A luxury resort in southern Thailand is on a mission to help travellers forge deeper connections with their destination. Rough Guides editor Amy Hopkins visited Banyan Tree Phuket to give it a try.
Occasionally, my job as a travel editor catapults me into the surreal, parallel universe of a five-star resort. For a few dream-like days, I swap the office and school run for a swim-up bar and private butler. Yet, the problem with these kind of luxury stays (hear me out) is that you can end up ensconced in a fluffy five-star cocoon and fail to get to know local people, or grasp the impact of your stay on their environment.
At Banyan Tree Phuket, a luxe resort set on a lagoon in southern Thailand, I had access to everything I could desire, plus a few things I didn’t even know existed. I chose my pillows from the pillow menu, experienced a two-hour massage that left me struggling to speak (in a good way), and I ate breakfast from a vast floating platter in my private pool.
While there will always be a market for this sort of indulgence, high-end holidays are evolving. Increasingly, as well as floating breakfasts, luxury travellers want to learn about the intricacies of their destination. According to Ritu Mehrotra, Commercial Director at Booking.com, an outcome of the pandemic is that travellers are “more mindful of their impact on the destinations, and [have] a desire to connect authentically with local communities”.
The Banyan Tree Group, which owns hotels across the world, is striving to facilitate the bond between travellers and locals. Its Stay For Good programme encourages hotel guests to spend time – and crucially, dollars – in the wider community. At Banyan Tree Phuket I was among the first to try a new Stay For Good initiative (launched October 2023) that connects hotel guests with the residents of a nearby village, Bang Tao.
With a handful of hotel guests, I took a 15-minute minibus ride west from the hotel to the village, home to around 150 people. We stepped from the bus into a small clearing overhung with coconut palms, where life-long resident Son Taya Kong Thip was waiting to greet us. He held a football-sized coconut in his left hand and a small, stainless steel cleaver in his right. Without breaking eye contact, Son Taya Kong Thip smiled warmly and expertly hacked a hole in the top of the fruit. “Call me Tik”, he said and handed me my drink.
Community cooking is part of the Stay For Good experience. I joined local women to to prepare a meal of herbed rice, served on waxy banana leaves. Bending over a wooden table, shaded by a coconut palm, we chopped watercress, lemongrass and chilli, and mixed the ingredients with our hands.
As we worked, Tik described how the members of his community work together through a combination of farming, cooking and selling. “In Bangkok, it’s easy for a person to live alone, but out here we need each other.” He added, “even older people have jobs to do”, and cast a cheeky glance at my fellow cooks. Adjusting his hat, he said, “we stay strong together”. I couldn’t help wonder whether Tik recites this for every tourist group, but either way, his sentiment seemed to come from the heart.
Lunch eaten, Tik climbed onto the driver’s seat of his fire-engine-red tuk tuk, and I perched on the wooden bench behind with another Stay For Good visitor. We sped through the village on an uneven concrete track, passing elevated wooden homes and a shopfront adorned with faded Walls-branded bunting. We shrieked with laugher every time our faces were slapped by the banana plants and ferns that crowd the road.
After a few minutes, we arrived at Bang Toa’s fruit orchard. Tik picked a bunch of rambutans, egg-shaped and the same bright red as his tuk tuk. I peeled a chunk of hairy skin from one of the fruits to reveal its eyeball-like seed - then jumped when a small army of black ants scurried out and dispersed over my hand and wrist.
Tik led me to a small rubber plantation. We spotted a man busily hacking at a tree trunk with a machete and collecting the runny sap (a process called tapping). I was a little surprised to discover that this farmer, Mr Leb, is 82 years old.
Finally, we embarked on a gentle jungle trek, which was relaxing until I almost face-planted into a web guarded by a hand-sized golden orb-weaver spider. At the top of Bang Tao hill, we paused to look out over the island, where buildings and roads are scattered among the broccoli-green vegetation.
The land surrounding the Banyan Tree has a remarkable history, which I discovered while sailing on the lagoon, on one of the resort’s wooden long-tail boats. I was joined on the boat by Anthony Loh, Vice President of Laguna Phuket, a hotel that neighbours Banyan Tree. A small and immaculately turned out man – his shirt buttoned to the top despite the heat – Anthony has been here since before the land was bought in 1984. The purchasers, Singaporean businessman Ho Kwon Ping and his wife, fell in love with the area while on holiday and planned to build a resort on the 222-hectare site.
In those days, the water in the lagoon was bright turquoise. It looked idyllic, but the striking colour concealed a sinister secret: this is the site of a long-abandoned tin mine, which poisoned the land and the water. “Mining in those days was dig and dump,” Anthony explained. In the late 1980s, pumps were lowered to the bottom of the lagoon. “But when they pulled them up a few months later, the pumps were gone,” he said. The water was so toxic, it eroded metal.
Environmental surveyors declared that nothing would ever grow here. “It was a sandy, muddy place back then,” Anthony said, rubbing the back of his neck and surveying the dense plant life on the banks to the lagoon. “There was nothing here.” Undeterred, the new land owners embarked on a decade-long clean-up operation to make the land fit for habitation.
Through an extensive process of trial and error, hundreds of species of indigenous plants were reintroduced to the landscape. So far 7,000 trees have been planted and there are hundreds of saplings growing in the resort’s adorably-named pocket forest. Fish have been bred and released into the lagoon, too.
These days, the water is clean enough to swim in, although Anthony’s stories might make you think twice. Twelve years ago, he told me, he was part of a team who rescued and rehomed a 2.5m long crocodile – not a native, but an escaped pet. “He was happy in the lagoon,” Anthony reflected.
I spotted a small monitor lizard weaving elegantly across the water’s surface. The lizards can grow up to three metres in length, and the snakes even longer. “All our security guards are trained snake catchers,” said Anthony proudly, which caused a tourist standing close to us to grimace. “Don’t worry,” Anthony added quietly, “a snake wouldn’t be interested in you. You’d take far too long to digest.”
The skies above us were silent 25 years ago. Now, out on the lagoon, I heard at least three distinct bird calls at any one time. Over two hundred species of birds have migrated to the area. “Nature is righting itself,” Anthony said.
The impact of resorts on local environments and communities is a complex issue, particularly at a time when it’s fashionable for travel companies to flaunt their sustainable credentials. There’s little doubt, though, that over the past 30 years, the local environment has been regenerated by Banyan Tree Phuket.
There are also genuine efforts to extend the visitor experience beyond the walls of the resort, which in turn empowers local residents. A floating breakfast is pretty special, but it doesn’t compare to the experience of exploring Bang Tao with Tik, and laughing together as I shook ants from my arm. Connecting, however briefly, with new people and unfamiliar places – that’s the real luxury of travel.
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Room rates in a Serenity Pool Villa at Banyan Tree Phuket start from £337 per night including breakfast and taxes/fees.
The Stay for Good programme starts at 3,500 Thai Baht (approx £79) for 2 people including transport, cooking class and other activities.
How to get there:
Qatar Airways’ return airfares from London Heathrow to Phuket start at £1,135 for Economy and £4,861 for Business Class (prices subject to availability and can change).
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