For the Bangkok-born hotelier who has spent most of his life working, holidaying and living on resort islands around the world, Vorasit "Wan" Issara confesses he feels right at home in Thailand's most famous island. He was in his mid-20s when tasked with launching the family's first resort hotel, Sri Panwa, on Phuket. "My dad [real estate magnate Songkran Issara] thought I would give up on the challenge, but he didn't know I can't live in cities. I've always lived like this," says the 33-year-old. "I have visited Phuket since I was five years old. I love everything about it. It is isolated yet very convenient."
OLD TOWN CHARM
Beyond the go-go bars and wide swathes of sandy beaches, Wan suggests a foray into Phuket old town. "Its Sino-Portuguese architecture is so distinct as it combines European influence with the Hokkien Chinese details from the early settlers in Phuket."
Explore Krabi Road and Rommanee Street on foot, advises Wan. Rommanee Street, once a red-light district, is now enlivened with renovated shophouses in candy colours. "It has become more artsy. Before, you could get this artistic vibe in Chiang Mai. A lot of Phuket kids have come back to start businesses here."
Don't miss one of the film sets of the 2000 film The Beach, The Memory at On On Hotel. Formerly named On On Hotel, the island's first hotel catered to sailors and traders who arrived during the flourishing tin mine trade in the 1970s.
The eclectic blend of shops in the old town offers everything from confectionery and herbs to art and gardening tools. The family-run Keng-Tin, one of Wan's favourite sweet stops, is beloved for traditional island confectionery made at the back of the house and devoid of preservatives. "They have been around for more than 70 years and the shop is now run by third generation Thai-Chinese."
MATTERS OF TASTE
As far as preserving island history is concerned, Wan considers China Inn Cafe & Restaurant in the heart of the old town a gem. It's an antique and handicraft shop and cafe rolled into one immaculately restored, century-old shophouse. Half-Thai, half-Peranakan Khun Noi carefully curates her wares — Burmese lacquerware and baskets, handmade silk scarves from old Indian sarees — retailed at the front of the house. A small courtyard serves Thai dishes such as pomelo salad and duck with tamarind sauce.
For dinner, Wan says Raya is the go-to place for an authentic local dining experience. "Madame Rose gets her recipes from her mum, and cooks daily." Ravenous Bangkok residents have been known to pack home her crab curry, which is served with rice noodles, and moo hong, or braised pork belly.
For local seafood on the beach, the pier by Rawai Beach has a seaside street lined by fishmongers touting the day's fresh catch. Among them, pioneer Mook Dee Seafood is a favourite. "Ask them to grill your grouper with butter and salt," says Wan.
Alternatively, book a table at the intimate and hospitable La Gaetana Italian restaurant, run by the husband-and-wife team of Gianni and Chonchita. "Expect very fresh food and amazing service."
A LINE IN THE SAND
A former regular of Nikki Beach Miami, the hard-partying Wan admits he experienced a blast from the past the first time he stepped into the luxury club and restaurant's 10th outpost on Layan Beach. His method of arrival? The resort's own 47-foot speedboat, Free Willy.
Despite Patong's reputation as a hub of debauchery, Wan tips the upscale and sleek Seduction as one of Phuket's best nightclubs. International DJs spin regularly and each of the venue's three floors offers a different type of music. Blow, a members-only zone, sits on the top floor. "I go there when I have a group in town. Good music and not too hustling a crowd."
Far from the sand, Yaowarat Road in Phuket old town is where one can find nocturnal action. The "bar street" thrives after dusk and five-year-old Sanaeha is Wan's favourite. Two bands take turns to play until midnight and the kitchen is adept in classic and fusion Thai dishes.
Another closely held secret is reservations-only Ka Jok See, where Thai dining is masterfully combined with campy cabaret-style entertainment in a Sino-Portuguese shophouse. At 9pm a drag queen emerges, dining tables are pushed to the walls and the real party begins. "Khun Lek, the owner is always there. He's a big diva. But don't piss him off or he won't take your reservation."
Visit Fortune and Radsada Handmade for quintessential Thai tourist trinkets such as silk scarves and tablecloths. Job & Things nearby is trendier, less fussy and is stocked with creative, one-off crafts such as acrylic-lacquered leather bracelets by local art students.
For Chatuchak-style retail therapy, locals adore Phuket Weekend Market, which is roughly the size of a soccer pitch. "I love their semi-frozen beer because they put it in an ice bucket with salt so it's extra cold. And their second-hand creative items such as old candy boxes are nice."
NOTHING BUT THE BLUES
Waking up to the big blue must be everyone's idea of a holiday in Phuket and one of the island's newest hotels, Point Yamu by Como on the east coast, scores high on its minimalist aesthetics and unobstructed views of surrounding islands from all vantage points.
Boating is one of Wan's favourite ways to immerse himself in sun-soaked Phuket. "Chartering a yacht is easy, and a great way to see the islands."
You don't have to be a mariner to circumnavigate the islands. Yachts are fully serviced with a captain and professional crew.
- The Memory at On On Hotel, 19 Phang-Nga Road, thememoryhotel.com
- China Inn Cafe & Restaurant,20 Thalang Road, tel: +66 76 356 239
- Ka Jok See, 26 Takua Pa Road, tel: +66 76 217 903
- La Gaetana, 352 Phuket Road, tel: +66 76 250 523
- Mook Dee Seafood, Rawai Beach, tel: +66 81 719 4880
- Nikki Beach, 62/11 Moo 6 Cherngtalay, Talang, nikkibeach.com
- Raya Restaurant, 48 New Dibuk Road, tel: +66 76 218 155
- Sanaeha, 83-85 Yaowarat Road, +66 76 218 515
- Seduction, 39/1 Soi Bangla Rat U-tit 200 Pee Road, seductiondisco.com
- Fortune, 12-16 Radsada Road, +66 76 216 238
- 'Job' and Things, 2/4 Phang Nga Road, tel: +66 76 223 966
- Keng-Tin, 342-344 Phuket Road, A. Muang, tel: +66 76 212 185
- Phuket Weekend Market, Chao Fa West Road, opposite Wat Naka
- Radsada Handmade, 29 Radsada Road, tel: +66 76 355 439
- Point Yamu by Como, 225 Moo 7, Paklok, Talang, comohotels.com
- Boat Lagoon Cruises, boatlagoonyachting.co.th
- Lee Marine, yachtworld.com/leemarine