Phuket Thailand Smiles Once Again For Visitors

by Denise Hummel
When Fred Varnier, General Manager of the Amanpuri Resort and Spa in Phuket, Thailand did his rounds at about 9 a.m., the morning of December 26, 2004, he noticed a strange, large puddle beside the pool. The weather had been dry for days and guests had yet to swim in it that morning. While he was ruminating about it, he received a call from Richie, an Australian lifeguard down at Amanpuri's private beach. "I've never seen the tide this low," he said, "You'd better come take a look." Fred's curiosity was peaked so he made his way down to the beach where 50 guests were already taking in the sun and gazing at the pristine white sands and crystal waters of the bay. What he saw alarmed him. The tide was indeed so low and so far out that local long boats were resting oddly and precariously on their keel. He didn't know where all the water had gone, but he was certain of one thing. It would have to come back.

Calmly, but swiftly, he evacuated the beach. Had he made the observation one day prior, the evacuation would have been incrementally more difficult. On Christmas day the beach was considerably more crowded as the Amanpuri had orchestrated an elaborate party, focused on the hotel's younger guests, complete with Santa Claus and elephant entertainment. Guests were told to leave everything and to immediately make their way up the stairs to the hotel, situated elegantly and safely on a cliff overlooking the sea. Moments later, a wall of water surged forward, taking out every beach lounge chair and umbrella on the beach. Minutes after that a second wall from the opposite direction took out the ocean-side gym. Fifty Amanpuri guests owe their lives to a savvy, young lifeguard and a confused, but decisive General Manager. The puddle of water Fred had seen earlier that buttressed his decision to evacuate the beach had been the result of the earthquake, too far away for people to take notice, but strong enough to have moved a significant amount of water from the pool to the surrounding walkway.

For the weeks that followed, Amanpuri sent a convoy of their hotel trucks filled with employees to Khao Lak, formerly an up and coming beach town which had been a tourist departure point for boats to the Similians. It was one of the hardest hit communities, and while the town was spared, most resorts were destroyed and many tourists and Thais were lost to the ocean's fury. Amanpuri employees, many of whom were trained in first-aid and most of whom spoke other languages, were among the first to aid the survivors in their quest to find loved-ones and to seek medical attention and shelter in the days to come.

In visiting the Amanpuri on October 5th this year, one would hardly be able to guess that it had been so close to such destruction. The gym has been rebuilt, beach chairs and umbrella's replaced, and the coral reef which abuts its beach, although probably changed in an ecological and geological sense, remains as beautiful as it was on Christmas day. The spirit of the Thai people, and indeed all employees of every nationality was clear to me, although directed to more pleasant endeavors, that being spoiling their guests who were back to frequent their favorite hotel and spa so quickly and in such numbers that the hotel was at 93 percent occupancy at the time of my visit.

I have come at a unique time, at the beginning of Ramadan and of the Chinese Buddhist Vegetarian festival. The Vegetarian Festival has attracted people in record numbers, locals and tourists alike, and the town was filled with street vendors selling local vegetarian delicacies. There is an air of festivity, although the holiday is also quite intense spiritually in that locals who practice Chinese Buddhism attend temple every day, walking kilometers in procession from one temple to another, some in a deep state of trance, preparing to engage in what can only be described as the self-flagellation and even mutilation that marks this ten-day period. Body "piercing" without anesthesia are among the rituals performed.

Back up the hill at the Amanpuri, surrounded by a coconut grove and insulated from the rest of the world, including the holiday commotion below, guests prepare for their spa treatments, so relaxed that they look like they are in a trance of their own. The usual spa body scrubs and reflexology treatments exist, but this is no "usual" spa. It was created by Zecha as a world of holistic healing with the world-renown consult of Rosamond Freeman-Attwood. Everything flows here: harmonious service, massive treatment suites with the serene backdrop of the ocean, and a black granite steam-room which is bigger than my living room in Italy. A Thai fruit-facial and a 90-minute Thai massage that is a combination of European technique and Thai gymnastics that centers the body and the soul is something to be experienced at least once in a life-time.

The Aman resorts are probably the most famous in Asia and are noted for having repeat guests, "Aman-Junkies" as they are known, who like me, a mere Aman novice, but striving junkie, like to go around telling their "in-the-know" friends and colleagues just how special these properties are. Thus my reason for telling all of you! Apart from the usual consistency of service, this particular Aman location is situated on a spectacularly beautiful peace of property with breath-taking views from almost every area of the property. Ed Tuttle, American architect and designer, has created a hotel which is a series of pavilions and villas, made of Maka wood (similar to teak) infused with such exquisite Thai design that one hardly wants to leave the property.

However, like me, you like to take in the local scenery and culture, I highly recommend a boat trip to Phang Nga bay. By Amanpuri yacht or kayak, the startling limestone formations jutting up from the sea will leave you speechless and humbled at the immense beauty of mother earth. If paddling isn't your cup of tea, let the Amanpuri staff cater to your every need as you sit back and take in the scenery.

I asked Fred Varnier what message I could give to my family, friends and colleagues in the United States. "Just tell them to come back as soon as possible," he said, "While we have been spared destruction and loss of livelihood here at the hotel, others in the area who rely so heavily on tourism to support the local economy are dependent on tourists having faith that this environmental anomaly will not revisit us in these next centuries. Let them know that we have recovered and that we are more than capable of receiving them with warm smiles and open hearts."

I did visit Khao Lak, one of the areas hardest hit by the Tsunami. Boats washed from the sea kilometers inland and still leaning precariously against buildings or beside roadways signal the absurdity of focusing on zoning set-backs from the ocean or formulating emergency drills. We must accept this historic event as a once in a lifetime seismic event and move on. As I headed back to the hotel to prepare for my flight to beautiful Chiang Mai, I asked my driver. "I have heard that Chiang Mai is quite spectacular; which do you like better Phuket or Chiang Mai." The Thai culture figured prominently into his response, "Well," he answered, "Chiang Mai has the mountains --- but we are lucky. We have the sea."

Many rebuilt hotels in the area are offering discounts that we will not see again as consumers, perhaps ever. There is no better time to come to this great land, both for our own enjoyment, and to be a part of the process of healing. As the Thais say, "Yin-dee-ton rub-krub-ma" -- simply said, "welcome back."

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