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Monday 30 December 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Thailand - Phuket Island (Part 2)

After a few days at Cape Panwa, on the southeast coast of Phuket (reviewed here), we headed west to Pansea Beach. Only a 30-minute drive north from the tourist town horror of Patong, Pansea Beach is fortunately a totally different proposition.

Sometimes known as "millionaire's row" on account of the luxury villas, and the VIPs who like to stay there to get away from the crowds, Pansea Beach is a scenic enclave with clear water, fine white sand and tall tropical trees. It is a lovely spot for a relaxing and stylish break with prices to match.

Where to Stay

The Surin Hotel

The Surin Hotel is part of the YTL Group of Hotels of whom I am a huge fan. Recently, I was lucky enough to stay at two of their properties in Malaysia - Pangkor Laut, the flagship luxury resort on Pangkor Laut Island and also the elegant Cameron Highlands Resort - reviewed here and here.

The lovely Surin, view from Pansea Beach

Nestled away from the crowds of Phuket on a pristine and quiet stretch of shoreline overlooking Pansea Beach, the resort is a 25 minutes car journey from Phuket International Airport and a 30-minutes drive from Patong Beach and historical Phuket Town.

Sunset on Pansea Beach
Formerly known as The Chedi, The Surin was acquired by YTL and completely renovated by Paris based designer Ed Tuttle, one of America’s most celebrated architects. Enjoying a tranquil beachside location, all hotel rooms are self-contained cottage suites perched on a sloping hillside overlooking the sea with direct access onto Pansea Beach.

With a consistent Thai colour scheme of green, saffron, and gold set against neutral grey and white paintwork, the rooms are tasteful befitting the hotel's membership of the Design Hotels group of independent boutique hotels. We loved our cottage – small but perfectly formed, it was elegant, with a beautiful and serene feel about it and only a few metres away from the beach.

With a striking black hexagonal shaped swimming pool overlooking the beach (sadly closed for repairs during our stay), several bars, Thai and Italian restaurants, a gym, spa and a stunning reading room, the hotel has all the amenities for a stylish and relaxing stay.

Enjoying some sticky rice with mango and a chilled Singha beer at The Surin Hotel
The Surin gym is small but well equipped with treadmills and exercise bikes, with great views of the sea. It is probably one of the most under-utilised gyms in the world.

Probably the most under-utilised gym you will ever see....

... and this is why!...
The dining room at The Surin, where breakfast is served, has walls of glass, affording great views of the swimming pool, beach and bay.

Breakfast was excellent, with an array of tropical fruits, charcuterie, smoked salmon and cheeses, as well as yoghurts, bread and fresh juices. There were also stations to order freshly baked waffles, crepes and omelettes.

Where to Eat

Suay Restaurant

Situated in a beautiful wooden house surrounded by a covered veranda in Phuket Town, Suay Restaurant is a 20-minute taxi ride from The Surin.

Suay is owned and run by a renowned Thai chef, Tammasak Chootong who trained in Germany and worked at the Michelin-starred Top Air Restaurant in Stuttgart. Returning to Thailand, he worked at a number of international hotels before setting up his own restaurant and cooking school at Suay. The restaurant, reflecting the background of its owner, has a casual if somewhat Western feel to it, offering a range of authentic Thai and fusion dishes to suit most palates.

We started with a cappuccino of galangal and coconut served with grilled sea scallop on a lemongrass skewer (£3.50). This was good, with the succulent scallop and sweet coconut flavours counterbalanced by the astringency from the lemongrass.

Next came a succession of dishes served simultaneously. The green papaya salad with fresh squid strips and ground peanuts (£2.50) had a good amount of heat and partnered well with the grilled pork neck salad (£2.20), one of the best dishes of the evening.

The spicy salmon carpaccio Suay style (£3.00), one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, was adequate as was the fresh prawn spring rolls with peanut sauce (£2.80).

