Sunday, October 28, 2007

Due South.

On a recent week off, I felt the need to get on the road and add some serious mileage to the clock. So, eschewing a brief Bangkok Airways or AirAsia flight in favour of seeing a little more of the country of my residence, I decided to get behind the wheel of the trusty Fortuner for a 900 kilometre drive south.

Two days later, after a very comfortable journey broken in two parts by one-night sojourns in Ranong and Khao Lak, the Michelin tyres crossed the Thaksin bridge and made contact with the perfectly laid tarmac of Phuket province.

(An often overlooked part of Phuket’s appeal: semi-decent infrastructure. Think of a place somewhere between the cracked paving stones and dangling wires of Bangkok, and the decent roads, planted greenery and clean pathways of Singapore, and you’ve got an idea of the municipal geography of Phuket. It’s not perfectly laid out in the same way as Singapore is; but it’s considerably better than the rest of Thailand.)

Phuket’s irresistible charm lies in its geography. Long, sprawling white sand beaches. Tiny, secluded bays backed by towering peaks. Dramatic cliffs. Green mountaintops with views stretching forever. The winding roads of the west coast in particular are pathways to an astonishing variety of huge resorts, quirky little hotels, and charming guesthouses accessible only through coconut plantations. And the under-utilised east coast is home to dozens of tiny bays just made for whiling away shady afternoons as the sun passes behind the palm trees.

If I understood the receptionist of my hotel correctly, the Aspasia used to be a straightforward condominium apartment building, with each unit owned by private individuals.

I have no idea what kind of fool would ever sell an apartment in a place as gorgeous as this, but obviously there were a sufficient number of these imbeciles for the current owners to buy enough units to turn the place into a hotel.

Looking something like an Aztec temple clinging to the side of a hill overlooking Kata Beach, the Aspasia features a multi-storey swimming pool, huge rooms, superb bathrooms, balconies big enough to play tennis on, mesmerising views of the shimmering Andaman Sea framed by a modern-day equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and a sense of drama lacking from all but the most exceptional places of hospitality. There are a lot of very, very, very good hotels on Phuket. But I would find it very difficult not to stay at the Aspasia on any subsequent trips to the island.

Regarding food, there is no need for me to make any recommendations for dining, and including only a few would be unfair to the many great places that I wasn’t able to make it to. Suffice it to say that there are a number of excellent free publications available in most hotels detailing the wealth of eating and drinking options on the resort island.

Finally, it is my pleasure to announce that I have found the block of land on which my dream house will be built: away from the beach, at the end of a dirt track on the side of a mountain, with utterly spectacular views over perhaps ten or fifteen miles of winding coastline. (I would never have found it if I had not had the four-wheel-drive. And naturally, you’ll understand if I don’t divulge the exact location in the interests of keeping the area as long as possible in the same pristine state as it is today.)

If you go to Phuket, which you should, don’t automatically book your plane tickets. The drive is part of the fun, the roads are excellent and 900 kilometres isn’t as far as it sounds. I left Phuket early on the last day, enjoyed the gorgeous scenery of Phang-Nga Bay on the route across to Surat Thani, stopped for lunch about halfway, and felt sufficiently energised to make it back to Bangkok just before nightfall after a brief stop in Hua Hin for amaretto ice cream.

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