Finding paradise

It’s a short bridge across to the island; two hundred years ago people used to make the journey by elephant-back. The spoke-like rows of rubber trees rhythmically passing by in a car today are immediately hypnotic. Upright as sentries and organised as if for parade, the trees create a canopy that looks cool and inviting. Spiky fields of squatting pineapples, almost bleached colourless by the sun, provide a sharp contrast every now and again, and great gaping red wounds of earth holding puddles of water, a legacy of the island’s marriage to tin, are also surprising.

This is Phuket, probably the most written-about island in Thailand. I’d heard so much I’d stopped listening: it would be full of resorts, lots of crowded beaches and a multitude of restaurants a la Mauritius or the Maldives. I pondered why I was holidaying here as we headed down to Phuket Town, located inland on the southeast of the island: my budget wouldn’t allow for a splurge at Le Royal Meridian or Laguna, sunning myself on a beach was out due to a recent operation, and as som tham, grilled pork sticks and freshly-cubed pineapple keep me quite happy, the restaurants would be superfluous. Well, I’d see. My partner and I would find the flip-side to all those tourist brochures if it meant learning five-tone Thai.

While Phuket and its tin was a prized asset over which the Malays, Burmese and Thais fought, it’s the influence of those who worked the mines, the Chinese immigrants, that’s lingered through to today. The shophouses left by Chinese traders are prominently dotted along central Yaowarat, Thalang and Takuapa Roads in Phuket Town. Some are dilapidated, but others are being tastefully restored as restaurants and antique shops as their value becomes appreciated by younger Thais. Colourful Chinese temples also dot the town.

While even the Novotel has a presence in Phuket Town, we chose to stay at the more budget-friendly—and more charismatic—On On Hotel. A Chinese brothel in the 1920s, the hotel today retains the grace of a faded old beauty with sweeping wooden hallways and a grandiose reception. It’s very basic, but charmingly reminiscent of a gracious bygone era.

We headed out to dinner. Kajok See, a restaurant without a signpost—always a promising sign in itself—had come recommended. Situated in an old shophouse, the peeling walls, thoughtful flower arrangements, unobtrusive music and Thai decorations create a seductive ambience. The candles that emerged due to a blackout shortly after arrival only served to heighten the mood, and the food didn’t disappoint: their crunchy green mango salad with tiny dried shrimp and cashew nuts was enough to turn a girl off street food for life.

The time had come to hit a Thai bar. We headed first to the Khon Thai, where we were punished with icy airconditioning for being way too early. Things got going by 10 pm, the cover band raised the temperature and by the time we departed it was difficult to find a seat. The cover band (why are they always covers in Thailand?) at The Timber & Rock, our next stop, was generating mass crowd singalongs as we pulled up a seat at the bar, ordered some beers and muu manao (grilled pork with chilli, lime juice, chilli, garlic and chilli), and learned how Thais let their hair down. And on a Monday night!

It would have been easy to let our days turn to nights and dance the holiday away, but we were committed to serious exploration. So we hired a motorbike and headed out to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project at Bang Pae waterfall. Established in 1992, the program’s goal is to save gibbons and their rainforest habitat via rehabilitation and education. At the Project’s centre, visitors are treated to a short tour by a volunteer who explains the program in detail. You won’t get to see the animals up close, as the objective of the program is to actually reduce contact with humans. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm our guide showed as she regaled us with tales of various ape antics more than made up for this.

Heading back south, a stop at the National Museum was in order. Housed in a spacious building, the museum looks not just at the history of Phuket, but of all of Thailand. Look out for the intriguing maps that trace the development of Bangkok. While the English translations are not always up to scratch, the museum still provides a fair Thailand-in-a-nutshell overview. The international tourist flying directly to Phuket for what they think is a holiday in Thailand should definitely make a stop here. Unfortunately, the museum was completely deserted during our visit.

