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‘Please don‘t touch him. And please don’t make eye contact with him either. Also please don’t talk to him’. With those instructions, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we’re getting ready to meet a particularly prickly Hollywood A-lister. But we’re not. We’re just being told by Tam, our guide, what not to do when we’re individually blessed by the Buddhist Monk who’s sitting cross-legged in orange robes in front of a 50ft reclining gold Buddha.
We’re in Thailand, in Wat Tham Suwannakuha, which is a temple built inside caves, north of Phuket.Tam also demonstrates the highest level of greeting we should offer, reserved for ‘royalty, monks and angels’. This means hands together, as in prayer, thumbs at the bridge of your nose, and the steeple of your fingers up to your hairline (the higher the thumbs, the more respectful the greeting). When it’s my turn, the monk douses holy water over me, and then gives me a bracelet. All in silence.
it’s a special experience and not at all what I thought I’d be doing here. I had an idea of Thailand as nirvana for backpackers – all friendship bracelets and full moon parties. But there’s so much more to it than that. And now Phuket has just got a lot closer with the first direct flights launched from the UK courtesy of Thomson. It’s just twelve hours away.
Of course, it’s wonderful for winter sun. Kate Moss regularly sets up camp here, escaping our gloomy winter weather – and Rihanna was here recently. I would happily run the risk of sharing the sand with a paparazzi-ready, sample-size supermodel.
We’re staying at the Marriott Khao Lak resort and spa, about an hour north from Phuket in the Phang Nga province on the south west coast. We’re off the beaten track, down a bumpy road. We pass a block of flats, some tethered elephants and parked mopeds, a few market stalls. Our hotel sits camouflaged by tropical giant palms, right on Khuk Khak beach. The swimming pool is really unusual and immediately inviting; it’s nearly two miles long and winds around the building, rather like a tiled canal. It’s the biggest pool in southeast Asia, I’m told. But if there is a bigger one anywhere in the world I’d be amazed. On my daily circuits, I glide past small groups of people chatting and end up knowing more about one guest’s medical history than I do my own.
There are three restaurants: Italian, Japanese and Thai – and enough gluten-free offerings at breakfast to keep even Gwyneth Paltrow happy. But there are also really charming small cafes (cheap as chips) and massage huts, all on stilts and right on the beach. The massages cost around £15, easily as good as any you might have in a swanky spa but with live background music of the waves rather than canned clanging of mating whales. It’s so tempting to never leave the resort and limit daily decisions to sunbathing locations; pool? Or beach? There are plenty of British families and several young Scandinavian couples who seem to slip easily into perfect unaccented English at the drop of a panama hat. We take a speedboat to Ko Phi Phi, island hopping and stopping off at Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh, the small island made famous by the movie ‘The Beach’. It’s a glamorous way to arrive. These days it’s about as deserted as London’s Oxford Street on Christmas Eve and our captain tells us that by 10.30 in the morning, there’ll be 1,000 people on Leo’s beach.
Though it’s busy, the island’s natural beauty shines through and it easily accommodates the throngs of tourists. In fact, the Thai’s are very proud of their showbiz connections. They’ve even renamed Khao Phing Kan island (actually two islands, covered in dense forest with a tall limestone rock, like a 65ft high nail) James Bond island, in honour of ‘The man with the golden gun’ which was partially filmed there. As we queue up to take photos next to the island’s sign and younger people upload their ‘selfies’, I notice that the Russians among us take an impressively creative approach to holiday snaps. The women are in full make-up, with long, glossy hair expertly curled over one, bare shoulder as they pose with arched backs in their skimpy bikinis. Our captain stays out of the sun altogether, his face completely covered and Tam does’t tan either. He says paler skin is more highly regarded here.
My favourite day trip is also by speedboat, and also island hopping, but to the beautiful Similan Islands.The Similans are nine islands of giant granite boulders and white sand in a protected marine national park, right in the middle of the Andaman Sea. While they’re not undiscovered, they remain completely unspoilt. The sea is bright turquoise and so clear you could read your kindle underwater. It’s warm enough that I leap in (without spending the usual 40 minutes inching in) and cool enough to be refreshing. The snorkelling is mesmerising; we see huge schools of clown and angel fish, striped, translucent, iridescent, and beautiful every one, and sea turtles, coral and sponges. All things bright and beautiful. All that’s missing is the enlightenment that I was desperately hoping for from the monk’s blessing. But that’s a good thing; I may have to return for a refresher blessing.