Phuket is similar to Bali in one sense – the bustling centre of Patong is as akin to dirty Kuta as can get. As for the rest of Phuket, it’s an island surrounded by fantastic vistas and chequered with therapeutic things-to-do.
Story and photography by Antonino Tati
Additional photography courtesy Mr & Mrs Smith (www.mrandmrssmith.com)
For many travellers to South-East Asia, there’s the assumption that the cost for tourists is similar across the board. It’s not. Let’s get one thing straight; things get more ex-y when it comes to holidaying in Thailand than, say, Bali, and that is whether you go five-star or backpacker-style.
You notice this the moment you exit Phuket airport. Even if you’re heading to the centre of the island’s chaos, Patong, you’ll be hit with a fare of 800 baht (around AUD$25) which incidentally is more than the cost of a cab from Sydney Airport to Surry Hills!
Taxis generally cost more in Thailand than in Indonesia. Indeed, in and around Phuket, you have the option of paying about AUD$6 for a ten-minute trip that would otherwise cost you around AUD$2 in Bali. Alternatively, you can opt to take a tuk-tuk, which is basically an open vehicle akin to one you might find on a safari game drive – that is rickety, non-airconditioned, without seatbelts, and with the risk of falling out of it being 100% yours.
While there are some very tranquil quarters to Phuket, particularly the resorts that dot the northern coast of the island, and even Phuket Town itself, these areas are a far cry from the hustle and bustle of busy Patong Beach. Put simply, Patong is to Phuket what Kuta is to Bali – complete with bad whiffs in the air that forced us to make reference to “the pong in Patong”. But the mess and chaos are not so much the locals’ doing; rather the tourists, who often prefer to bow down to a statue of Ronald McDonald in Buddha pose for a rushed breakfast than anything sincerely culinary.
On that note, steer clear of the Western food chains that are starting to make a mess of Thailand and you’ll find the traditional cuisine here an awesome treat. The key ingredients in Thai cooking are the four Cs: curry, coconut, chilli, and coriander. Throw in plenty of black pepper, garlic, lime and ginger, and you end up with plenty of permutations of amazing and zesty dishes.
Even the simplest Thai dish will put a spring in your step. For starters, you’ve got to try a traditional Khao Tom soup, which you’ll find in a reputable resort such as Point Yamu by Como served with ginger, spring onion, fried garlic, chicken, pork, shrimp and rice. Yep, just about every food group is covered in any given given Thai dish.
Even in the most ‘boutique’-style resorts, food is relatively affordable. Still not as low-tagged as Bali, but amazingly priced when you compare something like Indigo Pearl’s delectable green curry for 240 baht ($8) with a smaller portion in Perth costing upwards of 16 bucks. And remember, that’s on Indigo’s in-room dining menu. As for food in cafés along the beach, delicately crafted entrées are offered for as little as $4 a dish, and substantial mains for a very decent $6.
If you’re the ‘social butterfly’ type who enjoys frequenting hipster places like Potato Head in Bali, the W in Hong Kong, or even Matisse in Perth, you’ll get a kick out of popular tourist hang Nikki Beach, the 10th permanent Nikki Beach location in the world, situated on the west coast of Phuket. Some resorts, like The Pavilions, have a great relationship with hip social venues like Nikki Beach, and will provide free transit to the venue. That said, at The Pavilions, you can skinny dip freely in the morning, dress for high tea in the afternoon, and enjoy 360 degree nature views dining on tapas at night, so there’s not much reason to leave such prestigious accommodation.
Markets are not as vividly laid-out in Phuket as they are in, say, vibrant towns like Seminyak, particularly at night since curfews have frightened a lot of merchants into shutting shop at midnight sharp. While there is less of an official curfew in the resort areas of Thailand than in its capital city of Bangkok, store-owners are hesitant to sell in the 24/7 manner they once were happy to do. Even enjoying a treatment in one of those 200-baht-for-a-one-hour-massage joints is a rarity these days, so be sure to get all those affordable treatments done before dark.
The good thing about shopping in Phuket is that hawking is less of a problem here than in other South-East Asian quarters. Once you’ve said “no thank-you” to a store attendant (preferably with a smile), he or she will generally leave you alone, unlike other places where “no” means “maybe” or even “yes, and do keep stalking me” to avid marketeers. On the flipside of the coin, if you’re the one to want to haggle, get ready to quit sooner than later, for once a market-keeper in Phuket makes up his or her mind in price – that’s it.
To get away from city life, there are plenty of great activities to pursue, from parasailing and kayaking to simply taking a longboat ride to a semi-deserted island. As for hiking, you’ll definitely want to grab your walking stick and check out Khao Sok National Park, with its wide expanse of rainforest and an abundance of wildlife make it a paradise for nature lovers.
Most of the resorts offer special adventure packages, and some even include mini tours in your pre-paid itinerary, like Point Yamu by Como’s day trips to amazing Rang Yai Island, or its full-day cruise around the infamous ‘James Bond Island’ in Phang Nga Bay.
Weather-wise, things are generally pleasant year-round in Phuket – even in the low season. We were there in August, when it rained just once, and for only 10 minutes. For the rest of our week’s stay it was pretty much blue skies and pleasant enough temperatures. Travelling to Thailand during low season has, in fact, got many benefits including the fact that the beaches are more spacious, local produce comes into season, and the countryside – for those who want to venture out further than the ordinary – is its greenest ever.
