Pondering Phuket’s New Enchantment

  • A daybed in the poolside lounge at Point Yamu by Como.

    A daybed in the poolside lounge at Point Yamu by Como.

  • Sky Villas at Kata Rocks.

    Sky Villas at Kata Rocks.

  • Overlooking Layan Beach.

    Overlooking Layan Beach.

  • Bartenders at the Bongo Rum Bar on Surin Beach.

    Bartenders at the Bongo Rum Bar on Surin Beach.

  • Nikki Beach has upped the local ante for beachside bacchanalia with sunset fire shows and didgeridoo sessions.

    Nikki Beach has upped the local ante for beachside bacchanalia with sunset fire shows and didgeridoo sessions.

  • Catching some sun on Koh Rang Yai, offshore from Cape Yamu.

    Catching some sun on Koh Rang Yai, offshore from Cape Yamu.

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I eventually made my way back to my scooter and left the parade behind—there’s only so much flagellation one can stomach. Thankfully, in recent years the Old Town has become known for more than just this annual display of blood and glory. Indeed, many of Phuket’s most exciting new bars and restaurants are opening up in this part of the island.

This ever-expanding list including Wonderland, a collaboration between a group of Phuket-based entrepreneurs: French couple Thibault Spithakis and Marine Lucchini, who own the Chalong Bay Rum distillery; Irish interior designer Brian Woulfe; Thai designer Walaya Parama; and restaurateur Chawalit Ratanachinakorn. Antique-style chandeliers hang from the rafters of the old shophouse that the cocktail lounge inhabits, barely illuminating the red-hued interior and its plush, high-backed armchairs. On one wall hangs a pair of chrome-plated rhino heads, like prized trophies, while waiters, bearing trays of cocktails and canapés, patrol the floor in oversize top hats worthy of (who else?) the Mad Hatter. Out back is a dining room and a garden with pet rabbits. Later at night, things have been known to get a little weird, with the owners dressing up as giant bunnies, donning feathered hats, and doing their very best to make you feel just like Lewis Carroll’s poor Alice.

Of course, it’s not just the Old Town that has been revitalized in the last year. All around the sunbaked coastline a slew of high-end resorts have opened, many with designer interiors and views to match. This list includes the new Point Yamu by Como, part of the Singapore-based hotel group. It occupies a headland on a relatively remote east-coast peninsula; you’d be hard-pressed to find a quieter location on the island. The look of the property, by Italian designer Paola Navone, respects this sense of solitude by embracing the serene surroundings, using a simple color scheme of white, gray, and aquamarine, albeit livened up with playful details such as the lobby’s 3D design wooden pixel walls, ceiling lamps made from lobster traps, and hand-cut mosaic tiled pillars. Guest rooms have mod-Mediterranean flavor infused with clever references to local heritage, such as the Peranakan patterning on the cement floor tiles, or the occasional splash of orange that recalls a Thai monk’s robe. Equally alluring is the chiar-oscuro of its corridors and walkways, with their changing patterns of light and shadow that follow the movement of Phuket’s hot tropical sun.

Over on the west coast, Kata Rocks is also chasing the sun. The brainchild of British developer Richard Pope, this stunning resort-cum-residences features “Sky Villas” that are available for both holiday stays or as investment properties. Interactive iPad technology controls the settings in the villas, all of which boast their own private infinity pools. There’s also a holistic spa, a bar, a 35-meter-long lap pool, and an oceanfront restaurant overseen by Australian chef Steve Baker, whose market-driven contemporary menu includes sesame prawns dressed in nuoc cham, and Wagyu tenderloin served with olive gremolata and wild mushrooms.

Of Kata Rocks’ location, Pope once told me, “I heard about this piece of land in Kata. It was very expensive, but I went to have a look, and it turned out to be one of those pieces of land you just can’t walk away from.” He wasn’t joking. Whereas Point Yamu looks out across the karst-studded waters of Phang Nga Bay, the view from Kata Rock’s hillside-hugging white villas, which resemble a futuristic version of those found in Greece’s Santorini, is almost due west across the Andaman Sea, the only break in the deep blue horizon being tiny Koh Pu (“Crab Island”) and, at day’s end, the lushly colored sunsets.

Of course, as much as he’d like to, Pope doesn’t have a monopoly on amazing sunsets. Up at Layan Beach in the northwest, just minutes from another newly minted resort (the Anantara Layan), global beach-club giant Nikki Beach debuted in January. While Phuket has no shortage of beach clubs—take, for example, Bimi, a cool daytime spot run by hip Surin hotel Twin Palms, complete with lounge beds and a beautiful bikini- and boardie-clad crowd; or Xana by Attica, which has made a name for itself by hosting big name DJs like Paul Oakenfold and Frankie Knuckles—Nikki is the big one, an international franchise with locations in Ibiza, St.-Tropez, Cabo San Lucas, and Miami Beach, not to mention Koh Samui. Its grand opening attracted not only the island’s great and good, but also a host of celebrities such as Jean-Claude Van Damme and Twilight’s Kellen Lutz. With its rows of daybeds set around a central pool, evening fire shows, and weekly themed events that include caviar and champagne Wednesdays, Nikki Beach has taken Phuket’s seaside scene to a new level.

For me, though, the reason I remain in Phuket lies far away from the glitz and the hype.

On a recent weekend, we packed the kids into the car and drove the short distance from our home to Rawai, a small beach town in the south of the island. We pulled up by a little thatched hut on the pavement and hailed one of a group of boatmen wearing matching blue T-shirts. After some lighthearted bargaining in Thai, we agreed to a price, and—after unloading our bags and parking the car—followed him down to his longtail boat, moored just offshore. It was only 9 a.m., but already the sun was burning down through the cloudless skies. With my son by my side, we counted the fishing boats headed to the rich waters south of Phuket, and laughed as we were sprayed by waves crashing against the bow. Our destination was Coral Island, a 30-minute boat ride away, where you can eat fresh seafood on the beach, swim with tropical fish, and build sandcastles in the shade. You can’t do this in Bangkok.

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