A month on Phuket – sun, sand, sea, and food. That was our focus over thirty days on the Southern Thailand island. When we weren’t eating and cooking, we were squeezing in swims, strolls and surfs. We were out to prove Phuket is more than a beach escape.
We were spending a month on Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, to confirm a theory I had that Phuket was just as much a culinary destination as a beach destination, with Phuket cuisine a big draw for those keen to venture beyond generic Thai food.
It was an idyllic postcard view from where I was lying on a sun-bed by a swimming pool overlooking one of Phuket’s more serene beaches.
Lofty palm trees, dripping with green coconuts, sprouted from squeaky-soft white sand. Beyond, the azure-coloured Andaman Sea sparkled. Blue fishing boats bobbed on the horizon.
Other than young Chinese honeymooners taking selfies and a deeply tanned couple watching their toddler splashing at the water’s edge, our stretch of sand was devoid of the swarms of people and junk that usually cluttered Phuket’s beaches.
It was a different scene to before Thailand’s military took power in a coup d’état in May 2014, aimed at ending months of sometimes-violent public protests and squabbling between the two major parties, and army chief General Prayuth Chan-Ocha was appointed Prime Minister in August.
After the junta established power, Phuket’s clean-up began – an initiative aimed at restoring the island’s natural beauty as part of the new leadership’s nationwide ‘Return Happiness to the Thai People’ project.
Before, beaches had been littered with garbage and skirted by tents offering massages and hair-braiding, umbrella-shaded sun-beds three rows deep hogged most of the sand, and vendors continually hassled tourists to buy sarongs, towels and snacks.
Now, there was room to build sandcastles and throw a Frisbee or ball around.
Beach-goers, no longer pressured by Phuket’s infamous ‘mafia’ to hire over-priced sun-loungers, spread their towels out on the sand. Five-star resorts sent staff along with guests to lay down king-size straw mats, scatter colourful cushions about, and set up a beach survival kit of cooler and cold drinks, sunblock and fans.
For this Australian who grew up on long, wide, blissfully empty, white-sand beaches, it was a perfect picture.
If only, feeling peckish, I hadn’t reached for the resort’s menu the pool boy had left earlier with the bottle of icy water and moist lemongrass-scented towels. Hamburgers and fries. Caesar salad. Ham and pineapple pizza.
The only remotely Thai dishes were satay sticks and Pad Thai. And the Phuket dishes? Not a single one.
When we first went to Phuket on holidays years ago, we wouldn’t have really minded. And when we went to Phuket in 2007 on a trip that took us to several regions in Thailand updating restaurants and hotels for a guidebook, it didn’t really bother us either. We happily tested out all the best restaurants on the island, whether they were ‘international’ or ‘Royal Thai’.
In the years since, however, our knowledge of Thai food and Thailand’s many regional cuisines has increased and deepened. We know the differences between the food of Isaan, Thailand’s northeastern region, which is currently having its culinary moment, and, for instance, the food of the Central Plains, Lanna, and Southern Thailand.
It was while researching Southern Thai food that we became more aware of Phuket cuisine and the similarities and differences between the gastronomy of the island (which in fact was once a peninsula) and the mainland. Yet when I began to research restaurants specialising in Phuket cuisine on Phuket, I found myself discovering more eateries offering Isaan dishes.
Further enquiries with local foodies and chefs suggested that Phuket cuisine was endangered – increasingly difficulty to find on an island of ‘international’ restaurants and local eateries cooking up the food of most of the island’s Thai residents: Isaan.
Because as hotel general managers would tell us time and time again, most of Thai resort staffers weren’t from Phuket at all, they had come from the vast northeast, where Bangkok also gets much of its workforce.
And that’s what took us to Phuket for a month in 2014. Not the sun, sand or sea. In fact we were there during monsoon, so things were generally a tad wet.
Our aim was to learn as much as possible about Phuket cuisine, taking as many opportunities as we could to taste it and learn to cook it, to inspire readers of the food magazines we were writing for to forget the fried chicken and som tam and try Phuket cuisine, whether it was Thai dishes done ‘Phuket-style’ in restaurants or authentic Phuket street food in Phuket Old Town.
The following series of stories are from that delicious month on Phuket.