Sep 23, 2022
There’d better be a good reason to get me out of bed before dawn and today, I have found one. I’m meeting Joseph Angelo, actor, filmmaker, self-proclaimed thrill-seeker and Phuket local is going to show me around and share his take on the island where he grew up. These days, the model who first caught the public’s eye during his stint on the Thai edition of The Face may be on set doing his own stunts or jetting off to Bali for a shoot, but Phuket is the home he always comes back to.
We meet up at Royal Phuket Marina, ready to be picked up by Asia Marine Phuket’s Nimbus T11, a Swedish boat that is the first of its kind in Thailand. As he pilots us out into Phang Nga Bay, Ben shares his knowledge of the lesser-known islands in the area, as well as his excellent playlist, before Joseph takes a turn at the wheel and revs the engines on our way to Hong Island.
We are the first to enter the pristine lagoon at Hong Beach, and instantly I know that the early morning departure was worth the effort. Almost entirely enclosed by dramatic cliffs and filled with crystal clear water, Joseph and I paddle around on kayaks and go for a quick dip before we have to share this little slice of paradise with others.
Then we’re off to family-run Treehouse Villas on Koh Yao Noi, where the accent is on local people and local produce. No plants that aren’t indigenous to Koh Yao Noi have been planted here, and nearly all the people who are employed here are from the island. In the resort’s garden Joseph chomps on a chili right off the plant. Southerners like their food with a kick. We have a chat with Supaporn Potpradit, executive assistant manager, Treehouse Villas Koh Yao Noi, who tells us about her desire to keep the island unspoiled, the way she remembers it when she was a child.
I love the contrasts apparent in the tree house villa, with up-to-date tech like a smart TV for catching up on series, but completely surrounded by nature. “It’s basically like you’re in the jungle,” Joseph enthuses. “You feel like you’re Tarzan!” Short of swinging on vines, I couldn’t agree more.
Joseph tells me that if you really want to understand Phuket, then you need to explore where the locals go. As a teenager, he went to an international school in Koh Kaew, but his friends all lived further south, so he’d hitchhike his way down to Nai Harn or take one of those distinctive red songthaew, converted pick-up trucks with two benches in the back that serve as Phuket’s bus system. For old time’s sake, we hop on one of the new, more compact songthaews to go and explore Phuket Town.
Phuket Town, which many people just call Meuang Gao or “Old Town,” is the historic heart of Phuket when the island was a center of tin mining on the trade route with China and the Malayan peninsula. Our first stop is the Bookhemian Café, a pleasant stop for books, chocolates and prosecco. Joseph points to the rooms upstairs where he has attended art shows and film screenings. Before we leave, he picks up a few fridge magnets made from Polaroids of Phuket scenes by a local photographer.
By now we’re hungry so we head to One Chun, the retro eatery that has become a favorite with Thai tourists looking for pungent southern flavors. The fact that the restaurant has received a nod in the form of a Michelin Bib has only made it more popular. The owner, Chuleeporn Chessadawan, tells us about the distinctive flavors of southern food, rich with chilis, the funk of shrimp paste and herbs and veg that only grow in the south. Faced with so many choices, we struggle a bit, but ultimately pick a selection of dishes including crab meat curry with rice vermicelli and chili paste with dried shrimp that come with its own plate of greens and vegetables for dipping.
Another spot in Phuket Town where you’ll find Joseph regularly is Natural Restaurant, a wooden house lush with trees and plants, crisscrossed by water and streams. “It’s like you’re in a home but it’s cozy and kind of weird,” he says about the place that locals call Thamachat Restaurant. “It’s a very cool design.” His go-to order? Morning glory, and fried rice in a hollowed out pineapple.
I’M WITH AN island boy, on Thailand’s most famous island—it’s time to hit the beach. Joseph wants to show me the southern shores that he grew up with. Kata Beach is known for having the best surfing waves in Phuket, and while the island isn’t known for its big swells, this is a good place to start. Peak surf season is from June to September, the window in which we’re visiting, so Joseph grabs his board and heads out into the clear waters. After a quick dip, I buy a fresh coconut, spread out my towel and try to concentrate on my book, though the people-watching distracts me with its idyllic serenity.
Another day, we head to Nai Harn Beach where Joseph spends most of his time when he’s on the island. A cliff jumping accident at low tide recently left him with broken bones, but his attachment to the beach remains intact. “This is still one of my favorite places to find peace in Phuket,” he tells me.
There are lots of street-food carts nearby and Joseph confesses that he has a weakness for one vendor in particular. “I call him the roti god,” he says when he spots the cart selling the flaky flat breads that are a typical snack in the south. “He’s very charismatic, a very lovely guy. I go almost every day.” He gets his usual, a special roti with extra chocolate and banana. “That’s like my cheat day,” he grins… then quickly admits, “Every day is cheat day!”
I’m left to wonder how he can have a cheat day every day and still look model fit like he does. The jerk.
The unscheduled snack doesn’t prevent us from fully enjoying dinner at Phuket’s newest and most talked about seafood restaurant. At Samut, head chef Chatchawan ‘Banky’ Varahajeerakul serves up elegantly reinterpreted dishes from the coastal regions of Thailand. Hoi shell sauce ka min is a delicate dish of scallops, turmeric and green apple, and pla meuk nam dum is squid, squid ink and cured duck egg cooked in banana leaves. This latest venture from celebrity chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn, located just a few hundred meters from the beach, is a hit with locals and visitors alike. As Phuket in general is making a stronger play towards Michelin aspirations, the opening was wisely timed.
