Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Banyan Tree and the Green-Eyed Monster...

It’s been raining in Sydney for a week now. Miserable, cold, bone-soaking, ugh. I can barely get out of bed.

It was raining two weeks ago in Phuket as well. Fair enough, it’s monsoon season there and to be expected. But in Thailand the rain is warm. Refreshing. Almost therapeutic. And I had my own private pool to swim in. Nothing like skinny dipping in the rain! 

Weather is no obstacle when you’re staying in absolute luxury. I mean, it would have been nice to soak up the sun, but at the Banyan Tree Phuket, the weather, the beach, the destination itself is secondary to the accommodation. Here, it’s all about where you lay your head. 

Part of the Laguna gated community at serene Bang Tao Bay, the Banyan Tree is a sprawling resort, built around the manmade lagoon which forms the centrepiece of the Laguna community. There are 173 villas all up in the complex, each one more enormous than the next - little wonder that golf carts and bicycles are the preferred means of transport, rather than Shank’s pony! 

My new home

Not bad, huh?

I’m staying in a Banyan Tree Spa Sanctuary villa, a separate walled complex on the edge of the resort where the focus is on romance, relaxation and revitalisation through spa therapies. As a solo traveller, I’m forced to forgo the romance aspect of course, but I’ll take any treatments you want to throw my way, thank you very much. 

All I can say is .. ah, wow! My villa is massive, bigger than my apartment at home. Outside there’s a substantial 12-metre pool, big enough to swim laps; a jacuzzi, two bubble beds, a sala with twin massage beds for private outdoor therapy, day beds under an umbrella (sadly only used to keep the rain off while I’m there) and another two day beds under the entryway to the villa. 

Massage beds

Inside there’s a separate living space, and a massive dressing area and bathroom featuring a shower/steam room, loo with a view and an outdoor bathtub. The bedroom is a true work of art, built around a lotus pond showcased by three floor to ceiling glass walls. It’s so insanely beautiful, it makes me swoon ... and jump on the bed in joy. 

Loo with a view

So tranquil!

I’m in heaven, and immediately start to plot a permanent stay. Do squatters rights apply in Thailand? 

As part of the Spa Sanctuary package, guests are entitled to a series of in-villa spa treatments, daily morning yoga classes in the Orchid Garden, and a complimentary consultation from an Ayurvedic doctor. Oh, and a yummy afternoon tea in the lobby. Sadly, I’m a mere blow-in journalist and am not offered these extras ... or at least, not told about them... 

My colleagues staying in other parts of the resort are lapping up their added luxuries, however. Over evening cocktails in the main lobby bar, they boast about their private butlers, afternoon canapes and cocktails and complimentary laundry service ... and suddenly my own divine villa starts to pale in comparison. Oh, that evil green-eyed monster - how quickly it turns the tables! 

A later inspection of the top-of-the-range DoublePool Villas reveals that my jealousy is indeed justified. My gorgeous single-bedroom pool villa seems humble, almost embarrassingly small, in comparison. These villas range from 1300 to 2500 square metres - five time the size of mine, each one surrounded by manicured gardens and spacious outdoor living spaces. The main bedroom is a floating pavilion built over a private wading pool; and of course there’s a second 15-metre infinity edge pool and jacuzzi.  

Now you're talking! Pics: Julie Miller
But what sets the DoublePool Villa experience apart is the dedicate Villa Host. My gloating colleagues have their own private slaves to cater to every whim, from washing their knickers to private buggy transfers. They arrive at dinner already blotto from their pre-dinner cocktails, lovingly mixed by butlers Gigi and Poptart; and their excuse for being late is a private Khom Loy ceremony, releasing paper lanterns into the inky sky... 

Ah, perspective, what a wonderful thing! Back in the confines of my own villa, I soon forget about how the other half are living, and simply enjoy this amazing, luxurious experience. 

The rain is soft, the water is warm, the bed a comfy cloud. Really, it doesn’t get any better than this ... does it?

Monday, 17 June 2013

Banyan Tree Rainforest Spa

I sometimes find the rarified ambience at a luxury spa disconcerting: the reverence, the mood lighting, the pan-piped soundtrack. A five-star spa experience is certainly the last place you’d expect to hear raucous laughter, squeals and shouts of delight - but that’s exactly what I experienced when I recently visited the spa at the Banyan Tree in Ko Samui. 

 The Rainforest is a hydrothermal facility, offered to guests as part of a spa treatment package. It involves a series of water-based ‘stations’, designed to enhance the senses, detoxify and relax - sort of like the Roman baths of old, except with a rainforest rather than a marble palace theme. The Rainforest experience begins with a walk through a cascading shower of cold water, akin to being caught in a sudden downpour. Squeal number 1. 

You then retreat to a side room where you are scrubbed down with salt, removing the top layer of dead skin and leaving you feeling all pink and new. A sauna follows, concluded with a coating of therapeutic mud which is said to detoxify the body. Then, just as you’re starting to feel all slippery and warm, you enter the Bucket Shower, where you provide your own torture by tipping a bucket of freezing water all over you. Squeal number 2. 

But the worst is yet to come. Just as you emerge from a sweat-inducing steam room, a sweet little spa therapist grabs you and rubs chunks of ice all over your exposed skin. Here squeals become shouts of horror - not the stomach, not the ... oh my god!!! 