The roasted duck in Thai red curry with lychee (£4.30) was flavoursome although there was little duck to be seen.

Dishes were mostly well made and seasoned, but we found the portions a tad ungenerous. Suay Restaurant is regarded among the best restaurants in Phuket Town and is definitely worth a visit.

What to Do

Swimming and Water Sports

The Surin overlooks Pansea Bay, with its stunning fine white sand, and the bay is a great place to swim and for water sports including snorkeling and surfing. This is also a good location from which to visit some of the neighbouring islands like the famous Phi Phi.

Just one note of caution - the sea on the west side of Phuket can get very rough, particularly during the monsoon season, and every year a handful or two of foreigners drown there. It is important to take notice of the flags indicating whether swimming is safe or not. The Surin has lifeguards permanently at the beach during the day, and they rescued swimmers on more than one occasion during our stay including yours truly!

How could I have missed that red flag?!... It was nearly kaput for me.

Spa Treatments

The spa is at the top of a steep hill overlooking the bay within the hotel’s grounds, but fortunately there is an electric buggy to whisk guests up for their appointment. We had a blissful 60-minute oil massage there that got us walking on clouds upon completion. Highly recommended.


There are several top quality golf courses near The Surin (including the Blue Canyon Country Club and the Phuket Club), and the reception can book and arrange transport for anyone interested.

Visiting Patong

This is one of the party capitals of Asia, famous for its nightlife. There are hundreds of bars, clubs and restaurants clustered on the beach road and Bangla Road. We spent a couple of hours there without finding anywhere particularly good to eat or anything worth seeing, a total nightmare of a place.

Travel Essentials

The Surin Hotel
Pansea Beach, 118 Moo 3
Cherng Talay
Talang, Phuket

Room cost varies widely depending on season and room type. Our one-bedroom deluxe cottage cost from around £350 per room per night.

Suay Restaurant
50/2 Takuapa Road
Talat Nuea, Mueang
Phuket, 83000

AirAsia flights from Bangkok to Phuket cost around £70 return per person.

Friday 27 December 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Thailand - Phuket Island (Part 1)

After an overnight stay in Bangkok (reviewed here), we caught an early morning flight with the efficient and very affordable budget airline Air Asia, landing at the airport in the north of Phuket island. Having spent three weeks travelling around southeast Asia, we looked forward to a few days of relaxation by the Andaman sea.

Phuket is the largest Thai island, and is situated on the Indian Ocean coastline a little over 500 miles south of Bangkok. Phuket formerly derived its wealth from tin and rubber, and was on one of the major trading routes between India and China. More recently, its top industry has become tourism, which has transformed the island into Thailand's wealthiest province.

Phuket is a very popular travel destination with people from all over Europe and the USA, and lately Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans and Russians have been visiting in increasing numbers. This might make it sound like a touristic nightmare, but while there are very westernised towns like Patong, actually the majority of the island looks much like mainland Thailand.

Cape Panwa from Sri Panwa

Most beaches are on the west coast of the island, with Phuket Town to the southeast and the airport in the north.  Phuket's population  is a melting pot of indigenous Thais, Thai-Chinese and ethnic Malays.

Where to Stay

Set on the top of Cape Panwa in the southeastern tip of Phuket, Sri Panwa is a collection of 52 villas built within a stunning gated compound with breathtaking views over the Andaman Sea and surrounding islands.

The villas are scattered over a large area of this hilly region, and there are buggies to drive guests between the various buildings.

With a spa, gym, games room, several swimming pools, tennis courts, an outdoor bar and two restaurants, there is plenty to occupy guests, although we found it surprisingly difficult to tear ourselves away from our accommodation.

Games Room

Sri Panwa's Private Beach
Our villa had two separate buildings, one for sleeping, the other a spacious living room with its own kitchen, bathroom and veranda, for lounging and relaxing.

View from our Villa at Sri Panwa and Plunge Pool

All the villas have their own infinity plunge pool with views over the sea.

