Despite the weather gods frowning down on him, Shamus Sillar finds plenty to enjoy about his first taste of Thailand’s Phang Nga Province.
At 11 o’clock on the morning of our Aussie wedding several years ago, my bride rang me in tears. She was sitting in the hair salon preparing for her march down the aisle while watching horizontal sheets of brutal rain beat against the windows of the shop. The prospects for our outdoor ceremony later in the day were looking grim indeed.
“What are we going to do?” she sobbed, and I imagined her dabbing a tissue at a drizzle of mascara rolling down her cheek.
I tried to reassure her that everything would be okay, but all I could see in the sky was a grey squall surrounded by a perfect circle of menacing thunderclouds – the kind of image you might see on the cover of National Geographic. My groomsmen referred to this weather phenomenon (rather unkindly, I felt) as “The Black Doughnut of Death”.
With this in mind, it was déjà vu when my now wife and I saw the headline in the Bangkok Post before flying out to Thailand recently to celebrate the anniversary of our very wet wedding: “Massive downpour leaves Phuket reeling”.
The southwest monsoon was in full effect. Sure enough, we landed at Phuket Airport in torrential rain. And while we weren’t actually staying on the island of Phuket, our destination, nearby Phang Nga Province, was just as bad, with warnings of flash flooding.
Of course, this was entirely our fault for holidaying during the Andaman coast’s rainy season (May to September). But there was to be some good news. Our chosen destination, Wanakarn Beach Resort & Spa, just happens to be a pocket of intense luxury in this otherwise low-key corner of Thailand, and it’s a place that doesn’t rely solely on sunshine as a selling point.
Frogs of Phang Nga
When it comes to knowing the map of Thailand, I’m sketchier than I thought. The first lesson I learned when booking our trip was that Phang Nga has nothing to do with Pha Ngan (or Phangan). The latter is the island to the north of Koh Samui – you might have been there, or at least heard of its infamous “full moon parties”.
Phang Nga, on the other hand, is a province on the Thai mainland. Even Wanakarn’s cheerful Finnish general manager, Frode V. Sund, admits that it’s not well known.
Still, it’s surprisingly accessible. The province itself begins just a 20-minute drive from Phuket’s airport, when you cross a causeway at the island’s northern tip. The resort is another 20 minutes up the coast. Certain room rates at Wanakarn include airport transfers – definitely something to consider, at the very least because the car is a Mercedes Benz S Class Luxury Limousine and the driver will have the massaging seats up and running before you’ve fastened your seat belt.
Unlike the busy roads to many of Phuket’s resorts, the approach to Wanakarn is entirely rustic. In fact, the last ten minutes took us along dark, tree-lined lanes which, judging from the number of surprised frogs that appeared in the car’s headlights, are rarely used by any vehicle bigger than a bicycle.
Most tropical resorts are content to plonk themselves on a nice strip of sand; Wanakarn, though, has a unique aspect. It looks out over twin bodies of water: first, a coastal estuary lined with trees; beyond that, a private beach and the Andaman Sea.
To enhance the secluded feel of both areas, there’s no walkway from the resort across the river to the beach: instead, a couple of staff members will zip you over in 30 seconds in a small Zodiac boat. The same vessel is used to bring any food or beverages you might order from the menu as you recline under your ocean-side umbrella.
The umbrellas weren’t up when my wife and I took the boat to the beach – they’d have been blown across the border into Burma. But the conditions did make for a very invigorating stroll beside churning waves and bending palms. Naturally we had the whole place to ourselves – mad dogs and Englishmen might go out in the midday sun, but nobody goes to the beach in a monsoon.
Yet even in the best weather there wouldn’t have been a crowd. One of Wanakarn’s charms, after all, is its small size. The resort consists of 14 one-bedroom Pool Villas and one Grand Ocean Villa (at 10,000 square feet, this is the property’s equivalent of a Presidential Suite). That’s it. And since each one of the contemporary Thai-style villas comes with a private infinity pool, you stand a decent chance of seeing next to nobody at the resort’s main swimming pool or on the two beaches beside the river and the sea.
The cut of her Jib
Persistent rain may put the brakes on getting a tan, but it thankfully has no effect whatsoever on the preparation or consumption of food.
Wanakarn’s Chef Ratchaneeporn Dapachutisan (“Just call me Jib,” she said mercifully as I stared at her name card) might be young – in fact, she looks even younger than her 27 years – but she has a wealth of experience, including a stint in the kitchen of the prestigious Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park London.
And her food is brilliant. The Thai salads at main restaurant Twin Waters reach particularly lofty heights, especially a stunning combo of prawn and pomelo that we had as an appetiser one night: it was set in a light red-curry bath with a garnish of julienned toasted coconut. Also fantastic was the Wagyu beef salad with mint leaves and whole grapes, the latter providing a burst of cool, sugary relief from the dish’s lively shards of chilli.
For every fresh, complex and invigorating local creation that emerges from the kitchen at Wanakarn, there’s an equally satisfying Western offering: indulgent eggs Benedict, flawless tenderloin and a cheeseburger (Wagyu again) that GM Frode told me would be the best I’d had in a very long time. I assumed this was just a friendly bit of hotel PR, but he was dead right.
Out and about
On the morning of our third day, a sliver of sunlight miraculously broke through the Black Doughnut of Death and brightened the sky. We took advantage of the change by doing some exploring. First, we asked a couple of staff members if they could give us a river tour in the Zodiac. They happily obliged, and we motored quietly up the estuary, surrounded on both sides by pine forests. There are Thai temples hidden away at various spots along the banks; but our attention was mostly drawn to the sizeable purple hermit crabs scuttling between the trees.
Wanakarn has kayaks for heading up the river under your own steam, too – we opted instead for a bike ride on the surrounding country roads. Each villa has a pair of high-quality Trek mountain bikes parked at the front door; we rode ours for four kilometres to the bustling town of Thai Muang, and then in the other direction, passing pleasant lakes, rice paddies and traditional houses. Only once did my wife express regret at the lack of clothing boutiques in the vicinity and the lack of a basket on her bike that she might fill with purchases from said boutiques.
The resort can help if you’d like to head further afield – yes, even for shopping (there’s a free daily shuttle to Phuket town, for instance). Another option might be a visit to Phang Nga Bay and its distinctive karst outcrops, including the needle-shaped rock (“James Bond Island”) that appeared in The Man with the Golden Gun. The area around the bay has been a protected national park for more than 30 years.
Really, though, once you’ve seen the plush interiors of your villa and the beautifully landscaped gardens of the resort, my guess is that you won’t venture very far at all, whatever the weather.
Rain on your wedding day might be a drag (it’s not ironic, despite what Alanis Morissette says), but when the tropical drops start splashing into your private pool on a long-weekend anniversary at Wanakarn, it actually just adds to the charm.
|Wanakarn’s Pool Villas start from around $420 a night in the low season; for the record, December to May is the sunniest period for this part of Thailand. Packages including gourmet Champagne breakfasts while return airport transfers are also available, or the resort can specially tailor visits for honeymoons, weddings, executive treats or – like us – an anniversary.|