nature to flow and there’s a real harmony with barely any distinction between the interior and exterior.
Outside light blue cushions echo the ocean whose beach, on this stretch, is a long, gentle and walkable curve. The land is thoughtfully spaced and has uncluttered placing. The foliage is of banana leaves and ferns.
The food in the two restaurants comes from a confidently small menu of extremely fresh local produce. I enjoyed a pomelo salad that had minced prawns, tossed coconut flakes, sliced kaffir, lime leaves, lilies and sliced shallots. The Massaman curry with tofu had coconut milk, roasted cardamom seeds, cinnamon, roasted peanut, bay leaf and tamarind juice.
Lady Sarojin, the hotel speedboat, is well placed to take advantage of reputedly the best coral in Thailand. It’s on the nine Similan Islands (similan meaning nine in Jawi muslim). And it’s only ninety bouncy minutes away out on the Indian Ocean. They comprise of a protected national marine park with three islands dedicated to turtle conservation. Here there is the promised water and sand that is ‘paradise’ blue and white.
It was wonderful to have the experience of being tucked up safely in my outdoor pavilion while a proper tropical rainstorm played itself out on a landscape where kingfishers and monitor lizards had made themselves at home.
As for tigers and elephants, there is certainly much concern for their treatment. Elephant riding is considered ‘borderline’. But the trainers are devoted and there’s a charming relationship between them and their animals. One ‘master’ was barely seven stone and instantly crushable were it not for the complete mutual respect and affectionate bond between these two beings who were so clearly at one with each other.
I stayed next at Indigo Pearl. It was all certainly overflowing with choice: the three swimming pools, the many restaurants and even their menu pages. I took an escorted raft across the lilied pond to eat at the Black Ginger restaurant. The setting was pure fantasy, candlelit in its black décor. I ate spicy jicama salad and pomolo (turnips and yams) though the vegetarian range was limited.
The Coqoon Spa at Indigo Pearl is set in a wonderful ‘bird nest’. They adapted my treatment to suit my jetlagged needs. Not the proposed manicures or pedicures for me but lots of neck and shoulder work! Not to mention the soothing pungent choice of oils such as eucalyptus, peppermint, lemongrass, sesame, coconut and bergamot orange.
I spent several nights at Keemala – an eco venture with 38 villas. 16 are “clay-pool cottages”, 7 “tent-pool villas”. A further 8 are larger “bird’s nest pool villas” with their flexible but durable mesh exteriors that resemble the Beijing Olympic stadium. The remaining 7 “tree-pool houses” seem suspended in the air.
Here the frogs were teeming and crickets chirping. Such wonderfully deafening choruses at dawn and dusk! And the Thai language has an expressive vocabulary for their noises! Jiap jiap is the sound of chicks; ake-e-ake-ake of cockerels; gaa gaa of crows and hook hook of owls.
Keemala offers an holistic ambience and I found the experience enhanced by the options of drum circles, soul readings and the inclusive options for vegans. There is a range of classes and activities that’s almost as long as the in-villa dining menu. Spoilt for choice.
I had a facial in one of the eight ‘mala’ massage rooms. My face was first steamed to open the pores, then cleansed, then steamed, then cleansed again with lotions to stimulate my blood vessels, bringing me out, or so I felt, in a more youthful glow. And why not! How odd that it’s a part of the body so often under pampered.
I took the boat trip to Phi Phi but be warned. Go early before the crowds and, after all, it’s at a beautiful time of day. There is otherwise a large number of tourists. The highlights are the almost full-circle bay of Phi Phi Ley and the wonderful “Treasure Island” of Bamboo Island.
Set in a mature coconut plantation and meaning “place of peace’ was my last stop, the classy Amanpuri hotel. It’s minimal and it’s luxury in an expansive sphere. Decked in the woods makha, which is golden brown with dark veins, and teak which was considered a ‘royal’ tree by the kings of Thailand and Burma.
The airy poolside restaurants offer some real little delights such as ginger and passion fruit stirred with a spring onion as a mixer. The spring rolls come with salmon, fish roe, grapefruit and chilli sauce. Then there’s the tea-time mini-cakes. All the food varies in its spicy intensity.
The design at Amanpuri embraces authentically the Thai tradition and is timeless and serene with intelligent spacing between the restaurants and swimming pool. The sloping location is enhanced with cascading stairs, like a stage setting from the opera Aida, from the pool to the private beach. It’s all truly exotic, sensually awakening and highly appealing!
About the author: Adam Jacot de Boinod worked for Stephen Fry on the first series of QI, the BBC programme. Adam is the author of The Meaning of Tingo: and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books and available on Amazon.com. While researching this article, Adam travelled with support from Heathrow Express, Thailand Tourist Board, Exsus Travel and ICS Travel Group.