We have just left Panyee, a Muslim village on stilts, and are en route to a beach picnic on the island of Rang-Yai when our photographer Arkan Zakharov yells: “Stop! Can we shoot on that little island?” He points to a rocky islet cropping out of the Andaman Sea. “Sure,” responds Teddy Kongsawatt, one of our guides. “But we’ll have to be quick because the tide is coming in and it’s going to disappear!” Once we reach the islet, Shaughnessy and Eliza Grossman, our fashion editor, scramble out. (You can’t see Grossman because she’s lying flat on the ground behind the tiny knoll.) We pull away, leaving them marooned. It’s a stunning image—just one of the many visual memories I will have of our time in Phuket.
Today the sky is blue and almost cloudless, but when we landed last night, it was in the middle of a torrential downpour. The rain was madly ricocheting off the pavement, stirring up humidity-drenched misty clouds. June Na-Songkhla, our guide, must have sensed we were worried about the shoot the next day. “We say our weather is like a woman’s mood,” she assured us. “She may be angry but not for too long.” Our “weather mistress” had indeed settled down by the time we arrived at Tu Kab Khao, a restaurant in Old Phuket Town. It was here that I had my first encounter with galangal, or Thai ginger. When I bit into a slice, I was expecting something pungently spicy, but my confused taste buds registered citrus and pine flavours. It was the first of many new taste and textural sensations. (Steamed cubes of doughy white bread dipped in bright green panden custard was another highlight.)
Later we checked into the Nai Harn resort, which is about 17 kilometres from the town of Phuket, and set our alarms for a 5:30 a.m. start to our island-hopping adventures. Morning comes quickly, but fortified with coffee, we head out to the harbour. It’s early, but I can already feel the heat and humidity kicking in. I board the boat and head to the front. As we pick up speed, en route to James Bond Island for our first shot, I turn my face into the wind and let my hair fly. I suspect I look like a blissed-out retriever poking her head out the window of a pickup truck.
The next day, we’re back on land and heading to the Phang Nga Elephant Park. It’s a small familyrun operation in southern mainland Thailand that offers ethical elephant tourism. Jake Thaotad and his cousin Lek Songkaw set up the park in 2015 after Thaotad returned from London, England, where he was working as a microbiologist. Thaotad tells us that his family have been involved with elephants for 150 years and that helping domesticated elephants is paramount to their mission. “We let our visitors interact with them in a way that isn’t exploitive,” he says. “It hurts me a lot when people say that all Thais are cruel to their elephants as it is simply untrue. But what we have to realize is that without tourism, elephant owners have no means to care for these wonderful animals. It is unrealistic to think that thousands of elephants can be homed in a handful of sanctuaries. And talk of turning them loose is unrealistic firstly because Thailand does not have the land and secondly because domesticated animals cannot be left to fend for themselves. So what I want is a world where healthy and contented elephants can be used but never abused.”
While we’re taking our last shots, a dark bank of clouds rolls in over the hills. It seems our weather friend is about to have another one of her moods. As the doors to the van close, the rain starts, but it’s a shortlived, blustery fit. When we arrive back in Phuket, the sun is setting. In the distance, I can see the glowing and peaceful silhouette of Big Buddha sitting atop the Nakkerd Hills. It’s another picture-perfect moment.