A retired, 38-year-old Hong Kong broker is briefing his interior designer. 'I need the billowing stuff from that spread in Wallpaper magazine ... and those gigantic teak daybeds, only bigger. And Buddhas. Lots of them. The older, the bigger, the more spiritual looking, the better. And ...' He pauses. His tanned brow crunches with worry. There is a problem. 'Erm, people aren't going to think I'm a poofter, are they?' 'No sir, they will think you have style.' 'Good, good. That's what I want. Style.' Welcome to Phuket's property boom, a distinctly Hong Kong-flavoured phenomenon of magazine dream homes and scale-warping private paradises. At the extreme end of this luxury market, buyers are dropping anything from US$5 million to $10 million in a gigantic game of show and tell. Some wags, noting the super-villas being arranged like a string of diamonds along Phuket's west coast, have dubbed the area the USA: the United Socialites of Asia. Others, noting the excess, and that these captains of industry, these traders and business warriors, will not stop competing, have given the phenomenon a different name. Welcome to Phuket, The Peak with a beach; Hong Kong's own 'BBQ of The Vanities'. To get a feeling for it I was told to visit the Supper Club on a Friday night. Set away from the sea and a million miles from dazed package tourists and their metered women, the 'club' is the snug bar and rumour mill for the Thai island's property wheelers and dealers. The first thing you notice when your eyes adjust to the dark, wood-panelled interior is that none of the players has any real connection with Thailand. The loud and almost exclusively male clientele is a mixture of 'former' brokers, linen-clad fixers and cowboys on the make, all veterans of Asian bubble economies. Most are from Hong Kong, others are in from Tokyo and Singapore. And some no longer really live anywhere. Super-rich hedonists, these are 'bubble people' existing in a matrix of business-class flights, hotel suites and serviced apartments. They clutch a mobile phone in each fist, one for Thailand, one for international calls, and their only reliable mailing addresses end in 'dot com'. The few women present are mostly spectacularly beautiful Thais: queen bees who vibrate sexuality and watch silently, presumably trying, like me, to tell the real players from the fakes. After an hour at the long wooden bar, sticky with spilled champagne and sea-breeze cocktails, I have gleaned the following unsubstantiated snippets: there are about 400 villa projects with price tags of $1 million-plus on various drawing boards. Lan Kwai Fong tycoon Allan Zeman is spending '10' on his bespoke mega-villa. (Jet-set etiquette deems it bad form to spell out the millions of US dollars.) Simon Murray, former right-hand man to Li Ka-shing, is dropping 'eight' on his second coastal zen den. Binatone founder Gulu Lalvani is investing 'forty-three' in the island's third marina. Adrian Zecha has recently sold his Amanpuri villa for just 'five'. Sol Kerzner, the South African billionaire who built the controversial Sun City resort during apartheid, was in last week discussing 'very big ideas'. A thirty-something erstwhile Hong Kong broker tells me beachfront land is now at such a premium that 'poor Bob Miller' (the not-so-poor founder of DFS) has had to go to the mainland, two hours' drive from Phuket airport, to find a decent plot of land. And tycoon Robert Lo and his wife, Hong Kong Cancer Fund veteran Sally, have followed suit. The promise of Hong Kong money has the place in a spin. Everyone has a plan to cash in. Those who are not buying - or can't afford to - are hatching schemes. Most just need a little investment. Jeff Craig, for example, a 33-year-old golf pro and paramedic wants to start a business called Rescue Team. 'It's a network of state-of-the-art ambulances,' he explains, handing me a business card from the deck in his top pocket. Clapped-out Asian tigers can subscribe to the service, so when they keel over on the golf course or pass out in their rock-hewn, spot-lit Jacuzzis, their maids can dial Jeff. 'We will guarantee to be there in four minutes,' he says. Others are drumming up capital for a mind-boggling variety of schemes, from restaurants and bars to flat-management services, art galleries and even a pedigree-dog rental service. Naturally, for the inevitable sharks all this money is blood in the water, and scammers are everywhere. Thanks to Thailand's lax land registry and the fact that 20 years ago Phuket's 'millionaires' row' was mostly worthless banana groves, the Government has only just begun making modern land surveys. In the past two months, in a move many claim is politically motivated, the Government has begun examining the veracity of Phuket's land deeds. According to a report by Alasdair Forbes, managing editor of the Phuket Gazette and another ex-Hong Kong man, five per cent of all land deals are under investigation. In April, the deputy provincial land chief leading the inquiry was assassinated, shot in his car while driving home to his family. In early August, several high-profile property developers were arrested for forging deeds. A leading official from the Phuket land office is on the run. Some big-money projects have stalled and the foreign investors who bought into them have been left high and dry. Yet still the boys at the bar talk up the boom. 