I had been all over Thailand but never had any special desire to go to Phuket, but I succumbed last month, having been invited by a lovely generous friend, who had taken over a large private chunk of the legendary Amanpuri Resort, the first of the 25 Aman (‘Peace’) luxury resorts and apparently the favourite of Adrian Zecha, its founder. I decided to go to the Amanpuri for a week and add on another week to further explore the island. I discovered some magical places, enough to satisfy the most discerning of tourists, but there is much I wish I had know before I went.
View of the Island of Phuket
Phuket is an island for sybarites. It is basically about beautiful beaches and islands, and jungle if you are feeling a bit adventurous and massages and of course delicious Thai food, which is the Asian equivalent of Italian food – fresh ingredients, cooked simply. If you are looking for museums, good art or architecture or even good handicrafts, go elsewhere. Like the rest of Thailand, there are many temples but mainly garish 19th and 20th century ones – nothing compared to the ancient temples of Ayuthaya or even Bangkok.
I discovered that Phuket is like Majorca or Ibiza or Mykonos: a lot of ghastly bits and some wonderful bits. Let’s get the ghastly bits out of the way. Unless you are a teenager or a backpacker on a shoestring, it would be purgatorial to go to these areas: Phuket Town – a dismal, tatty, soul-less town, without a single decent restaurant or bar. The guidebooks gush about the architectural splendours of the Sino-Portuguese ‘colonial’ buildings, built in the 19th century at the height of the tin-mining industry. Well, my advice is skip it. Go to Goa or Rangoon, if you like colonial architecture.
Patong, the epicentre of Phuket’s entertainment scene, is the height of ghastliness. Like Patpong or Pattaya, it is full of young Brits, Europeans and Australians, keen to drink and party as much as possible, and as cheaply as possible. The Thais (as well as Indians) supply them with endless streets of dingy shops selling fake Rolexes, fake Louis Vuitton and fake Havaianas flip flops; English, Irish and Aussie pubs and German beer cellars; and of course, what it is famous for, louche clubs, open to the early hours, full of ‘lady boys’ dancing on the bartops and luring eager tourists into dark rooms beyond. Patong also offers Muay Thai (Thai boxing) shows, bunjee jumping, paint-balling and go-karting. Say no more. I ventured to Patong one evening, but left after an hour, happily armed with a few pairs of fake Havaianas, but discomfited by the hordes of drunk and tattooed youth.
Most of the beaches on the south-west of the island (with the possible exception of Katha Beach) are over-developed and only good if you are looking for fish and chips or German sausages. The north-east has hardly been developed at all. The south-east is less developed but you have to love your resort, as it is difficult to find any bars and restaurants or anything within a 30-minute drive.
The island is surprisingly large – it takes more than about 90 minutes to drive from the north to the south. The traffic is terrible between the inland towns, most of which are depressing ribbon developments, strung out along the main arterial roads. No one in their right mind would rent a car, so a taxi is the only option.
In the course of the two weeks, I explored most of the island and most of the beaches. Most are to be avoided. Now, this is my cardinal tip: the only area worth staying is in the central west (about 20-30 minutes south of the airport), the stretch of coast facing the Andaman Sea – Laguna, Surin Beach and Bangtao Beach. The best hotels and resorts are in that area: the Banyan Tree and Twin Palms being the best.
The Banyan Tree is luxurious: like all Phuket resorts, it has Thai-style wooden villas, a choice of restaurants and pools, a spa and lush tropical gardens – but the details, quality and service are in a different league. Like most resorts there are deluxe villas and larger villas, some with their own pool.