The Butterfly Garden and Aquarium was next, a tranquil comma in an otherwise hectic day. A combined tropical garden, mini-zoo, insect display and aquarium make for a pleasant Thai flora and fauna experience—although some foreign species do make cameo appearances. Watch out for the friendly mynah bird who’ll be waiting to say hello, and the glassed-in cage containing masses of writhing black scorpions.

Our second dinner in Phuket Town was also memorable. Eclectic decorations make for a unique atmosphere to feast on excellent and very well-priced Thai food at Natural Restaurant, a haunt popular with local Thais. Try the steamed prawns in tamarind juice, and the stuffed squid in green curry. And there are the not-even-trying-to-be-authentic-because-we-are Thai-desserts to finish with.

Over the course of the next few days, we ventured to a variety of other places worth recommending. Stop for lunch at Tunk Ka on Khao Rang Hill in Phuket Town for a great Thai meal with a great view of the surrounds. Make sure you try the ‘Fried cashews with dried shrimp and young pepper, Tunk Ka style’ with a cold Singha beer. A trip to Chalong Bay is a must, both for the azure-blue bay scenery, and seafood lunch at Kanaeng Restaurant. Take a peaceful and enlightening walk among the mangroves in Sirinat National Park, which can be reached by songtheaw, even though you may have to squint at the sun-faded explanatory texts. A motorbike drive from Kata Beach to Cape Promthep will give you more than enough postcard-perfect views of beaches; time your drive to finish with sunset at the cape. And a two-hour visit to Siam Safari is a way to get close to some elephants while helping to support a company that actually helps the elephants.

Sure, we flirted with the Patong beach scene. The US Navy was in town, there was some shopping to be done, I succumbed to the desire for a steak: we could have been in any international resort town in the tropics. We had, however, done more than enough to be satisfied that we knew exactly where we were. And we were more than just pleased to be there.


  • The On On Hotel, at 19 Phangnga Rd has basic single rooms (with a double bed and fan) for 150 baht.
  • Kajok See is located at 26 Takuapa Rd, Phuket Town. Open Tues–Sun evenings. 300–400 baht for two people.
  • Natural Restaurant is located at 62/5 Soi Puton, Phuket Town. Open Tues–Sun, lunch and dinner. 200 baht for two people.
  • The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project is located at Bang Pae Waterfall, Pa Khlock, Thalang, and is best reached by motorbike. Free guided tour, voluntary donation appreciated. Paid volunteers run the Project, cost depends on length of stay. Contact (076) 260 492 for details.
  • The National Museum is open daily 9am–5pm. Located just east of the Heroine’s Monument. Entrance is 30 baht.
  • The Butterfly Garden and Aquarium is open daily 9am–5pm. Located 2km north of Phuket Town. Entrance is 150 baht.
  • Recommended guides: Heritage Phuket Holiday Guide by Ken Scott, available from Asia Books in Thailand for 120 baht.

Take time to unwind at Tamarind Springs

Going on a holiday? Feeling torpid, exhausted, lethargic or just plain lazy? If you’re heading to Ko Samui, the doctor would definitely prescribe a half-day treatment at Tamarind Springs, a boutique day herbal steam and massage spa.

They’ll provide everything from your sarongs to your thongs; all you need to do is present your weary, drooping body to the reception sala – after booking well in advance to get in, judging by the number of people being turned away while I was there around New Year.

Open now for nearly 18 months, the peaceful open-air spa is a beautifully-designed oasis within the oasis of Samui itself. It’s located off the main ring road leading from Lamai to Chaweng, and although you can’t see the ocean while you’re relaxing in the cool dipping pool or unwinding under your masseuse’s powerful fingers, the gently swaying coconut palms will undoubtedly convince you that you’re still on a tropical island.

The basic treatment is simply the herbal steam itself, which is reputed to improve circulation, expel bodily toxins, clear respiratory passages and assist digestion. It also soothes muscles and can act as a skin tonic.