The facilities in the rooms were remarkable, with both indoor and outdoor jacuzzis, a shower that doubled up as a steam room, a free minibar (except for wine), a Nespresso coffee machine, and Bose sound systems with a variety of cool playlists preloaded on iPods.

Bedroom at Sri Panwa Villa
The place is owned and managed by Vorasit Issara, known to all as "Wan", who lives in a spectacular hilltop mansion, surrounded by the hotel villas. He comes from the prominent Thai Issara family, who are known for developing some of Thailand’s best known residential and commercial landmarks.

Living Room at Sri Panwa Villa

I met Wan while visiting the "Baba Nest" cocktail bar, which is open in the early evening for guests, and is adjacent to Wan's private roof-top swimming pool.

Living Room at Sri Panwa Villa

Baba Nest is a stunning spot to watch the sunset, we had a couple of cocktails there one evening and were blown away by the scenery.

Sunset at Baba Nest, Sri Panwa
Breakfast at Sri Panwa was one of the highlights of the day. In addition to a generous buffet laden with pretty much everything you could hope for like freshly cut fruit, pastries, cold meats, cheeses and hot Western and Thai dishes including various curries and noodles, there was also an a la carte menu from which guests could order.

The banana pancakes with a drizzle of maple syrup and the eggs Benedict with a truffled hollandaise sauce were both utterly delicious and we kept returning for more.

Sri Panwa is considered one of the top resorts of Phuket, and having spent 4 glorious nights there I can understand why. The place is gorgeous, immaculately maintained and the villas beautifully designed with the most stunning views of Cape Panwa. I loved Sri Panwa and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a place to stay on Phuket Island.

Where to Eat

My only regret about Sri Panwa was that I did not eat at its restaurant, Baba Soul Food, for all four of the evenings I stayed there. As I usually do during my trips, I tried to find other good restaurants and places to eat outside the hotel - a big mistake on this occasion!

For one of the evenings, I visited the nearby Sawasdee Restaurant, which turned out to be one of the worst meals we had during our visit to Phuket - a tourist trap, the food was incredibly sweet, the portions tiny and the service abominable,  an experience to be avoided at all costs.

Phuket Street Food

On one other evening, we had a selection of street food from the hawkers selling their fare outside the hotel along the sea front.

It was sensational - we had barbecued tandoori chicken wings, spicy green papaya salad and sweet roti filled with bananas and with a generous drizzle of condensed milk.

Phuket Street Food - Roti with Bananas and Condensed Milk
Baba Soul Food, Sri Panwa Hotel

The more formal of Sri Panwa's two restaurants, "Baba Soul Food", is run by Chef Boom, who did much of her training at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok.  Her cooking was exceptionally good, well balanced and bursting with fresh Thai flavours.

Chef Boom in Action

On our first night at Baba Soul Food, manager Kae, was kindly enough to put together an outstanding tasting menu for us, we couldn't have been in better hands - Kae's knowledge and enthusiasm for her native cuisine was impressive.

We kicked off with a selection of 5 delectable Thai appetisers:

Fresh Thai veggie spring rolls with spicy green chilli dip

Duo of shrimp green curry and shrimp coconut dip with crispy rice crackers

Deep fried minced chicken and shrimp, Chinese chicken sausage, carrot and onion with spicy green chilli dip

Deep fried shrimp cake with red chilli dip

Deep fried potato and onion spring rolls served with a chilli dip, known as Poh Pia

Following the appetisers  all other dishes were brought to our table at once, Thai-style. We had a fantastic spicy green mango salad with local yam citrus dressing which had just the right amount of heat, with good sweet and sour flavours from the dressing.

One of the restaurant signature dishes is the crispy duck salad - a delicious concoction of fried shredded duck, vibrant chilli, shallot and spring onion, peanuts, and a zingy Thai coconut and chilli dressing.