Twin Palms, which looks fairly nondescript from the outside, is actually very luxurious, with spacious rooms, good pools and of course lovely gardens. It is unusually sleek and contemporary for Phuket, where most resorts tend to favour a more traditional, indigenous design. The nearby Surin beach has a good number of good restaurants, bars and shops. Twin Palms owns the most chic and lively bar on the beach, Catch, which is much more sophisticated and elegant than all the others, with good lighting, good live music and good cocktails and attracts a chic crowd. The only downside about eating on these populous beaches is the ceaseless onslaught of hawkers, usually kids or tribespeople, selling a variety of tacky souvenirs. The only thing I liked were the large rice-paper sky lanterns, which once lit floated up and joined their comrades to fill the sky with their magical presence.
Two other good resorts on this beach are Dusit Thani and Laguna Beach, both on spacious properties, with Thai-style architecture and the usual array of facilities.
The apogee of luxury in Phuket is the Amanpuri (‘Place of Peace’). Located far from the prying eyes of the hoi polloi on hundreds of acres of rainforest and impeccable gardens, on the tip of an isthmus on Pansea Beach, it is the hotel of predilection for royalty, politicians and movie-stars seeking privacy and excellence. The Amanpuri is both a hotel and a number of private complexes.
A Pavillion Suite at The Amanpuri
The hotel is made up of small villas (or pavilions), restaurants on different terraces overlooking the beach, several pools, vast gardens and a beach club. Then, further up the hill, more exclusively, there are the private complexes (privately owned or rentable), made up of two to eight one-suite pavilions: each walled complex has its own pool and lavish gardens, as well as open-air and air-conditioned dining rooms and tv/play rooms. You feel you are in a small village, as there are so many salas or buildings apart from the bedroom pavilions. The ‘gardens’ are very extensive, incorporating chunks of dense rainforest. As in all the Aman resorts, the food is fabulous, and the service generally impeccable. Everything about the Amanpuri speaks of luxury. Even though the steep-roofed Thai-style pavilions are quite old now, their varnished mahogany rooms are still very attractive, the high thread-count sheets, the plump white towels, the lotus flowers on the bed, the intoxicatingly fragrant bowls of gardenias in the loos and the art works in the rooms – all are eloquent of the Aman mark of excellence and taste.
The Amanpuri – Dining by the Pool at Dusk
But there were some surprising shortcomings. We had an army of staff waiting on us, though, to our frustration, they often disappeared en masse and one felt one needed a loud bell or cannon to summon them from their distant eyries, as our plaintive cries for more champagne remained unheeded. When they appeared, they were of course smiling and unimpeachably attentive. I was also surprised that the soaps, shampoos and bath gels were not of the first order – indeed I felt no desire to order extra quantities and stuff them into my bathbag when I left. The only thing worth squirreling away into your case are their deliciously fragrant and very useful anti-mosquito sprays, made of orange peel, citronella and lemongrass.
Private Beach at The Amanpuri
The beach by the Amanpuri is exquisite, the epitome of the tropical paradise: small, curved, with white powdery sand, palms trees bowing reverentially towards the sea, elegant saffron-yellow bamboo beach umbrellas (like Buddhist monks’ parasols), and numerous discreet beach staff, hovering at a distance but quick to spot the need to tilt the umbrella, bring you an ashtray or re-fill your glass. There are at least five restaurants to choose from, all on the beach or on terraces rising up from the beach. Whether you choose Thai, Japanese or Italian, the food is superb.
Exquisite Canapes at The Amanpuri
One of the many pools at The Amanpuri
The view from my room at The Amanpuri
My host chartered an Amanpuri speedboat one day and the ten of us went off to explore some of the Similan islands, some two hours away. Similan means ‘nine’ and there are indeed nine islands, which together constitute a protected national park. Some are closed to the public – one, for example, belonging to the King of Thailand and two others dedicated to turtle-hatching programmes.