'It's easy to be bullish about Phuket,' says soigne Hong Kong investor Anil Melwani. 'We are in the midst of the growth cycle. The land-deed investigations are a necessary move towards greater transparency.' Melwani is, to use a Supper Club term, 'a major address-book individual'. As well as building one-off designer homes he is also working with leading international food and beverage people to bring world-class bars and restaurants and a boutique hotel to Phuket. 'What we are seeing,' he says, 'is the birth of a very exclusive community. Ultimately this island will be the winter perch for a migratory social elite: rich, powerful and famous individuals who want to kick back in privacy and luxury. It's a focused market.' A couple of years ago Melwani bought the beach headland next door to the plot Zeman would later buy. 'Originally I wanted to develop five homes in the $1 to $2 million range,' he says. 'But everyone is doing that now.' Instead Melwani plans to use his prime site to create just two mega-homes. 'The future is insane luxury,' he says. 'These are very competitive people. In play, as in their work, they like to out-do each other.' Later he clarifies the high-end dream further: 'What people want is simple,' he says. 'They want a big, ****-off house.' THE NEXT DAY I HIRE A MOPED AND ride into the heart of millionaires' row. Steaming Patong, with its jet-skis, clammy g-strings and large-breasted German men, disappears behind me. And soon the well-paved road is twisting through jungle, palm trees occasionally parting to reveal glimpses of perfect beaches and crystal waters. It's like driving into a magazine photoshoot. The enormity of Phuket's building mania soon becomes clear. Almost every turn produces a building site, with hand-painted billboards presenting cube-shaped buildings with bolted-on, turned-up roofs. Away from the sea, village shop-houses have given way to stores selling furniture, sculptures and improbably complicated Japanese toilets. Almost everybody you meet seems to have land for sale. A few nights earlier I had dropped in at a go-go bar and found bikini-sporting girls dancing next to signs advertising holiday villas for sale. As the ageing German bar owner explained, 'the bars don't make so much money any more'. This is no surprise. The government, keen to turn Thailand into a family-friendly destination, has been cracking down hard on the excesses of the sex industry. 'To make extra money on the side,' said the owner, 'I deal in property. Everyone does.' Later that night, parking his tuk-tuk outside my hotel, my driver killed the engine and turned to me with a leer. 'Do you want to buy ...' he began. I was expecting drugs or a girl. Instead he delivered Phuket's new buzzword, 'property? My brother has some land on the beach for sale. Very nice. You like?' Back on the moped, my first stop is Phuket Land, the island's oldest Western-run property agency. Its boss, the headmasterly William Ross Pinsent, came to Thailand from Britain by motorcycle in 1980. When his bike broke down, he stayed. It was, he admits, a lucky break. 'This year has been another record breaker for Phuket,' he says. 'Every disaster - the Bali bombing, Sars, the war in Iraq - has only strengthened the perception of Phuket as a safe haven. Prices in the best locations have almost doubled again.' Most buyers of luxury villas are US or British passport holders; and all told, Pinsent reckons about 70 per cent of buyers are from Hong Kong. 'People tend to buy next door to their friends,' he says. 'A brave few who were really just interested in escaping the city bought in during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Communities form. Then you start getting people who want to move here because their friends are here. Finally, a critical mass is reached, and Phuket is no longer a getaway, it is a hub.' The island's key attractions, of course, are its beaches, perfect winter weather and mouth-watering seafood. But what lifts Phuket above other Asian islands, says Pinsent, is the determination of its business-orientated government to develop a modern infrastructure. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is a former police officer who rode the technology-industry bubble to become the country's richest entrepreneur. And he has applied himself to the tourism sector with particular vigour. Commitments have been made to turn Phuket into a duty-free zone for products such as leather goods and artworks, do away with yacht mooring fees, simplify visas for retirees and property owners and increase the number of broadband internet connections to 400,000. Remember too that Phuket international airport is Thailand's largest after Bangkok and is connected directly to most Asian capitals. There are eight golf clubs (Nick Faldo has a home here), an international school and two outstanding hospitals. 