I arrive in Phuket from Bangkok fresh and raring to go. I love cities but was starting to ache for the smell of the tropics and the sound of the ocean.
My first and only stop is the Paresa resort carved into the side of the Kamala Hills in Phuket for the second leg of my Thailand Guest Chef Tour.
The Paresa resort is, in a word – paradise. Literally, one of the most beautiful places I have stayed. Each room faces the ocean on a cliff edge with your own mini infinity pool and the entire front of the villa is glass; sit on the toilet – glass looking out to the ocean, have a bath – glass looking out to the ocean, have a shower..you get the picture.
Below is a quick video peek at my room..
I am staying in one of the most romantic environments I have experienced (besides my bedroom back home – BOOM!) and I am on my own.
Solitary confinement in paradise.
Speaking bluntly you need to make love in the pool, you need to wake in the arms of your lover as you look up from your bed to see a vast turquoise ocean view. I stand there for a few moments to soak in the moment and wonder what to do first.
I hit the mini bar and go for a walk.
The resort itself is just delicious; the perfect balance of rustic nature and five star elegance and service. Crafted in the cliff the sounds of the forests surround, the notes of crashing waves in the distance and the best G&T I’ve had in a while.
I’m staying at the Paresa in preparation for a two-night intimate VIP dinner that I’ve been brought in to cook for as their guest chef – more about that here, but for now let’s talk Phuket.
On the nights when I didn’t want to be the solitary figure in the restaurant surrounded by couples gazing into each others eyes I jump a taxi into Patong; specifically Bangla Road; the carnage epicentre of Phuket.
Immediately what strikes me is the difference between Bangkok and Phuket; obviously Phuket is a beach resort and Bangkok is a city; but in Bangkok the mix of people is huge; in Patong it is tourists. Just tourists and touts, oh, and ladyboys.
I find a bar with a relatively low hooker-to-tourist ratio grab a beer and watch the world go by which is one of my favourite pastimes. I have a chat with some of the staff and a couple of the working girls say hello but I make it clear I’m ‘not looking’ and they happily chat away until a more suited target comes within range.
Whilst I’m watching the flow of mayhem along Bangla road one thing strikes me – the total contradiction of it all.
I need to paint the scene; you have beautiful six foot lady-boys dressed liked Priscilla Queen of the Desert offering to have their picture taken with you for 100Bhat (about £2), you’ve got touts waving flyers for ping pong shows, cheap beers and cigarette sellers. There’s a few random low-key hookers wandering around but the majority of the flow made up of tourists.
Opposite the bar I’m sitting in is another go-go bar with girls dangling upside down on poles and dancing on stage whilst a heavy constant flow of tourists meander up and down the strip with camera phones held high and the occasional video call taking place to show off the nightlife back home. The tourists are all encompassing; eastern, western, couples, groups of guys and gals and a few, what looks like to be, OAP birthday parties.
But then there are also the families; the kids. Western tourists having a wander with a youngster on daddy’s shoulders and the older ones holding mums hand with their mouths slightly agape.
Bangla road might be X-rated but the clientele start at PG.
And it was kind of cool. I started chatting to couple from Holland who were sitting next to me with their grandmother. They had two kids (about 9 and 7) that were just in the thick of it in front of us playing in the street about 9 at night. They were firing those glow in the dark helicopters thingy’s into the air and watching them land on people. No one minded, no one cared. The lady boys in full drag screamed and giggled when the helicopter thingy landed on them whilst simultaneously winking at the guys walking past.
Others just diverted around the kids and the flying fluorescent toys.
At one point one of the helicopters broke and I watch a local tout pick it up, have a look, put it in her bag and pulled out a brand new one for the kid to have. She didn’t ask for any money, just showed the kid how to use it and carried on.
That was the moment I fell I love. I adored that amongst all of it; the Thai’s natural love for family, children and hospitality shines through.
It was a surreal current of innocence amongst a river of sordidness.
Ladyboys, Pickpockets and Drunken Tourists
So when I say Drunken Tourists – I mean me.
I’d been out with a couple of the guys from the kitchen after work who showed me a whistle stop tour of the bars in Patong, at the end of the night I found myself slightly tipsy strolling along the streets of Patong looking for a taxi.
Now I pride myself in having walked much of the world semi-drunk looking for a taxi in the early hours so I was quite happy with my well deserved night out.
It was about 3 in the morning and still plenty of life happening in Patong but the PG rating has disappeared and the streets were starting to thin out.
I know many people travel with a special ‘travel wallet’ or ‘fanny pack’ as my American friends would fashion but I’ve always figured if I’ve spent most of my life in and around London and traveled the world with my regular run of the mill wallet in my back pocket and never had a problem, why bother suddenly donning a fanny pack. More to the point; what self respecting Brit could go into a shop and ask to buy a fanny pack?
I’m not keen on fanny packs – they always ruin the line of the clothes I’m wearing. Sounds shallow? Probably.
So I’m wandering down a street and the usual words float through the air; “massage handsome man?” (they don’t usually say handsome man at the end to me but I figure a little poetic license is OK), contrary to popular belief I’ve never heard “love you long time”.