A Deserted Beach on The Similan Islands
They are idyllically beautiful, each island a dense core of rainforest, ringed with pristine, golden sand, like a monk’s tonsure. The islands are fertile, with ironwood and gum trees, jackfruit, bamboo and rattan; if you’re lucky, you might spot crab-eating monkeys, dusky langurs, Nicobar pigeons or mangrove monitor lizards. But the islands are most famous for their coral reefs and spectacular submarine rock-formations. Indeed, the Similan archipelago figures in the top 10 diving sites in the world. The first island we went to was completely deserted. A far cry from Koh Panyee, Phi Phi and ‘James Bond Island’ (sadly what Koh Napu has been called since the 1974 movie), which are now completely over-run all day: only in the early morning or evening, when the swarming mass of day-trippers have gone and the bay is freed of the traffic jam of longtail boats, can you appreciate their real charm and beauty.
Vijitt Resort – The Rawai Beach with its infinity pool and views of the neighbouring islands
After a week we left the Amanpuri and moved to the south-east tip of the island, to Rawai Beach. After the profligate luxury of the Amanpuri, we knew it would be downhill, but we had no idea that the south-east is quite so remote. I wish I had known this before I booked into the Vijitt Resort, one of the few family-owned resorts. It is a charming assemblage of villas, all made of wood, with coconut trunk beams and coconut tiled roofs, with lush tropical gardens all around. The interiors are simple but elegant. Many deluxe villas have small private pools.
A De-luxe Villa at the Vijitt Resort – you can roll out of bed and jump straight into your own private pool
Noiseless golf buggies ferry lazy guests the few minutes to the beach or the two restaurants. Most guests prefer the huge infinity pool to the beach, which lies a few yards below, as the beach is narrow, the sand a bit gritty and the water brownish, but the view of the low-lying adjacent islands is breathtaking. The restaurants were quite good, thank god, as our quest for good restaurants in the area proved tortuous and unsuccessful.
Exotic Breakfast Fruit served on Rawai Beach at the Vijitt Resort
The resort organizes trips by longtail and speedboat (the latter is four times faster) to the islands that we could see from our rooms. The quietest, most beautiful and upmarket is Racha Island, a car-less island, famous for its crescent-shaped beach of white sand, its crystal-clear waters and its coral-reefed bay perfect for snorkelling or diving. The place to stay is The Racha (part of Sanctuary Resorts), known for its white, minimalist architecture and superlative spa treatments. A bit remote but exquisite.
Maikhao Dream Resort – Breakfast on the Beach
We then moved to unspoilt, hawker-free Natai Beach, in Phang Nga Province, north-west of Phuket, to the Maikhao Dream Resort, which is actually on the mainland, about 30 minutes north of the airport. Despite its absurd name, Maikhao is an elegant and luxurious (Russian-owned) resort, one of two on this stretch of the coast. It offers all the usual amenities and services: the staff are extraordinarily charming and attentive, although, as often, suffer from a poor command of English, so what one orders in the Thai or Mediterranean restaurants is not what arrives. The main hotel guide and driver is the very knowledgeable Master Jay, a former Thai boxing champion, who also offers boxing classes.
Guided by Master Jay, I much enjoyed exploring the small villages, the nearby jungle (elephant trekking in this area is much more authentic than in the south), the rubber plantations, the former tin mines (now lakes) and local waterfalls. The more adventurous might enjoy making a three-hour trip to the southern tip of Burma.
A Thai Elephant, which are smaller than their African and Indian cousins, Trekking through the jungle near Maikhao
However wonderful Maikhao is, one must remember that it is even more remote than the Vijitt, with no shops, bars, restaurants or any night life nearby within 40 minutes taxi-ride of the hotel – indeed, the nearest decent places were back near the Amanpuri in the Laguna/Surin Beach area. For honeymooners and those looking for tranquillity and happy to be cocooned within the resort, it would be an excellent choice.
The Rubber Plantations
In short, Phuket is a bit of a curate’s egg: if I had known what I have written in this article, I would have made far better use of my time and would definitely have stayed in the Laguna area, although I personally did enjoy exploring the more remote areas, especially in the Phang Nga area.
