We wandered down hand hewn stone steps, surrounded by greenery to a tiny peninsula in Phuket. The secluded spot, edged with swaying palm trees, overlooked Pansea Beach. The soundtrack was a gentle wind and white capped waves rolled against a stone jetty. A pretty Thai girl led us to a table, one of only four, perched above the sand. She adjusted a wooden chair and placed a crisply pressed white linen napkin in my lap. The menu was something one might see in Paris or London, not on a beach in Thailand. The chef’s prowess proved masterful and the cuisine was an unexpected delight – healthy, sophisticated and scrumptious. With a majestic palm tree acting as our umbrella, I looked out over the multi-hued sea, relaxed and satiated, this meal symbolizing the exquisite experience that is the Amanpuri Resort.
Brad, Angelina and their six children along with Jason Statham and his fiancée Rosie Huntington-Whiteley were among those who made the trip to Phuket this year. It’s a long flight, but once you touch down, the magic carpet rolls out. We were met by a white uniformed greeter who escorted us to a BMW that whisked us away. Out the window you see a poor third world country streaming by until you turn into the palm lined drive of the resort’s enchanted garden; teak buildings are built in the traditional Thai style with whimsical peaked winged roofs.
The architecture echoes the Royal Palace in Bangkok where King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit Kitiyakara live. Here you will find a clique of cognoscenti who are called “Aman Junkies”, because of their loyalty to the brand. The list includes Kate Moss, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Gates, Mick Jagger, Harrison Ford, Jay-Z and Beyoncé. The Amanpuri Phuket was built by Omar Amanant’s partner, hotelier Adrian Zecha in 1988. It was the first in the Aman Group of hotels and resorts that now span the globe from Turks & Caicos and Bali to Sri Lanka and Tibet.
In Phuket anything is possible. You can take a boat to James Bond Island where they filmed The Man with the Golden Gun or go ziplining at Flying Hanuman and enjoy the company of ladies or lady boys. But if you want to play with the big cats go to Tiger Kingdom. For 2,500 baht ($90) the keepers allow you to pose with and pet three sizes of Indochinese tigers. The trainers ease you into a tightly fenced area with double gated cages.
That’s when I should have turned back! The experience with the cubs was cute but the parents were scary especially when a gang of six monster sized cats started fighting in one corner of the pen while we were sitting 30 feet away stroking their father. The two “trainers” carried slim sticks and that was it between us and them. We escaped quickly but not before we took a stream of selfies holding the tiger’s tale. On the way out I jokingly asked if anyone had ever been killed. The trainer said “No, but a man did get bit in the leg last October and is coming back to face his fears NEXT year.” Great news! It was exciting but I’m not sure I’d have risked it if I’d heard that story first.
The Jet Set
There are two ways to stay at the Amanpuri. You can bunk down in one of the 30 private villas that are spread out over the hills looking down on the ocean. These range from a two-bedroom compound with private pool and separate areas for dining and lounging for $3,800 a day to an 8-bedroom house with a live-in housekeeper and chef for 14k a night. Billionaires, the jet set and stars including Pierce Brosnan, Jean-Claude Van Damme and One Direction’s Harry Styles, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik and Louis Tomlinson have all slept here. The management has been known to send out boats with security guards to bribe and shoo away the paparazzi who train their lenses on the guests.
For a romantic rendezvous, I’d suggest staying in one of their 40 Pavilions that face the sea and are near the beach, pool and restaurants. These rooms are spacious and well thought out; they also boast their own outdoor pagoda. The bedroom is a sleek dark wood cocoon with sliding teak doors and windows that either seal you in or open you to the views of the sea and the surrounding tropical gardens. Everyday there is surprise: the Buddha in your bedroom is draped with a fresh frangipani lei, floating orchids fill your tub that’s surrounded by lit candles, a package is sitting on your pillow bearing a gift of a white silk scarf, white orchid plants punctuate your room and fresh fruit and cookies are left on a tray. Service is silent and they time it so you never see it happening.
You can’t’ come to Phuket without being solicited to see a “sexy show.” The problem is there’s nothing sexy or fun about these ping pong shenanigans in the grungy, sad clubs that line Bargate Street, the town’s infamous red light district where they sell “sex” at a discount. In truth The Box in NYC does it better. What is fun is the Lady Boy show at Simon Cabaret. Over 80 transgender performers dress up like Ziegfeld Follies show girls and clump through campy routines in a fast paced hour-long show. Six of these Lady Boys are real stars, who look like a cross between delicate geishas and leggy Vegas showgirls. The costumes are as elaborate as anything Josephine Baker ever wore and they change clothes for every number with alarming speed. The Chinese Fan Dance was particularly convincing but the serious fun is in the side alley where the ladies and a dozen chorus boys line up for selfies. For 200 baht ($5.76) you get to pose with the “Lady “of your choice. Once on the street, these “ladies “get a little aggressive and their voices are anything but feminine. This is where they make their tips and they will do anything to get your attention. A few of them are “real beauties “as Andy Warhol used to say. I got the feeling some of these ladies would be willing to work after work, get it?
Between 4:30 and 5:30pm there is a ritual in the teahouse overlooking the pool. A gaggle of maidens make traditional Thai pancakes, the size of silver dollars, over a charcoal stove while a musician softly plays an indigenous instrument. These tiny treats are beyond yummy; try the banana, mango and chocolate, or go rogue and have one made with sweet onions. They melt in your mouth so you have to be careful not to eat too many. The ladies also serve cold ginger tea with mango juice and offer coconut cookies and pumpkin and banana bread if you want to switch things up. Luckily, tea time is exactly one hour or you’d need to wear a caftan to the beach. To work off the calories head to the hotel’s state of the art gym which sits on top of a bluff. Every treadmill offers a 360-degree view of the sea. You can hire a trainer to put you through your paces or there’s a yoga master who conducts morning classes. Sweat in Nirvana then recover in the elegant spa. It is a quiet oasis. My favorite treatment was the foot massage with Andaman sea salt and roasted coconuts.
We went swimming at sunset; the water was warm and the sun’s last rays reflected on the ocean as we body surfed and played in the waves like happy seals. As I swam it was hard to envision the tsunami that hit here in 2004. Thankfully, there are very few signs left of the devastation that it wrought. Later, the lapping waves lulled us to sleep in our beds.