Finding peace and quiet on Phuket
Mum, there's a tree growing out of our house! Lena Corner and family found a quiet spot hidden in the jungle on the south-east coast
Sunday 08 November 2009
Ronnie, my four-year-old son, is confused. "Why is there a tree growing in our house?" he asks, pointing to the thick trunk reaching up and out of the bathroom ceiling through a carefully crafted hole. It's a good point, but we've just arrived at our villa in Sri Panwa, on the south-east tip of Phuket in Thailand, after a 14-hour journey with two small children and, feeling slightly frazzled, an intelligent response escapes me.
The simple answer is that the tree is 100 years old and the man who built the villa, Vorasit Issara, a Thai local, didn't have the heart to chop it down. The same goes for every other tree on this 32-acre plot on a hill overlooking the aquamarine blue seas of Cape Panwa. The result of Wan's benevolence is that each of Sri Panwa's villas, and there are about 50 of them, appears as if it is swamped in the tropical undergrowth. Better still, each villa looks out over the Andaman Sea, and ocean views in Phuket these days are a hard to come by.
It has been 20 years since Aman Resorts opened its flagship, Amanpuri, in a coconut grove on the west coast of Phuket and introduced the island to the idea of private villa holidays. Nothing has been the same since: it placed Phuket firmly on the map, helped kick-start a decade-long property boom, and now, on the horrifyingly overdeveloped west coast, there isn't a slice of ocean-front land left untouched.
Having so little left to work with, the developers started looking further afield – to the north into Phan Nga, where Philippe Starck designed Cape Yamu, which opened recently, and to the east, where Sri Panwa sits. The land was originally bought by Wan's family as a place for a holiday home, but he spotted the potential and persuaded them to turn it into something more.
Wan's eco theme is continued throughout with sand-washed floors outside, pale local woods inside and walls brushed with coconut leaves to create a primitive textured pattern. The designers also, rather cleverly, borrowed a floral motif from the paving stones on the Talang Road in Phuket Old Town and used it on tiles and floors.
We had been planning a family holiday in Thailand since the birth of our second son, Huxley, and now that he was a year old it seemed like a good time to go. A villa really is the only option if you have a child of that age because it enables self-catering. Even so, the staff at Sri Panwa had prepared a bowl of spaghetti bolognaise for Ronnie on arrival, knowing that he would be hungry and probably wouldn't want to tuck straight into Thai food. In another child-friendly twist, we woke the next morning to find someone had come and thrown inflatables in our pool for the boys.
Thailand is also a good place to take young children because, unlike many parts of South-east Asia, no innoculations are required. There is also an endless supply of mango, banana and papaya, which means perfect baby food is always close to hand.
However, what I didn't realise was how much the Thais adore babies. We lost count of the number of times Huxley's cheeks got squeezed. Even in the illustrious confines of Baan Rim Pa, a restaurant perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the beach at Patong, and supposedly one of Phuket's best. The waiters took the baby off our hands and sang to him, for the duration of the meal.
One place to try cuisine of a more local extraction is in Phuket's Old Town. Apparently, only about 3 pe cent of visitors ever bother to go there, despite its lovely Sino-colonial architecture, built by Japanese workers who came in the 19th century to mine tin. Added to that old-world view are the new galleries, shops and restaurants that have started moving into its crumbling shopfronts.
We were sent by Nim, our guide at Sri Panwa, to a restaurant called Raya, set in a charming old colonial-style room with gorgeous green-glass windows and electrics hanging out of their sockets. It's run by the inimitable Madam Rose, who has been serving her version of Southern Thai cooking there for nearly 15 years. She'll help you order – the yellow crab curry and tamarind prawns are both favourites. Rose is often brought in to cook at Sri Panwa and she once had the terrifying job of catering for Gordon Ramsay when he stayed there – "We've found our second home," he is said to have commented.
One of the best things about Sri Panwa is its proximity to the cluster of tiny islands just off the south coast of Phuket. Sri Panwa organised a boat for us, but any one of the local fisherman will take you there in a traditional Thai longboat. It took just 20 minutes to get to Banana Bay on Koh Hai (Coral Island), where you get a wonderful glimpse of how these islands must have looked before the developers moved in. It's all ramshackle beachfront bars, delicious fisherman's food for less than a pound, and magnificent undamaged stretches of coral reef just 20 metres from the shore.
There's also Koh Lone, a slice of white sandy beach three kilometres long, with tropical jungle, populated by the odd palm farmer and a few monkeys. This beach is so deserted that when one longboat full of tourists once broke down there, the fisherman in charge had no choice but to dive into the Andaman and swim back to Phuket for help, dodging the sea traffic and tussling with the tide.
How to get there
EVA Air (020-7380 8300; evaair.com) flies to Bangkok from £510 per adult and £420 per child. Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; thaiairways.co.uk) offers transfers to Phuket from £141 per person. Seven nights at Sri Panwa (00 667 637 1000; sripanwa.com) costs from £5,283 for four sharing a two-bedroom, ocean-view pool villa, including transfers, breakfasts, free mini-bar, and a massage per adult.
Tourism Authority of Thailand (tourismthailand.co.uk).
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