I shuffle onwards towards the end of a road where I can see a bunch of guys hanging around next to their vacant cabs. I have the business card of the resort I’m staying in ready to flash as trying to describe where the Paresa resort is, especially for a guy with no sense of direction is a fruitless task. Usually I just show the card, ask how much, quibble for a few seconds then jump in.
On this occasion one of the ubiquitous lady-boys on the street grabs my arm asking for a goodtime, I mumble no thanks, tense a little at 1. she/he is about a foot taller than me and 2. has a grip that a Greek arm-wrestling sailor would be proud of.
This is a usual scenario, and usually a smile and shake of the head with a polite ‘no thanks’ is all it takes and the banter is kinda fun.
However on this occasion the lady-boy in question, also proceeded to give my crown jewels a quick squeeze. Needless to say I jumped a little and was a little more stern in my polite decline. With almost lightening speed she turned and started walking away. At this point my ‘tick’ of performing what looks like a scene from a line dancing contest takes place; I slap my trouser pockets in turn checking off my mental checklist of things I need to live.
Slap, slap, slap, phone – check, villa keys – check, cigarettes – check (I know…but I my vape ran out of batteries and I was drunk), wallet – check. HOLD ON! NO WALLET!
I immediately spun round and ran back after her. Once I caught up I reverted to old school London tactics “oi! right you, hand it over – you got my wallet!”.
At first she pulls down her top to reveal her, quite magnificent, breasts which I presumed was a tentative try at negotiation. I shake my head and say “wallet”, whilst trying not to stare at her top.
And this is the point where once again I really fell in love with Thailand, not because of her breasts, but she pulls her top up, slips a hand somewhere under her garments and gives me my wallet. Nice.
I open it; all cards are present, but no cash. I sternly say; “and the rest, all the money” so she gives me a 1000 Bhat note, I ask again, and like a pickpocket ATM she pulls out another, I ask again and another appears. Now I remember having about 3000 in notes (about £75) plus another £10-£15 in smaller change. I ask for the rest which she stops at.
We have a stale-mate, she’s starting to look a little aggravated. And she’s big, bigger than me, and strong, stronger than me and she’s local and I’m not.
At this point I take the philosophical view that I’ve got pretty much everything back and I’ve in essence paid £15 for the privilege of having a decent story to tell when I get home. So I take my money, put it in my wallet, wag my finger at her. She smiles. And I shuffle onwards to the taxi rank and head home.
And that’s what I love about Thailand, OK I got pick pocketed. But there was no aggression, she took it as a fair-cop when I confronted her and basically gave me most of it back. Maybe if I would have pushed to get every last penny back and been more hostile it may have ended differently. But I didn’t and it didn’t. I wasn’t angry, if anything, I had a smile on my face for enjoying a fleeting adventure.
You need a little adventure in life.
I finally get back to my villa, fall onto my bed, listen to the sound of waves crashing and squint a little as sunlight just starts to nudge the darkness of night from the sky. I floated to sleep thinking what a nice young ladyboy pickpocket – so polite.
In the morning I mentioned my experience to a few expats which was met with hearty laughter and a comment of – now you’ve properly arrived in Phuket! So a right of passage for the expats it seems..
Phuket is a busy place, Patong is carnage but it’s unfair to type-cast an entire region based on one road. Phuket has a very discrete and close expat community who are warm and very friendly and have carved a wonderful life (and business) in a beautiful place and have lived there for years, if not decades.
Phuket town is a fairly standard bustling town of Thai and expats getting on with life with little tourist interaction. There is a great market in Phuket for tourists and locals alike and for regular shopping its great.
I won’t muck about; Patong is firmly established as one of the red light hot spots of Thailand and if you want go-go bars, good time girls or boys or something with a little bit of both you’ve hit the jackpot, but it’s also a cool place to just go out, watch the world and have some drinks. In fact My wife and I were there about 12 years ago and did very much that; admired the costumes of the glamorous lady boys and just went out drinking.
The street food is brilliant, the markets are good, the beaches are beautiful. Phuket also has the best restaurant in Thailand outside Bangkok (which I had the pleasure to go one night – Aqua owned by a brilliant Sardinian chef who joined us for a drink) and it’s a good place to be.
Phuket is becoming more and more established as a luxury resort destination and that’s where I think Phuket is making a name for itself. There are some of the most luxurious and exclusive resorts in Thailand residing in Phuket. This is also reflected in the clientele; for sure you have the usual tourists but there is also the social elite (from around the world; Russians, Brits, Americans, Australians, etc.) that are independently wealthy and enjoy Phuket as their million dollar bolt hole in the sun.
For sure there are better beaches in Thailand and on the islands but the level of service and luxury that is built and being built in Phuket is making it a destination for anyone that wants to submerge themselves in tropical luxury with hot weather, dramatic landscapes and can dip their toe into the local life whilst having a gold plated oasis with their room number on it waiting only 20 minutes away.
Would I visit Phuket again – in a heartbeat!
Check out my travel Bangkok article, or read up more on my guest chef tour of Bangkok and my event at the Paresa resort in Phuket.
Alternatively if you’re after Thai street food info check this out!