Australians have been flocking to Phuket for as long as palm-tree postcards have been arriving in our mailboxes, but there is more to this island than beach bars and T-shirt shops. Jennifer Ennion explores the changing face of this old favourite.
You’ll see Australia’s favourite Thai destination in a new light
Arooster crows as a soft glow illuminates the palms above and a tinge of pink appears over the villa walls. Aside from the rooster, that quintessential alarm clock, the pre-dawn world around me is silent. I salute to the impending sun, reach for my feet and then curl into a cobra pose. I breathe in air that’s already becoming humid and stretch muscles sore from the previous day’s travels. I’ve woken ahead of the morning yoga class at Aleenta Phuket Resort & Spa, so opt for a solo session in my private pool villa. It’s a carefree way to begin a day in tranquil Phang Nga, Phuket.
Over a tropical breakfast at the beachfront restaurant, I contemplate how removed I am from the noise of Thailand. Travellers to this part of the country are a world away from the nightclubs, bars and massage parlours of Patong and, therefore, also the crowds.
This is the Thailand you want to discover, where the long beaches are relatively empty and most encounters are with locals and the occasional wandering dog or chicken. Even when you venture to one of the region’s most beautiful attractions, Phang Nga Bay, you still only encounter a fraction of the tourist numbers you come across on the not-too-distant Phi Phi Islands (where cult classic The Beach was filmed).
Phang Nga Bay is most famous for being the home of James Bond Island (Koh Ta Pu), a limestone karst that rises out of the emerald water. Featuring in the 1974 film The Man with the
Golden Gun, the island is beautiful but no more striking than the thousands of others in the bay. It makes sense then that I spend the day cruising to another cluster with Silver Hawk Group.
The morning is hot by the time I arrive in what feels like the middle of the bay. A handful of longtail boats and yachts are anchored and local men in inflatable kayaks approach. I gingerly step into the kayak and sit back as my guide takes me through caves, into “blue pools” (which are more green) and under limestone overhangs. He points out “rooms” in the rocks and other strange formations named after animals. It’s an interesting experience in an ancient landscape.
Back on board the two-storey Silver Hawk boat, the friendly crew members serve up a feast of traditional Thai cuisine and delicate desserts. Still on board, we learn how to craft lotus flowers into origami-like boats, which we later set sail, carrying our wishes for the year ahead in Loy Krathong festival style. Storm clouds gather above as we return to Aleenta Phuket Resort & Spa and an afternoon downpour makes for a relaxing way to unwind in my secluded pool.
The five-star Aleenta Resort is a top spot to base yourself when visiting Phuket. It’s only 25 minutes’ drive north of Phuket International Airport, and you can easily daytrip south to some of the major attractions.
A worthy stop is Phuket Old Town, one of my favourite Thailand destinations. Once the industrial heart of the region, this historic suburb is now a thriving hospitality hub that’s attracting trendy
Thais and tourists. Lime, lemon, blue and pink Sino-Portuguese terraces line laneways, inviting ou to wander through doorways and photograph details. On one street corner, people take respite in a cafe lined with old, fading radios. It’s hip in its design and attracts a cool clientele. A few doors down, a jewellery store doubles as an ice-creamery and ‘activated charcoal’ waffle cones can be chosen to house large scoops of ice-cream in spot-on wasabi and Red Bull flavours. There are also elegant Thai restaurants and gorgeous textile and homewares stores where a savvy traveller could get lost for hours.
It’s my second visit to this former tinmining area and I’m enthusiastic about the differences I witness within five years. Phuket Old Town is the perfect example of Thailand’s changing face.
The following day at Aleenta, I once again wake early, roll out my yoga mat (supplied) beside the pool, and watch the sky turn mauve. I stretch into child’s pose, my thoughts returning to how removed I am from the bustle of Bangkok, Phi Phi and Koh Samui. This is Thailand, but not as you know it.
03 01 Aleenta’s main pool 02 Old Town streetscape 03 Aleenta’s Ocean View Loft 04 Stunning Phang Nga Bay 05 Beachfront pool villa