For one reason or another, I’ve made it to mid-life without a visit to Thailand. I’ve dreamed about it, though, so when an opportunity to visit Banyan Tree in Phuket comes up, I don’t need asking twice. It’s a long flight, and an early start, but we are lucky enough to be flying business class with Qatar Airlines via Doha. The fabulous service, delicious food and supremely comfortable flat bed seats mean we arrive in Phuket in the early morning feeling surprisingly sprightly and very well cared for. Special mention goes to the incredible newly opened Al Mourjan business lounge, The Garden, at Hamad International Airport in Doha, where every kind of cuisine is on offer in impeccable surroundings, making our quick layover very luxurious indeed.
The Banyan Tree Group needs no introduction, and in fact, Phuket is home to the first hotel in the group, and really where the journey began. The Group’s founder Ho Kwon Ping and his wife Claire Chiang came across a large plot of land while they were on holiday in Bang Tao Bay, on the western coast of Phuket in the Andaman Sea. A polluted tin mine, they were told it could never support vegetation or development of any kind. This didn’t deter them, and they decided to embark on an extensive regeneration programme, reintroducing indigenous plants and planting over 7,000 trees – and after 10 years, and much horticultural nurturing, Banyan Tree Phuket opened in 1994.
The surrounding area was developed into Laguna Phuket, a vast integrated resort destination, now home to six other hotels, a variety of premium facilities, branded residences and a world-class golf course, set against the stunning backdrop of the Andaman Sea on a three kilometre stretch of pristine beach. I can’t get over how green it all is, it’s hard to imagine that this was once barren land.
At the hotel we are greeted warmly and offered ice-cold flannels – a refreshing welcome after our travels. They say Thailand is the country of a thousand smiles, well, it’s also the country of a thousand cold flannels, every one appearing from the friendly, attentive staff at exactly the right moment to help with the humidity. In fact, although we are visiting during monsoon season, we enjoy some incredible sunny weather with just one rainy day. Fortunately, the hotel is perfectly set up to offer something to do in all weathers. There is a full wellness offering, called Veya, which includes mindfulness practices such as Conscious Grounding, something we try one morning before breakfast. We are taken to a small lawn and encouraged to spend half an hour walking oh-so-slowly across it with our eyes closed. A guide ensures that we don’t bump into each other (or take a detour into the nearby pool!) and he encourages us to feel the spongy grass beneath our feet and listen to the birds singing nearby. We also sample a sound bath session and explore a Lotus Labyrinth meditation path, made with rocks placed in the shape of a lotus flower. The walk teaches us to slow down and listen to our breathing and the sounds of nature around us. We don’t know how long it will take to get to the centre, but that’s a metaphor for life, and we should slow down and enjoy every step.
The hotel is coming up to its 30th birthday and has undergone extensive renovation recently, including increasing the wellness offering. In fact, you can stay in a Veya villa, a beautiful suite with yoga mat and sound bowl, and free access to a wealth of mindful and physical activities such as herbal pot-pourri making or a Muay Thai boxing class. Some villas even boast their own massage ‘temples’ in their grounds, so you don’t even need to walk anywhere for the ultimate spa experience. I enjoy an incredible treatment, a full body scrub and massage that leaves me in such a blissful state I can’t tell if I’m awake or asleep.
The Veya theme extends to eating, too, in fact the hotel has its own vegetable garden and is sustainable in its food sourcing. There are an array of restaurants and bars here; choose modern Thai cuisine at Saffron, the resort’s signature restaurant, a quick bite overlooking the golf course at Banyan Café, or waterside dining by the lagoon – there is something for every appetite.
I’m staying in a lovely suite, with the biggest bed I’ve ever seen, a sofa and a huge shower with views onto the terrace and my own pool. It’s hard to choose between the bed and the sunbed, or the pool and the jacuzzi, and I count my blessings that those are the hardest decisions I have to make while I’m here. One morning I enjoy the ultimate treat, a ‘floating breakfast’, which is exactly what it says on the tin: lots of delicious food, coffee and a mimosa, served on a floating tray. Definitely a pinch me moment.
As tempting as it is to stay ensconced in the luxurious hotel surroundings, I’m keen to get out and experience some ‘real’ Thailand, too. Here, the Banyan Tree Group’s Stay for Good programme comes into its own. Designed to provide visitors with authentic and immersive experiences, and offer a chance to engage with the local community while honouring age-old traditions, there’s a lot on offer, such as reading to local children, or helping with litter picks. We choose a visit to a local fruit farm, where we drink from coconuts picked fresh from the trees, are given a cookery demonstration of authentic southern Thai dishes, and try our hand at making coconut pancakes. It’s such a good way to gain insight into the lives and livelihoods of the villagers, and seeing an 80-year-old man working in the rubber plantation is an honour. Afterwards, we set off with a guide into the jungle for a trek up to Bang Tao Hill. The views are incredible, and we spot some rare red crabs and rather hysterically make our way past a scary looking spider. Fortunately, it stays firmly put in its huge web, but it does remind us that we’re not in London now. Well, I did want an authentic Thai experience!
On our return to the hotel, we stop by Open Kitchen, one of the restaurants in the Laguna Complex. The interiors are stunning, with huge wooden tables and hanging plants, and the food is incredible; it’s easy to see why some Brits are making their homes in this complex. The Laguna itself, thanks to the reforestation over the years, has helped to encourage native species back into the area. We spot a huge monitor lizard casually cruising the waters, and hear stories about alligators making their way in, too. They were safely encouraged back out again, but it just goes to show what an inviting natural environment it has become.
Back in London and marching up Charing Cross Road to a meeting, I try to remember the Zen feelings the labyrinth, and indeed my whole Banyan Tree experience brought me while I dodge tourists and traffic. If I bring even a tiny amount of those learnings into my busy London life, then this trip will be one that stays with me forever.
Return fares from Heathrow to Phuket from £1,135 economy and £4,861 business class with Qatar Airways (prices subject to availability and may change). Room rates in a Serenity Pool Villa start from £337 per night including breakfast and taxes/fees (banyantree.com/thailand/veya-phuket)