Built snugly between two boulders on the slope of a hill, the steam room at Tamarind Springs is naturally lit by sunlight filtering through windows placed at one end, giving a sense of openness and airiness unusual in such rooms. The temperature is kept between 35 and 45 degrees, a little cooler than dry saunas, which allows you to stay inside for that little bit longer.

After your skin and your sinuses have imbibed enough of the rejuvenating mixture – which includes lemon grass, tamarind leaves, lime leaves, prai (a ginger-like root), beach morning glory and turmeric – head to the dipping pool just outside the door. A plunge in the pool seems to shock each and every pore, leaving you zapped with energy. Use the phone to order a yoghurt fruit shake, juice, beer or herbal tea from the restaurant and take it easy by the pool.

While the upright plastic chairs on offer don’t exactly encourage lounging around, the majority of clients seem to steam, dip and head for a treatment immediately afterwards anyway – a shame really, as the small area outside the steam room and by the pool would be a pleasant spot to laze for a bit.

The treatment area is located in another wooden sala , a little further up the hill. As only around a dozen people can be worked on at any one time, the space is never in any danger of losing its distinct secluded calm. Superimposed upon the relaxation music, the occasional rhythmic slapping of flesh and the odd bird call simply add to the overall ambience.

Various individual or combination treatments are on offer. I lusted after the four-hour Divine Decadence Bt1700 package – a herbal steam, 90 minute relaxation massage – which is a little less strenuous than Thai massage and places special emphasis on the neck, shoulders, and back – a khamin and prai facial, and a wild mint foot massage. Alas, I didn’t book in time and had to settle (it was tough!) for a 1200Bt Sheer Indulgence set instead – a steam, one-hour relaxation massage, and a half hour additional massage (of the face or feet). Another option is the Traditional Thai pack, with a steam and two hour traditional Thai massage.

All of the options are individually priced, so you can design your own treatment if you wish. The basic steam is priced at Bt450.

One of the biggest decisions you will be required to make should you choose a package with a relaxation massage, is which aromatic oil to use. The delicious options may leave you pondering for some time: there’s nutmeg, which is particularly good for a deep tissue massage, or perhaps relaxing ylang ylang, or prai, which is prized for its skin-conditioning qualities. Or there’s stimulating tangerine (my favourite!), invigorating wild mint or lastly, lemongrass, which is good for improving the breathing.

Certainly, the prices are not cheap when compared to your typical beach masseuse, or even some of the other spas that are springing up over the island. My foot massage was not necessarily better than others I have had, but my relaxation massage was a revelation, and the superb surroundings – the gardens, the immaculate salas, the stylish locker rooms – are worth paying extra to enjoy.

And it’s the small touches such as the friendly, helpful staff and the complimentary Tamarind Springs’ shampoos and conditioners in the showers that will keep people coming back.

After your session, you can retire to the restaurant space in the upstairs section of the reception sala, decorated with some really lovely pieces of furniture. At the moment, the restaurant offers only drinks and light snacks such as carrot cake and fruit salad.

One comment in the guestbook says it all: ‘This is not Koh Samui. I have been transported to heaven.’

Tamarind Springs is open 11am to 8pm, bookings highly recommended. Phone (077) 424 436 or 230 571. Tamarind Hill Retreat’s website is at

Love can wait: Emma Suwannalat

How do you write about a star who just won’t behave like one? A star who won’t stamp her delicate foot, pout and complain, or brag about her achievements?

Naturally charming Emma Suwannalat exemplifies the kind of person you’d like to have coffee and a chat with. A best friend, a sister – these are real life roles you can imagine her playing to perfection.

But a successful model, actor, and ambassador to Thailand for Baume & Mercier? You wouldn’t guess so from her modest behaviour.

Emma, who is of Thai-Irish parentage, is unfazed by the success she admits she never had ambitions for.

“A few years ago I was at university in England, living an ordinary student life. I didn’t care about makeup or looking good – that sort of stuff never interested me,” she says.

