Thailand: Going beyond The Beach

By Cherry Wilson

Cherry Wilson needs less than a day to decide she wants to stay on Koh Phangan in Thailand for ever.
Bamboo Island is one of Thailand's beautiful coastal spots.  Photo / 123RF
Bamboo Island is one of Thailand's beautiful coastal spots. Photo / 123RF

Calm washes over me as I listen to the soothing chants of a monk praying in the early-morning sun.

His voice echoes around the Buddhist temple as he blesses water in a golden bowl and sprinkles it on the crowd of visitors.

A Buddha statue watches over me as I kneel by the monk's feet and present my "tham boon" donation, a humble basket of tea bags, washing powder and biscuits. Giving such donations is a tradition believed to be "merit making" and - it's hoped - will bring me health, wealth, happiness and good life.

"Light your incense now and pray for something you would like," my guide instructs me.

I've been on the island of Koh Phangan for just 24 hours but my wish is a simple one: to stay here forever.

Koh Phangan is famous for its full-moon parties, and the legendary gatherings now appeal to backpackers and wealthy visitors. But, right now, it's hard to imagine how the peace could be disrupted by a monthly rave.

As I sip a passionfruit cocktail on a private speedboat gliding along the beautiful coastline, I can understand why the 2000 film The Beach was set in this paradise.

Later, enjoying a spot of snorkelling in the warm, crystal-clear Indian Ocean, I also feel as if I'm part of an exclusive set of visitors who have been lucky enough to find the secret hideaway.

This exclusivity extends to the five-star Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan Resort & Spa, an elegant and romantic hideaway with luscious gardens and a floating bar by the seafront.

Guests are encouraged to explore the premises barefoot, and I happily disregard shoes during my stay.

It feels as if I'm walking on clouds as I stroll along the beach to a table set up for private dining that evening. The entertainment matches the spectacle of the food, with a fire-thrower juggling flames while we eat.

It would be easy to spend my entire trip lounging on the resort's beanbags on the beach, or enjoying a neck massage in the rainforest setting of the spa. But a short walk to the nearby village provides added attractions, with a Thai nail salon, reggae bar and boutique shops to explore.

"Koh Phangan used to be a backpackers' island," general manager Markus Krebs says.

"There's still a section that is, but we're on the other side of the island, which is more about luxury. We have guests staying who are in their early 40s and used to be backpackers. They still want the experience of Thailand, but they also want luxury."

The explosion of tourism, though, has come at a price.

Leonardo DiCaprio's The Beach was filmed on Maya Beach on the Phi Phi Islands.
Leonardo DiCaprio's The Beach was filmed on Maya Beach on the Phi Phi Islands.


On a day trip to Maya Beach on the Phi Phi Islands, where actor Leonardo DiCaprio marked his footsteps while filming The Beach, I have to fight my way through crowds.

More than a dozen boats line up along the shore while their captains wait for snap-happy tourists to get enough shots of the spot.

"In the morning, there can be hundreds of boats here," our guide says. "There will be no room for you to sit on the beach. Do that, and someone can stamp on your head. It can even cause fighting."

On Ko Phi Phi Don, a stunning natural paradise, I flinch when I walk past an American 7/11 convenience store. There are also souvenir shops selling "I love Phuket" T-shirts and beach bags.

Fortunately, the coastline is dotted with dozens of other spots that offer a more secluded island experience.

I snorkel in the turquoise waters around Bamboo Island and jump from the boat into Ko Phi Phi Leh lagoon, without worrying about needing to elbow another tourist out of the way.

After a long day exploring Phuket, I head to the Anantara Phuket Layan Resort & Spa, where I'm made to feel like the only guest.

The resort benefits from being near the island's attractions yet lies just far enough away from the hustle and bustle.

The property is practically full at the time of my visit, but there are still hidden pockets of space - from the yoga stage by the vibrant lake, to the library overlooking the beach.

The dining here is also a delight. Chef Umburto displays an infectious passion for food and his presentation of snow fish under a smoked-filled dome looks as if it has come straight from a theatre show. "Will you marry me?" a delighted diner asks after he serves his latest culinary spectacle of lobster.

Thailand's identity has changed rapidly in the past decade to accommodate needs of the Western visitor. But there has been little compromise on what tourists hold so dear about island life: sunshine, food, beaches, sea and, most importantly, great hospitality.

Governments come and go, leaders are ousted and music tastes change. But Thailand's holiday appeal is a certainty that will never fade.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Bangkok via Sydney. Return Economy fares start from $1136, all inclusive. qantas.co.nz

- AAP

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