Phuket, Love You Long Time
One balmy Christmas night in 2004, I had a dream. For no reason at all, my condo was engulfed in big, violent waves. They had come crashing down, and I could do nothing but hide under my blanket and wait till the storm abated. When I woke up, I thought nothing of it. It was just a stupid dream, I told myself.
Then came the news on December 26. As tourists baked in a sunny paradise and scraped young coconuts clean of their flesh, a vicious tidal wave had come smashing into Phuket. The product of a 9.1-magnitude earthquake that struck 160km off northern Sumatra, the wave swept beaches clean, flipping the island from paradise to hell. People were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Families were separated, resorts were devoured and hundreds were washed out to sea.
The word ‘tsunami’ didn’t use to mean so much. People had no idea, till it claimed the 250 lives across Phuket, including the frequently visited Patong and Khao Lak stretches. It’s been 12 years since the disaster. It was a difficult speed bump, but people got on with it and the island recovered.
I shouldn’t be starting this story with a sad memory, but I did not have many fond memories of Phuket. It reminded me of my first visit to Patong with my mom, impaired by schizophrenia and unmedicated. It reminded me of Bangla Road, its crushing crowds and snooty locals who preferred white skinned tourists. Most of all, it reminded me of 2004.
Like Bali, Phuket seemed so overdone, and I was bored. What else was there to explore? Then someone coaxed me into going back. “It’s nothing like Patong,” she insisted.
It became apparent that Phuket’s contrasts were bountiful enough for second chances. One budget flight and car ride later, I landed in Cape Panwa, far from brash Patong.
The exact opposite, Cape Panwa is remote and ripe with lush forests, rubber and coconut plantations. There are a few low-key surprises like the Phuket Aquarium and Khao Khad Viewpoint Tower, which offers a bird’s eye view of its surrounding islands. But most of the action is left to the luxury resorts that dot this southeastern tip of Phuket. Of them all, Sri Panwa commands the most stunning views.
"There is plenty to do, be it Thai boxing, yachting or enjoying the best sunset in Phuket at Baba Nest."
Scattered throughout acres of green, Sri Panwa isn’t your typical “all-inclusive” Thai resort. No good holiday comes from staying within protective walls, and though being far from the maddening crowd meant being away from our usual creature comforts like McDonald’s, there is comfort lounging in a different lap of luxury. Rooms cost an average of $600 to a couple grand each a night but the people keep coming back. Sri Panwa must be doing something right.
As the hidden lair that’s unfortunately no longer my secret, there is plenty to do, be it Thai boxing, yachting or enjoying the best sunset in Phuket at Baba Nest. They serve an impressive breakfast spread too, and for three days I did everything that I wanted – swam in multiple infinity pools, got my shoulders rubbed, stuffed myself silly, paddle boarded, caught sunrises and sunsets, and got inebriated on cheap red wine from the duty-free store. If you must go out, Phuket Town, which isn’t far, is active only during the day.
Sri Panwa has a variety of accommodation, but since I got to be Judge Judy for just two nights, I can recommend either the pool villa or penthouse (part of a new enclave called The Habitat). Both are beautiful, complete with a free snack bar, kitchenette, Bose sound systems and jet pools, but I find myself liking the villa a lot more. It is breezy, bright and tropical architecture keeps anyone from looking in while granting a postcard perfect view of the empty, blue horizon. And not that it mattered to me, it even has a shower that turns into a sauna with a flick of a switch.
"It is breezy, bright and tropical architecture keeps anyone from looking in while granting a postcard perfect view of the empty, blue horizon."
"This is Bang Tao Bay, a manicured tourist enclave where Banyan Tree resides."
Another pocket of luxury sits only 20 minutes away from the airport, an hour closer than Sri Panwa is. This is Bang Tao Bay, a manicured tourist enclave where Banyan Tree resides. Established by a Singaporean who went from prisoner to tycoon, it knows where to put its money on – simple and authentic luxury; teak floors and locally-woven fabric and not gilded toilets. It is part of the Laguna Phuket complex and has close to 200 villas. Every villa has a garden, pavilion, pool and open-air bath, and depending on the villa you pick, you can either enjoy a view of the great Andaman or greens.
Throughout the stay, everyone gets a bicycle – it’s easier to get around that way.
Banyan Tree isn’t cheaper. Prices begin at about $500 for a pool villa, but people like the Banyan Tree for its team of exceptional therapists. Its flagship spa was opened in Phuket in 1994 and it was Banyan Tree that pioneered the tropical garden treatment. Young ladies train vigorously at the Banyan Tree Spa Academy and one tour around it showed me they do not kid around.
Quite a few treatments are offered, including the popular signature master therapist experience; 90 minutes of specially tailored pleasure. If you take wellness as seriously as they do, then opt for the Banyan Tree Spa Sanctuary. Only for the adults (hooray), enjoy unlimited spa treatments in the comfort of your private villa that comes with a floating bedroom and private steam room to, well, steam those troubles away. For somewhere perhaps worthy of someone like Joan Collins, it is the perfect honeymoon getaway, or at least the first of many to come.
Having been to Banyan Tree and Sri Panwa, both destination resorts in their own right, I figured a part of Phuket might have a place in my heart after all. It may not be Maldives or The Bahamas, but it sure isn’t Patong.