Landmark Phuket resorts branch out and look in as the Island’s travel industry evolves
Like dust shaken from a blanket, life on Phuket has settled sporadically. South of the airport, rubber trees blur into the background as small rural houses emerge on the fore. Soon after come rows of shophouses occupied with mini-marts, motorbike repairmen, and vendors making food to order from woks in garages. A temple here, a school there—the boat lagoon, the labyrinthine Super Cheap. At this point, near the nexus of cardinal directions, human settlements become of a different nature. Traffic converges in the centre of the island, where the quiet parts funnel into the most vibrant of shoreline communities. The road then transforms into an illuminated chute through which vans and buses race to the beach, because, for most, electric-white sands are the ultimate destination. The stuff in the middle—the activities on the sea, in the jungle—remain afterthoughts.
In recent years, tourism on Phuket has begun to evolve. Travellers and tour providers have embraced sustainable development, eco-friendly programmes, and adventures that are otherwise beyond the norm. Paddleboards, culinary tours, and excursions into the hills have overtaken jet-skis, elephant sedans, and blurry nights on Soi Bang La. This is especially true for returnees, who have either already explored the latter options or eschewed them in the first place.
Yet within this growth resides a sort of dichotomy between old and new. Established venues have been tasked with transforming to keep up with the times while holding firm to their roots. Some places, such as Boathouse by Montara, a 26-year-old veteran of the industry on Kata Beach, have done just that, and with considerable success. Led by a spunky in-house team and a vibrant general manager with an immeasurable passion for food and wine, Boathouse has rejiggered its activities.
Knowing that Kata gets some of the best waves to surf on the island, Boathouse partnered with Quiksilver, building a shop and surf school between the resort and Re Ká Ta, its beach club-restaurant. Year-round, a group of well-tanned and supremely laidback instructors set up on the sand in front of the resort. They hang out on beach chair perches all day long, casually offering surfing lessons and board rentals during low season, and paddleboard lessons and rentals during high season, when the curling waves recede and the water becomes still and glassy on the surface.
As chilled out as they may seem, the guys know how to ratchet their energy at the right moments. After a brief lesson on the sand, in which newbie surfers learn to paddle with their arms and stand on stationary boards, teachers lead students into a quiet corner of the very bright blue water. Here, the action (or comedy) begins. As waves pick up steam, riders begin to paddle, the professionals give a gentle push, and, like new-born zebras on the savannah, awkwardly taking their first steps, the surfers attempt to stand on the board and ride the breaking waves into shore. After the inevitable crash, and while adrenaline remains high, they can turn around, see a smiling figure sharing in the positive vibes with two thumbs decidedly up, and notice that laughter has been held in check. For first-timers, the experience is quite a thrill. Experienced surfers, however, tend to fly solo, renting boards and flocking to the middle of the beach, where the waves really roll.
While sand and surf are obvious attractions on Phuket, they’re far from the end of the line. The jungle, for many, is foreign terrain, which is not always a good thing. Found in the further reaches of the hills are callous elephant camps, sad shows featuring caged monkeys, and snake pits—as ironic a name as any for the experience. But not all excursions into the bush involve shady operations.
The Flying Hanuman, a wild, themed zip-line in the vertiginous hills of Kathu, represents the brighter side of adventure tourism. Though the guides are perhaps rough around the edges—expect lots of jokes, absurd, alarming, or otherwise—and the process can move quickly, there’s an overarching eco-friendly ethos at play that washes away any doubts. The lines of cable wind high above untouched and scrupulously cleaned forest, and the recycling of used or unwanted gear, such as cloth headbands, is a focal point. The view looks over the lake in Kathu as well as the sea to the east and its tiny islands. The guides, while playful, also hammer home safety on the cables. The experience is one for the memory bank—one to be proud of, one without ethical dilemmas.
Adventure notwithstanding, Phuket remains Thailand’s biggest bastion for bacchanalia. Good food, good drinks, and long hours dedicated to suntans make up a majority of holidays. Trisara, an exclusive resort in the rolling hills between Naithon and Bangtao, recently launched a monthly culinary series aimed at attracting island residents and regional foodies, as well as in-house guests. The Trisara Culinary Series, as it’s called, joins an enhanced list of excursions and activities available at or through the resort. Offering one-night-only gourmet journeys based on changing themes, the series underlines a subtle shift in focus of the tourist industry. Happening at once organically and through planned campaigns, Phuket is gradually becoming a culinary capital of Southeast Asia.
Japanese Kaiseki marked the first event of the Trisara Culinary Series. The traditional set meals ventured from the normal arena of the host restaurant, Trisara Seafood, which, of course, is known for its seafood. Going off-track, however, is the means to the end. In demonstrating a certain daring through experimenting with new cuisines, the restaurant and resort have begun to distinguish themselves within a suddenly powerful culinary scene on the island, one that includes a handful of destination restaurants, like Acqua, Blue Elephant, and Suay. Menus in the series will occasionally be designed by famous figures outside the resort. Other months, Trisara Seafood’s Executive Chef Chalermchai “Kla” Prakobkit and Chef de Cuisine Jimmy Ophortst will assume the privilege.
The momentum gained from the first event carried over into the second. Dubbed “One Night in Bangkok,” Dylan and Bo of Bo.lan travelled to Trisara to prepare a special take on their trademark Thai cuisine. The next night in the series took a hard turn in another direction. Trisara brought in award-winning mixologists for a “speakeasy”-themed night of drinks and light eats.
From Japanese to Thai to cocktails and canapés, the series has explored wildly different paths. This unique twist has given guests reason to visit Trisara besides its stunning seascape. To sweeten the pot for regional visitors, who come from as far away as Hong Kong, the resort has offered discounted rates for stays during the first three events in the series. Whether the discounts continue remains to be seen. What isn’t changing, however, is the verve for spicing up old packages with new projects.
Like Trisara on the north of the island, Boathouse, too, has put an emphasis on dining. In truth, food has been the resort’s calling card for decades. An annual winner of food and wine awards, including a prestigious Two Glasses from Wine Spectator, Boathouse’s namesake restaurant offers a destination in and of itself. From tableside cooking at dinner to regular jazz nights and wine flights, Boathouse brings an element of excitement to dining, a quintessential part of a holiday in paradise.
Perhaps at the core of its evolution into another decade is the exuberance of Max Chin, the aforementioned GM with a penchant for dancing and serious knowledge of wine and French food. “This is really like a playground for me,” says the Malaysian-born manager, who worked as a chef and owned a few restaurants before entering the hotel industry. “Every month, we’re doing new food promotions. We only have 38 rooms, but we have two restaurants. That says a lot about us.”
Owing to a background in food and beverage, Chin has developed a strategy aimed at bringing back the charm of dining while adding new dimensions to gastronomy. One of the restaurant’s recent monthly promotions paid homage to Phuket heritage. During September, Boathouse partnered with local groups to feature Baba Nyonya cuisine and cultural activities each Friday night, looking to recognize a community that often goes unnoticed in the sweep of in-and-out tourism.
With up to 800 labels of wine available during high season, the only beachfront club on Kata in Re Ká Ta, and creative cooking at both venues, including raw cuisine at one and cooking classes at the other, Boathouse has culinary travellers catered for well. The challenge then becomes one most would like to face: remembering there’s a beach to explore beyond the dinner table. “My friends tell me, ‘You work in paradise and you don’t even walk on the beach?’” says Chin, chuckling.
By Craig Sauers