Come high season, though (November to February), you can expect hotel rates to triple, airfares to double, and even motorbike rental prices to hike.
Only alcohol – that evil potion that boasts the same currency pretty much anywhere around the world – stays consistent in Thailand. In fact, it’s about as costly as you’ll find back home. Crap alcohol, usually (stay away from Thai white wine) but at an insistent $9 a glass – even in the dodgiest of bars.
That said, if you’re thinking of visiting Thailand to drink a lot and make a mess of the place, you’re coming for the wrong reasons. Plan an itinerary of adventurous outdoor activity, balanced with a little history collecting, fine food-tasting, and lots of lazing about, and Thailand’s resort capital of Phuket is the perfect holiday destination.
Planning on drinking and being dick, and you’re better off traipsing back to Kuta… You and the boogie board you rode in on.
ACCOMMODATION OPTION I:
A big difference between your average ‘chain’ hotels and the more forward-thinking establishments is that the former will often impose themselves on traditional spaces, messing these up with their particular brand of gaucheness, while the latter will carefully consider their environment, cleverly designing from the ‘outside in’ so that they end up paying homage to a place’s history and current surrounds.
Indigo Pearl Phuket is one such resort that pays tribute to its past and respect to its present environment, focusing on the historical legacy of Phuket’s tin-mining industry while also highlighting the spectacular ocean surrounds of the island. The name itself might allude more to the stunning blue waters on Phuket’s periphery, but much of the design – right down to the minutest detail – takes its inspiration from the tin trade that was once an integral part of Phuket’s commerce. Indeed, the whole of Thailand relied heavily on tin-mining as a main source of income for centuries up until the early 1930s. Since then, rubber has been the nation’s main export and now you’ll even see forests of ‘rubber’ trees as you taxi your way up to Indigo Pearl.
So as not to forget its rich heritage, industrial artistry has been instilled in the design and development of just about every facet of Indigo Pearl. From the exposed wooden beams that hold up the ceilings right down to the polished cement floors, ‘rustic’ and ‘practical’ are the key themes here.
Each suite and pavilion is fitted out in rich, solid woods, with antique fixtures permeating just about every section. The brass faucets in the bathroom, for example, look like they’ve come straight out of a 1920s plumbing works, but rest assured these operate as efficiently as any contemporary designer tap brand.
The brains behind the resort’s intricate aesthetics is none other than American designer and architect Bill Bensley, who once famously said that his “philosophy on design has always been the more odd, the better”. Hence Bensley has found a way to blend the quirky with the pragmatic in every detail.
Toiletries in the bathroom are contained in resin cases decorated with nuts and bolts. Stainless steel benches are studded with brass rivets. Even outside, a sense of rustic recycling is evident; for example the automated fans above the day-bed flap back and forth like the vintage air coolers that helped reduce the temperatures in stinking hot tin factories.
To further help guests cool down is a generous-sized plunge pool in each pool pavilion, set amidst the shady surrounds of your own garden courtyard.
Despite their rustic and natural themes, though, rest assured that every pavilion, villa or suite at Indigo Pearl is equipped with all the necessary mod-cons. High speed Wi-Fi, IDD telephone, mini bar, air-con, satellite TV, even access to a library of up-to-the-minute CD and DVD releases.
But for pure design excellence, an award has got to go to (well, several probably have already) to Indigo Pearl’s Coqoon Spa, a sanctuary of spa treatment rooms, each perched thirty feet high amid rich rainforest. Seriously, you feel like you’ve entered a giant alien-like pod, surrounded by towering banyan trees from which birds are chirping, as you relax and enjoy a blissful treatment.
I tried the ‘balancing rebirth’ treatment. The treatment includes reflexology techniques and crystals for the body. It’s apt that the treatment rooms here are shaped like cocoons themselves; for you come out feeling totally metamorphosised. Priced at 3,300 baht (around AUD$110), it’s worth it for the view alone!
In a nutshell, Indigo Pearl is an ideal resort for those who want to relax more than play hard or party.
Indigo Pearl is situated in Nai Yang Beach and National Park, Phuket, Thailand.
Book with Mr & Mrs Smith for the best available rates and a free extra on arrival. Ring their expert travel team 24/7 on 1300 89 66 27 or visit www.mrandmrssmith.com. Also, download the free Smith Hotels booking app from the App Store (www.mrandmrssmith.com/app).
ON A CULINARY NOTE…
Indigo Pearl has three main restaurants. First there’s Tin Mine, where lavish buffet breakfasts are hosted, and which also offers a la carte for lunch and dinner. The dishes here are a nice mix of international and Thai street-style.
Black Ginger, a smaller eatery, is strictly Thai; its menu follows ancient recipes that meld sweet, sour and spice nicely. Rivet Grill is our pick of the bunch, offering new world cuisine with a grill element. We sampled amazing dishes such as (for entrée) Smoked Yellow Fin Tuna with Caviar, Radish and Miso, and (for main) Pigeon with Foie Gras, Jerusalem Artichoke and Bay Leaves.
Each dish arrives looking like a true work of art; although science plays a big part of it too, according to head chef Fabrizio Crocetta. “To me, cooking is art; science is tradition,” he says. “I like seeing an evolution of the two combined in my work.”