'The business plan is to turn Phuket into a modern and totally international destination,' says Pinsent. 'And increasingly Thaksin's government is being seen as one that delivers.' Sars 'really helped things along', he adds. 'A lot of Hong Kong people came here to get away from the virus and found, thanks to technological and infrastructure improvements, they could operate perfectly well. Now they are rethinking their lifestyles. They want to trade up: have their first home in Phuket and just a simple apartment in their city of business.' Leaving Pinsent to prospective clients, I drive on to the 7,000-square-metre dream home Zeman is building. Not since Scaramanga, James Bond's three-nippled nemesis in The Man With The Golden Gun, took possession of nearby Tapu Island has a Thai beach house created such a stir. His new sandcastle, actually costing from $8 million to $12 million, will be completed in December and promises to be a masterpiece. Zeman has already revealed the house will be 'almost like a boutique hotel, with many villas, spas, a cinema and an Olympic-sized swimming pool'. He has said: 'I have a lot of confidence in Phuket,' so much so that in anticipation of continued growth in the property market he has established Paradise Properties. He has described the island as 'a place where I can enjoy doing business and enjoy myself', and cited an improved economy and good infrastructure as significant attractions. Everything about this house breathes 'luxury'. 'Welcome to heaven,' says Branko Pahor, 38, Zeman's architect. He is wearing shorts, T-shirt and the blissful look of a man wrapped up in a once-in-a-lifetime endeavour. 'Allan's brief was simple,' he says. 'He said, 'Build me a dream house. A place where my friends and I can relax.'' Pahor walks me through the site, with its 100-plus toiling Thais, its maze of pipes and bricks, underground kitchens and half-finished swimming pools, to the office he has made out of what will be Zeman's laundry room. Even this is larger than my entire apartment, and I note with depression it even has a better bathroom. A cardboard model of the finished home sits on a table. It is a vision of curved roofs, trees, infinity pools and natural beauty. As with almost all the mega-homes being built, much of its design was inspired by Amanpuri, the luxury resort built by Zecha in Phuket in 1988 that established the island as a destination in the Filofaxes of the super-rich. 'Allan and I visited all the Aman resorts before I began to design,' Pahor says. 'We took the ideas he liked - the infinity pools, the respect for existing nature, the roofs - and made them our own.' I continue along the twisting coast road. Signs advertising Paradise Villas and Nirvana Homes drift past. New warehouses display row after row of sculptured Buddhas. I wonder about the irony of all these ambassadors of non-attachment destined to smile serenely over great temples to the haven't-I-done-well ideal. 'Oh yes, Buddha is a great marketing man,' says Anthony Lark, general manager of Trisara, a soon-to-open hotel and villa complex that claims nothing less than to be 'the most luxurious in the world'. Trisara, set in 24 hectares of beachfront jungle, includes 14 private villas, all sold, for up to $10 million, and 33 hotel villas. Lark, who was general manager of the Amanpuri hotel for 12 years, says his guests will have absolute privacy, personal swimming pools, uninterrupted sea views, 100-square-metre bedrooms, personal iPods ... the list goes on. 'The thing with paradise these days,' says Lark, standing next to a perfect infinity pool with a postcard sunset behind him, 'is that as these silver-spoon dudes get richer they get more picky. If paradise is only what you dreamed of then it's not good enough. You always have to go further. You have to astonish.' As I head back to my guesthouse, a conversation I overheard between two hedonists in the Supper Club comes back to me. It summed up the awesome power of the dream home to impress. 'So, he brings this bar girl back to his new dream home,' said the first man, a 40-year-old I.T. tycoon, propping up the bar. 'I mean, this is your standard palace: cost five, maybe six. Got a huge pool, views everywhere ...' The second drinker, a former adman a little too old for his Diesel clothes, was already laughing. 'Dude, that's so wrong. Poor girl went Star Trek, right?' 'Total Klingon. Next day she won't leave. Wants to live there. Man has to call security, they have to prize her out of the Jacuzzi and escort her to the door.' 'Too cruel, dude. You just don't show someone that kind of lifestyle. It messes with their sense of scale. They never recover.' Heading back to my Patong guesthouse on my moped, as the rain began to pour, I understood how she felt.