Her rise to fame began when the English Thai community organised a pageant as part of the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of His Majesty the King’s ascension to the throne. She agreed to make up numbers by entering – and won.

Agents approached her to come to Thailand to work after her photo appeared here. And still it wasn’t the lure of fame or fortune that attracted her.

“I’d been studying for a while and wanted a break. I wanted to visit my relations and explore Thailand,” Emma explains.

Some break! Emma entered Miss Thailand, came first runner up and went on to win Miss Asia Pacific in 1997. Since then she hasn’t looked back, winning modelling jobs and making a successful move into the world of Thai soap operas.

“After I won Miss Asia Pacific, a number of producers approached me. I had never trained in acting, and didn’t really have any great interest in it. But certain producers kept on calling me, so eventually I thought why not? And it was like a bug.”

Emma is now working on a soap opera called Angkor, in a role she enthusiastically accepted two years ago. “You get so many scripts coming in – but you want to do something you can relate to. This was a character I really wanted to play – a Cambodian refugee who comes to Thailand.”

Another career boost occurred when watchmakers Baume & Mercier approached her to be their first ambassador to Thailand. “I was interested, so I went to see them. I really liked their stuff and we got on well. Now I represent them, which means doing some modelling – and wearing their watches!”

To top things off, Emma has returned to her studies, switching from history and sociology to marketing. “I’ve met a lot of people since I’ve been working, and seen life from a different perspective. I’ve studied humanities for a long time but I’ve never touched business subjects. I wanted to become a more well-rounded person.”

Emma confesses that there are some aspects of the modelling business that bother her. “When you work in this industry and you see behind the scenes, you realise it’s all about money-making. There’s a lot of falseness about it… But I’m working in it, and doing well out of it, so I can’t complain.”

The permanent move here wasn’t smooth, despite her previous trips to Thailand with her family. “At first I hated it. The traffic here in Bangkok really got to me. I wouldn’t drive and I didn’t want to eat food off the street. Now I love it! You really do adapt. I love the people, I love the variety of food, I love the colour, I love the lifestyle.”

Turning to romance, and specifically Valentine’s Day, Emma laughs when I ask her what her ideal romantic day would be.

“Well – IF I had a boyfriend – it would definitely have to be somewhere where there’s just the two of us! I’m a very romantic person. It would need to be idyllic – I like seasides, so maybe somewhere in the south of Thailand. There would need to atmosphere, dinner, candles, champagne…”

She grows a little serious as she reveals that she has never been in love or had a serious relationship. “ Growing up, I was never really interested in boys. I was good at sports, I focused on study. And then at 18 I came out here, and I’ve been working, working, working!”

But Emma is certainly content as an independent woman.

“For me, it’s not necessary to have a boyfriend. I think women should learn to love themselves – you don’t need a man to make your life full. In just the last three years, I’ve done so much, and I didn’t need some guy there helping me out. Of course, in the future, I would love to have a husband and family – but for now, things like that are taking a back seat.”

If she had her pick of men – and some might say that she does – would she prefer someone from Thailand, or a westerner?

“Well – I don’t know. I’m not fussy! Having grown up in Europe, maybe I would prefer a European guy. But at the end of the day, when you meet someone and they’re for you, it doesn’t matter where they are from.”

If she meets the right guy, he needn’t worry about making the first move. “It’s definitely okay for the woman to make the first move! In Thailand, it has to be the guy, and it has to be really slow, if it’s traditional. But for me, it can be the guy or the girl – whoever, so long as somebody does!”

And as for the future?

“In ten years time, if I see myself anywhere, it would definitely be travelling – South America, India, Africa – or maybe living on a different continent. In terms of career, though, I’m not sure. Before, I tried to plan, but nothing has turned out as I expected. I’m doing things I never dreamed of doing.”

If personality, manners and attitude have anything to do with it, Emma Suwannalat may well keep living beyond her dreams.