OUR FINAL STOP is the Sinae Phuket, a brand-new locally owned luxury resort on Koh Siray. We are greeted by the property’s general manager Eddy Brosse. “He’s very lovely, very welcoming,” Joseph comments. With only wild monkeys for neighbors, we settle into our pool villas (every room has a pool). Despite its secluded location, we’re still just 20 minutes from historic Phuket Town.
As we unwind on this cliffside watching the water and listening to birdsong, Joseph reflects on his childhood and why as an adult he chose Phuket as his home. “It was paradise, man,” he says.
Some things never change.
Phuket International Airport is the island’s airport, with multiple daily flights from Bangkok, other major cities in Thailand, and many international destinations, making connections seamless from just about anywhere in the world.
Phuket is also connected to Phang Nga province on the mainland by the Sarasin Bridge, officially the Thao Thep Krasattri and Thao Sri Sunthorn Bridge, named for the warrior sisters who defended the island in the 18th century.
Siray Island just off the southeastern coast of Phuket may not be on everybody’s radar, and that is exactly how guests at Sinae Phuket like it. The resort is in the middle of the jungle with killer views of Siray Bay, but the resort’s studios, suites and villas, many with private pools, offer more than a touch of luxury. www.sinaephuket.com; Studio Pool Villas from Bt5,375.
Secret Thailand Exclusive Offer: Stay in a Sky Pool Villa or Duplex Pool Villa for special rate of Bt21,000 and Bt32,000 respectively per night. The deal also includes: breakfast at Sinae Bistro; one cup of Starbucks; one Thai set dinner for two people, food only; complimentary minibar; special welcome amenity; Smart Concierge by HandiGo; and complimentary meals for children up to 4 years old. Contact the hotel directly to book: 66-7/639-0388; firstname.lastname@example.org
Whether you choose a treehouse that you access by a suspended bridge or a villa, you’ll get your own pool, hammock-shaped bathtub and amazing sea views. Keeping things local and sustainable is the top priority at Treehouse Villas. The resort aims to be zero waste, and grows a lot of its own produce on site. www.treehouse-villas.com; TreeHouse Villas from Bt9,797.
Bookhermian is a coffee shop that also serves chocolates and bubbly, with a used book store and an arts space upstairs. www.instagram.com/bookhemian; coffee from Bt70, sandwiches from Bt145.
One Chun has a retro vintage vibe about it. They serve up mainly Southern Thai food but also have crowd pleasers like som tam (papaya salad) and yum sam grob (a tangy crispy salad). fb.com/OneChunPhuket, a la carte items Bt150-350.
Natural Restaurant is a wooden house with both indoor and outdoor seating dotted with statues, shadow puppets, fountains, pools and lush greenery from the courtyard to the rooftop. fb.com/naturalrestaurant; à la carte mains Bt150-220.
Samut, the newest fine dining fish and seafood restaurant on the island, is a hard table to score. Since there are just a dozen seats, you want to book in advance to avoid any disappointment. www.instagram.com/samut.phuket; tasting menu Bt2,290; wine pairing Bt2,200.
Also known as Koh Hong, this is just one of the outer islands around Phang Nga Bay that you can visit on yachts and catamarans from Asia Marine Phuket (asia-marine.net). Hong literally means “room” but in these islands the term refers to the lagoons of crystal clear water like the one at Hong Beach. You can also make the climb to the top of the island for a spectacular 360º panorama of the bay. Koh Hong is part of the Thanbok Khoranee National Park so this is a destination for day trips only. Joseph’s T+L tip: arrive in the early morning hours to have the “hong” pretty much to yourself.
One of the most popular beaches in Phuket, it’s home to a range of high-end and family resorts, but it never feels as crowded as, say, Patong Beach further north. This is where you can surf from June to September, whether you’re looking for your first lesson or if you are already an experienced surfer. You can also indulge in parasailing, paddle boarding and a host of other activities. The street food in the parking lot by the central entrance is legendary; follow up dinner at a shorefront seafood restaurant with a chill at the reggae bar on the rocks.
Many of the shophouses here that date back to the turn of the 20th century have been turned into quaint and infinitely photographable boutiques, cafés and guesthouses. Don’t miss the lively Sunday walking street where vendors offer all manner of food and souvenirs. The walls of the old buildings have also attracted street artists like Alex Face, whose world-weary babies and other characters have a huge following.
Nai Harn Beach
For locals who live in the area, this southern beach may just be Phuket’s most beautiful. More peaceful than some of the west coast beaches, the vibe here is chill. Get a massage on the beach, grab a snack from one of the street food stalls or explore nearby coves like Ya Nui or Ao Sane beaches. Enjoy a touch of luxury at bars and restaurants of The Nai Harn (www.thenaiharn.com), the beach’s classic hotel, or indulge in the coastal cuisine of newcomer Samut. Rawai Beach down the road offers a wide range of more casual restaurant options including Rustic and Blue By the Sea (fb.com/rusticandbluepluket), which has great natural wines, healthy bowls and indulgent comfort food.