Finally, it’s into the Vitality Pool, where strong jets of water massage legs and arms, an experience closer to body surfing than sitting in a jacuzzi. A firehose will knock you clear off your feet, while a plummeting waterfall gives a perfect shoulder massage. The experience ends with a rest on a heated contour bed and a foot massage - true bliss. 

Then it’s off to the spa proper for your choice of a one hour massage. This where the reverence kicks in again, the serenity once again reigning supreme. I choose a Balinese massage, an oil massage which gets into those knots with long, fluid strokes. In keeping with my requests, my impeccably-trained therapist provides just the right strength of pressure, that elusive medium between pleasure and pain. In all, it’s a brilliant massage, and a highly entertaining spa experience. 

I’ve finally found my kind of spa - more like a theme park than a sanctuary, and great fun to boot!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Laguna Phuket Comes Into its Own

Several years ago, my daughter and I stayed for a couple of days at the Sheraton Hotel in the Laguna Phuket complex. It was nice, if unexciting - the grand old hotel felt a little faded, and in my opinion the concept of a ‘gated community’ in a place like Thailand seemed staid and boring. 

Times change, however, and so has Phuket. The thought of venturing anywhere near the southern beaches of Patong and Kata now fills me with dread - to me it’s all just sleaze and open drains and ugly Australians and even fuglier package tourists (not mentioning specifics, at the risk of committing public racial slurs...)

I’ve just spent the last two days at the Dusit Thani at Laguna Phuket, with another two days to look forward to at the Banyan Tree. And after 26 years, I can honestly say that the concept of Laguna Phuket has come into its own. Now, a beach devoid of day beds and hideous development is a godsend; Bang Tao Beach is instead a blissful, deserted crescent of sand, lapped by clean warm waters and with just handful of bars, massage joints and restaurants to retain some local flavour. There are very few touts wandering the sands annoying sun worshippers, and the only sound you can hear is the pumping of the waves and tweeting of birds. 

Beautiful Bang Tao Bay

Back in 1984, however, Bang Tao Bay looked very different. After years of tin mining, it resembled a moonscape, littered with abandoned machinery and devoid of any vegetation. It was considered unredeemable, written off as being “too environmentally damaged to have any development potential.”  

After investing US$200million, Laguna Hotels & Resorts reclaimed the land, planted native trees, introduced recycling and water treatment plants, and built several low-rise hotels designed to enhance the environment. Money was also pumped into the local community, and even today, the complex prides itself on its charitable contributions towards sustainability, local schools and community enterprise. 

Occupying a beachfront area, the Dusit Thani is one of the grander hotels in the complex, retaining its standards of luxury despite being 26 years old (the first hotel to open in the complex). During the last five years, it has added 22 three-storey pool villas in keeping with popular demand - and these are simply gorgeous, with spacious living area, two bedrooms and awesome rooftop pools.

Living area of a Dusit Thani Pool Villa

The rooftop pool in a Dusit Thani villa

The old Sheraton Hotel is now called Angsana Laguna Phuket and is practically unrecognisable, all slick and modern and boasting a very cool beachfront chill-out bar called Xana. Aimed at an upwardly mobile, younger demographic, the addition of the Angsana brand has given Laguna Phuket a much-needed ‘hipster’ injection, making it a destination to be seen at. 

Xana Beach Club. Pics: Julie Miller

Yes, it seems like the foresight of the 1980s is finally paying off. This is Phuket as it should be - a beautiful tropical island where local culture and luxury live in harmony.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Run Paradise

What do you do on your holidays when it’s a 35C tropical steam bath? Go for a run of course! I know, that’s nuts, but try telling the over 4,000 locals and visitors who took part in today’s ‘Run Paradise’ Laguna Phuket International Marathon that! 

Yes, while I was fast asleep, serious marathon runners and some who just wanted to test their mettle lined up for the 42 kilometre full marathon, the 21k half marathon or a choice of fun runs/walks, all to celebrate the joy of fitness as well as help raise THB I million (A$34,405) for Laguna Phuket Foundation’s ‘Run for Our Kids’ initiative, supporting sustainable school programs on Phuket. 

Forty-five countries were represented in the race, from babies in strollers to over 80 years of age, with 90 Aussies turning out for the event. The oldest runner was an 84-year-old Thai woman, running the 10.5k run; and I saw lots of little kids on the move who put this terribly unfit lard-ass to shame. Now I feel guilty about staying in bed. 

The family that runs together stays together!
By the time I wandered down to the event around 9am, participants were already pouring over the finish line, victorious and very sweaty. Mind you, a downpour at 8am probably cooled things down a little, but there were some pretty exhausted looking people heading back to their hotel rooms to cool off.

“How’d you go?” I ask one Australian couple returning back to the Dusit Thani, where I'm also staying. “Great!” they replied. “Time for a swim!” 

The winner of the full marathon was Michael Page from Great Britain, who finished in 2:41:02. I wasn’t even out of bed when he crossed the line!

Friday, 7 June 2013

Symbolism of the Lotus

The lotus is a symbol of purity, the spotless heart of a divine birth. This is why the Buddha sits on a lotus in bloom, usually pink in colour.
The lotus sprouts in muddy water, emerging from the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of experience and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment. According to the Lalitavistara, "the spirit of the best of men is spotless, like the lotus in the muddy water which does not adhere to it."

Pics: Julie Miller