For soup we had two - a  spicy coconut milk soup with tiger prawns, herbs and lime and another - a clear Chinese soup with pickled cabbage and pork ribs. They were both highly flavoursome and refreshing.

The more substantial main courses, all incredibly delicious, were:

Stir fried Andaman crab meat with lime sauce

Stir fried local Miang leaves with minced shrimps in soy sauce

Crab meat in Thai red curry

Phuket style pork belly braised in a sweet and salty soy sauce with mushroom

We were really full by dessert, but Kae insisted that we tried their crispy Khao Mao (shredded rice) served with warm caramel and coconut milk, and luckily we did. It was really good - a perfect ending to a perfect meal.

For our last meal while staying at Sri Panwa, we returned to Baba Soul Food, and had another splendid meal. We ordered the spicy green mango salad with local yam citrus dressing (£5) again as we liked it a lot on our first night, and it was just as good as we remembered. We also tried Yam Neur Yang, a grilled Australian beef salad with mixed vegetables and a local yam citrus dressing (£7), the flavours were fresh and beautifully balanced.

For main course we had two dishes - Kua Kling Moo - stir-fried pork in red curry paste (£8) which was deliciously spicy, and also Gaeng Massaman Neur - Australian beef Massaman curry with peanuts (£8.20), which was creamy and a little milder.

Chef Boom's cooking at Baba Soul Food was by far the best Thai food we had during our stay in Phuket and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the island.

Chef Boom and Baba Soul Food Manager Kae

Pak Naam Seafood Restaurant

We were lucky enough to meet Suganda, one of my Thai classmates from Cordon Bleu, who lives near Phuket, and she took us to a great local restaurant for some of the best seafood we had during our visit to southeast Asia.

At the Pak Naam Seafood Restaurant, we had some really good local dishes that were simple in conception, but worked brilliantly because of the absolute freshness and quality of the fish and seafood.  Dishes of grilled prawn, steamed fish with chilli and lemon sauce, stir-fried clams with basil and fried rice with crab were really flavoursome.

The place was packed with Thai families, and I would very much recommend this as a good value, quality restaurant in Phuket for seafood.

What to Do

Phuket is of course an island, so many activities revolves around the sea in one way or another.  It is a great place for swimming or snorkelling by yourself, but it is also possible to arrange freshwater and sea fishing, scuba and snuba-diving, yachting, jet-skiing, windsurfing, and parasailing, if you are the energetic type.

Temple Visits

We paid a visit to Chalong Temple, a 19th century building that is the oldest on the island. It is certainly worth a look, but lacks the splendour and rich history of temples in Bangkok and Luang Prabang.

Phuket Aquarium 

The Phuket Aquarium is located at Cape Panwa, right next to the entrance to the Sri Panwa Hotel.  It is a small but interesting tropical aquarium with a dazzling variety of fish and corals, as well as some interesting exhibits and photographs of the island before and after the 2004 tsunami. They make the point that mangroves, as well as providing a rich ecosystem, were also crucial in absorbing much of the energy of the tidal waves, and make a powerful plea for their future protection.

Spa Visits

Phuket is one of the most popular spa destinations in the world, home to oases of comfort and pleasure that are difficult to leave when the time comes. Sri Panwa has its own spa with stunning views over the ocean.

I had a 60-minute Aromatic Thai-oil Massage that started with a foot bath and scrub in the cool shade, to the sound of the many waterfalls in the spa. There followed a very relaxing and proficient massage using Thai acupressure points, and I left feeling rejuvenated and serene.

Travel Essentials

Sri Panwa Hotel
88 moo 8, Sakdidej Road,
Vichit, Muang, Phuket 83000, Thailand
Tel: +66 7637 1000
Fax: +66 7637 1004
E-mail: chill@sripanwa.com
Website: www.sripanwa.com

Pak Nam Seafood
52/220 Ratsadanuson Road
Tel: 076 240240

AirAsia flights from Bangkok to Phuket cost around £70 return per person. http://www.airasia.com
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