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Asia travel

Why Phuket draws top sports stars for training – cyclists, Maria Sharapova, triathletes and Olympians from around the world

While most tourists flock to the Thai island for a relaxing beachside break or its non-stop nightlife, in rainforest near the airport elite athletes including Maria Sharapova hone their fitness and skills at Thanyapura’s Olympic village

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 6:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 7:58pm

I’m swimming in an Olympic pool ringed by an amphitheatre of jungle. Above this emerald forest, a tropical storm darkens the dusk, then slashes it with lighting bolts. Monkeys howl, and twilight birds chorus. But still I race on to the tick-tick-tick of a giant Seiko clock.

That is because there’s a gold medal winner swimming in the lane adjacent. Thanyapura, an Olympic village nestled in Thai rainforest 20 minutes from Phuket Airport, is a training ground for the stars. Case in point: in October, Maria Sharapova used the world-class tennis facilities in between tournaments in Singapore and Shanghai.

My three-day elite training programme started at breakfast. As many of Thanyapura’s bike routes were planned by former Tour de France competitors, I’m keen to focus on my cycling skills. “The Dutch, Hong Kong and Philippine Olympic teams all train here on Phuket Island,” says my guide Ricky Phantip, the sport resort’s head triathlon coach and a member of Thailand’s duathlon team. “Even car drivers are used to groups of bikers.”

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There’s a tap-tap-tap from the rubber plantations as we barrel through at 40km/h. Then the honey fragrance of pineapple from Phuket’s famously sweet variety, which is sold roadside from 10 baht (HK$2.50) apiece.

The fearsome speed we attain on our 20km route is thanks to the professional bikes that Thanyapura supplies to guests. Mine is a US$4,000 Cannondale used by tour cyclists like Slovak professional Peter Sagan. Phantip’s bike cost US$12,000, which might explain why he wasn’t gasping for air like me as we returned to the resort for lunch.

The menu is Olympian in scope. At Restaurant Divine the wheat-free, Thai alkaline and other selections are broken down according to calories, carbohydrates and fat. Avocado sushi and macadamia cheese patties are US$12 each. Plastics are shunned where possible. Mulberries are served in paper boxes, the grasshopper and cashew cakes on banana leaves.

“Twenty years ago protein meant meat,” says senior sous chef Surit Plumthong. “Now people know that nuts are even more nutritious.”

Their raw food selection includes oat pizzas topped with grated pumpkin. “By cooking many of our foods below 45°C, this helps retain each ingredient’s dietary value,” says Plumthong.

Food is organic and most of the menu items (like seafood and pineapples) are sourced locally, while the rest comes from two farms in Surat Thani (such as eggs and lemongrass) and Chiang Mai (arugula and strawberries).

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My day finishes with a sports massage. Other treatments include cupping, and a 10-day detox programme that includes medical consultations with on-site doctors, checks for heavy metals, a detailed rejuvenation diet and accommodation. A 30-day weight loss trial includes four colonic hydrotherapy sessions. Like most guests I sleep soundly and early – ready for another high-octane day.

The following dawn I’m lined up with 40 bikers from two dozen nations, all wearing cycling kit. Many are here to compete in a Phuket ironman event, a triathlon that combines a 90km ride, a 2km swim and a 21km run.

A decade ago, the thought of flying across the world to cycle up a mountain, like Alpe d’Huez on the Tour de France route, would seem laughable. Now many of our group make four annual journeys to cycling meccas like Oman, Thailand, and Mallorca and Tenerife in Spain. The combined cost of our bikes would be enough to buy a new Ferrari, with change.

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Our pace is fast. As we are only cycling a mere 40km, the trainees can practise their race. Like Tour de France champion Chris Froome, I spin my pedals in low gear, using oxygen not muscle to do the work. Our peloton acts like a train, hurtling through jungle in a snaking slipstream past ironwood trees dusted with a morning mist, sleeping cows, lazy dogs and clouds of butterflies.

Snatches of conversation are possible on the undulating coastal plain. I chat with Lars, a Swede who sat next to a countryman at breakfast who happened to be an Olympic silver medal-winning triathlete. Clive, from Taiwan, rates Thanyapura as Asia’s premier sports training camp.

Local Thais wave from smoothie cafes, fruit farms and massage joints, all establishments patronised by guests. Alas, we don’t have time to stop for a coconut water.

The sun heats the golden sands of Nai Thon, where the ironman swim will start. Here I catch up with senior cycling coach, Sweden-born Daniel Amby, who is our tour leader for the day.

Amby, a Phuket resident since the 1990s, knows every secret ride on the island. For beach-trimmed charm he recommends the road from Rawai, where tourists can buy crabs from local fishermen before restaurants grill, sauté or steam them, to the lonely peninsula of Nai Harn Beach near Cape Promthep, where Phuket crumbles into the Andaman Sea.

He also rates Rang Hill Viewpoint. Here macaque monkeys dance around temples and golden Buddhas, as Phuket’s Old Town and outer islands shimmer below.

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My final day is spent at my own pace. Thanyapura began in 2008 as a meditation school – before mind and soul cleansing were later joined by body boosting, in the form of fitness facilities and 77 guest rooms. I join group meditation, then the yoga class, both of which are free to all guests. This is followed by a lazy swim and sauna before one last bike ride.

The resort sits alongside the Khao Phra Thaeo Wildlife Sanctuary. I sneak-eat honey pancakes in a roadside cafe – junk food heaven paired with a double espresso – then park the bike and step inside. Towering tulip trees hide deer and langurs, as well as flying foxes and slow lorises. Triathlon coach Phantip runs yearly races through this Jurassic jungle as part of his Born Free To Run foundation, which teaches Phuket youths sports skills.

The youngsters are Phuket locals from all walks of life. “In Phuket we never needed to take fitness seriously because life was always outside,” says Phantip. “Now diets and lifestyle change mean it’s important to keep active – and for me to put something back into the community.”

In time these locals will compete with Thanyapura’s greats.

The writer was a guest of Thanyapura ( Rates for twin garden rooms for two guests are US$130, including breakfast and use of fitness facilities including pools and group classes. Rental for a Cannondale CAD10 racing bike costs US$25 per day.

Thai Airways ( fly direct from Hong Kong to Phuket from HK$2,997 return.