Look back in languor

Robin Bayes reflects on the transition from the rough life to the smooth.

The last time I was in Phuket, Thailand, I'd spent hot, sweaty nights sleeping on the deck of an old wooden junk as it floated through the limestone islands of the Andaman Sea. It was rough and basic but there is nothing quite like anchoring at sunset at the base of one of these stark monoliths and kayaking through caves into the huge tidal lake that engulfs its centre, the only sound being the distant, echoing squawks of birds that have made their home in the foliage above.

It was an adventure; the heat and sweat intermixed with swan-diving off the deck, playing cards with two young-and-in-love German backpackers and the lemongrass aromas emanating from the cook's tiny stove as he whipped up dishes of pad thai and pad kee mow, washed down with cold beers.

Now, quite a few years later, I am sitting on the deck of my luxury bungalow at Cape Panwa Hotel and Spa on the south-east tip of Phuket, dangling my feet in my own private infinity pool as I peer through the labyrinth of coconut palms to the resort's immaculately maintained private beach below.

Inside, the air-conditioning drones quietly. My two-bedroom, two-bathroom bungalow has deeply polished floors and is outfitted with all the necessities of modern survival: LCD TVs, fridge, microwave, king-size beds, sofas you sink into. It dawns on me: I am surrounded by my middle-age crisis "comfort zone". I have embraced with alacrity such simple necessities as the sparkling blue pool outside my bedroom door, chauffeur limousine airport pick-up and private beach. Sleeping rough on the decks of old boats has been torn asunder in one big swipe.

I am suddenly in the company of such celebrities as Elizabeth Taylor, James Bond (well, Pierce Brosnan), Catherine Zeta-Jones and Leonardo DiCaprio - all of whom have called Cape Panwa Hotel and Spa home for at least a few days of their lives. And on top of that I have been in close proximity to the celebrity of the moment, the all-swearing chef Gordon Ramsay, who stayed next door, roaring up and down Cape Panwa's steep hillside on his overly revved bike.

Outside the resort it is as hot and manic as only Thailand can be: dusty highways filled with buses, motorbikes and cars spewing pollution, derelict half-completed concrete buildings and hordes of seemingly happy, ageing Westerners who, with local girlfriends clinging on the back of their motorbikes, have discovered late-life sexual nirvana. It is life at full throttle.

Inside Cape Panwa Hotel and Spa, I stroll along my own private beach to one end where the jungle actually touches a clear, light blue sea. There are no hawkers selling rugs and shawls and no cheap oil massages (though I do miss that) but there is the feeling of tranquillity that only silence brings.

Cape Panwa was lucky - the swell of the devastating Boxing Day 2006 tidal wave passed it by on its way to Patong and, in the hazy distance, the Phi Phi Islands.


That night I dine in one of the world's most beautiful spots: 19th-century Panwa House. It's a piece of Sino-Portuguese heritage on the beachfront that the owner, who has had a long love affair with everything European, imported piece by piece from Portugal.

It is one of those anachronisms - an elegant and elaborate, book-lined, 150-year-old Portuguese home that has somehow made its way to a beach in southern Thailand for a new life. The Thai chef is jovial, the food exquisite and the only sounds are the lapping water and the clink of glasses. My cheap pad thai days are fading fast.

Cape Panwa is an oasis of peace and quiet but I am still lured by the noise and traffic beyond this former coconut plantation's walls. In the old port of Phuket Town there are the clamour of everyday Thai life and unique streets such as Soi Ronmani and Thalong Road, with their rows of blue and red terrace houses, one-off bars, such as Glastnost, and weird and wonderful restaurants. It's as if bunches of soul-searching Europeans have found their little piece of heaven and concocted these very funky, exotic hang-outs for fellow travellers.

Back at Cape Panwa I meet up with the very urbane Charles and his silver-coiffed wife, Elizabeth, from Sydney's northern beaches. For more than a decade they've been spending three months a year at either Cape Panwa Hotel or its sister property, the smaller Kantary Bay Hotel, over the hill. So far, this trip, they've clocked up 1700 kilometres on their motorbike, tearing around Phuket. Nothing strange about that except they're both hitting 80 next year - and Phuket traffic is manic on a slow day. They head off on a new journey every day, undeterred.

"We love our hotel comforts but it's great to get out and explore," Charles says. "Elizabeth is never happier than when she is on the back of the bike."

Sitting on my deck back at Cape Panwa Hotel, watching a massive cruise ship edge its way along the coast towards the port of Phuket Town, I had a mini-revelation - thanks to these two travelling octogenarians.

Sure, roughing it on hard wooden decks, with no air-conditioning in sweltering Asian heat is just too difficult these days - however youthfully romantic it was at the time. But, hey, there is still a big, wide, noisy road out there to explore, whatever age - just ask Charles and Elizabeth.

And, yes, you can do it in between laps of the infinity pool and quiet walks along a wonderfully peaceful stretch of private beach on your doorstep.

The writer was a guest of Cape Panwa Hotel and Spa.


Getting there: Jetstar has direct flights between Sydney and Phuket. See http://www.jetstar.com.au.

Staying there: Cape Panwa Hotel and Spa (27 Mu 8, Sakdidej Road, Cape Panwa, Phuket 83000 Thailand, http://www.capepanwa.com). Low season (from April to October) rates start at $100 a night, twin-share, for a superior room. The high season rate (from November to March) is priced from $135 a night twin share. For bookings or further information email admin@hotelrepresentationaustralia.com or phone (02) 9410 3450.