The Lakes at Phang Nga which are former tin mines
All hotels offer airport pick-up, with bottled water and chilled towels in the car (very useful after a long flight) and cocktails on arrival (thank god!). All have a choice of pools, restaurants, bars and spas: all offer charter yachts or motor launches, water sports (surfboarding or jet-skis), trips to nearby islands, elephant and jungle ‘trekking’, even golf !
Aside from the spectacular scenery, limpid turquoise waters, the delicious food, the one thing one remembers most is the people – extremely courteous and ever-smiling. Not for nought is Thailand called the ‘Land of Smiles’.
Food is generally very good and sometimes excellent, but I often felt I’d eaten better on the Fulham Road.
Apart from the ubiquitous and well-known pad thai, green chicken curry, gai med ma moung (chicken with cashew nuts), massaman (‘Muslim’) curry (lamb or beef with coconut milk, potatoes, peanuts, cinnamon and tamarind), tom yam (hot and sour soup) and kuay tiew (noodle soup), and mango, papaya, dragon fruit and the miniature bananas, you must try:
som tam – green papaya salad with chillies (and the green mango variant too). Superb.
nam phrik – spicy chilli sauce.
tom kha gai – really refreshing soup of chicken, coconut milk and lemongrass.
And my thrilling new discoveries:
Pomelo salad – absolutely delicious salad of pomelo and chillies (a pomelo looks like a giant grapefruit, which is itself a hybrid of pomelo and orange)
coconut jam (from Koh Samui) – like coconut ice, delicious on hot toast
papaya jam – delicious with cheese (like Spanish membrillo but made of papaya rather than quince)
And for the more adventurous:
fried insects – crunchy silk worms, grasshoppers, bamboo worms, water beetles, cockroaches, spiders, crickets or scorpions (some wild, some farm-raised).
For the courageous – rent a car or a motorbike. For the pusillanimous – taxis (of course negotiate and agree the price before you get in).
Most hotels offer complimentary airport pick-up, with bottled water and chilled towels in the car (very useful after a long flight) and cocktails on arrival (thank god!). All have a choice of pools, restaurants, bars and spas; all offer charter yachts or motor launches, water sports (surfboarding or jet-skis), trips to nearby islands, and elephant ‘trekking’.
Most hotels described are surprisingly expensive if booked on the spot or even online: unusually, it is best to book through travel agents, who offer 50% or better deals, e.g. I got a nice room in a five-star hotel for less than £100. ‘Deluxe’ is a much abused term in the hotel business, so it is worth checking on the precise size of the rooms and facilities before booking.
Don’t bother to go to the Butterfly Farm, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre or any of the big shopping malls (Central Festival, Premium Outlets etc) – all over-hyped and really not worth seeing. The Weekend Market (also called ‘Sunday Market) near Phuket Town is a vast sprawl of stalls, selling tat and fakes but quite fun. Most of the Elephant ‘Trekking’ trips (usually 30 minutes along a road or in a theme park atmosphere with hundreds of other tourists) are expensive and as exciting as a donkey ride on Brighton Beach, unless you go to the remote areas in the north (e.g. near Natai Beach), when you really penetrate the jungle on working elephants in a totally non-commercial atmosphere, with local farmers and loggers.
The 45m high gleaming white marble ‘Big Buddha’ on the hill near Phuket Town is impressive from a distance but, when viewed up close, is poorly sculpted (and unfinished). The drive up to it through rainforest is pretty and the 360-degree view from the top terrace is pretty impressive.
Bottled water and beer (even Thai beers) are expensive in the hotels – stock up in the Tesco minimarkets (called Tesco Lotus here) or Seven-Eleven stores found all over the island.
The best shops are on or near Surin Beach. Disappointingly, there are very few decent handicraft shops. The best place for old and reproduction wooden and bronze sculptures is Chan’s Antiques (on Highway 402, two miles north of Phuket Town). Remember that one needs a permit to export Buddhas, even modern ones, and it can take weeks or even months.
By Terence Rodrigues