Often cited as the kind of bucketlist stay that alone is worth the trip to Phuket, legendary resort Sri Panwa has maintained a league of its own since opening in 2005.
Almost 15 years later, the property, which tops the jagged jungled-covered Cape Panwa along the island’s south-eastern tip, has welcomed celebrities and royal family members from all over the globe. Snoop Dogg (while going through his confusing Reggae-tinged “Snoop Lion” phase) once shot a music video there (warning: terrible song) with Rita Ora; Rihanna swears by it; the hard-to-impress Gordon Ramsay approves; Mariah Carey most recently booked their top-tier villa, the new “X24”. But even without the superstar approval, Sri Panwa has long been validated as one of the dreamiest resorts in Asia.
There are the obvious requisites of privacy, opulence and immaculate service that have propelled Sri Panwa to legendary status. But something else makes it stick out amongst other five-star resorts, and after spending two nights there I think it has something to do with the youthful energy, genuine sense of fun, and lack of pretentiousness. It has something to do with the soul.
There is an infectious vibe that runs through the resort. You can feel it from the 65 terra cotta villas that are generously spread across the cape, to the jaw-dropping rooftop floating bar of Baba Nest that is so popular, with its oversized pillow seating and peerless view over, that even resort guests who haven’t booked well in advance will miss out (they get priority though). You may have seen it on numerous “best rooftop bars in the world” lists over the years.
A World Away
Privacy comes with certain costs. There’s not too much to do in the immediate area surrounding the resort other than walk around and fawn over the billion-dollar views that scan the Andaman Ocean – sparkling turquoise vistas interrupted only by mountainous islands like Ko Lon and Ko Mai Ton.
Phuket Aquarium isn’t far, and it’s only around a 25-30 minute drive (in usual traffic) to the island’s gorgeous Old Town, where boutiques, coffee shops, and street art help give life to the historic area alongside colourful Sino-Portuguese architecture.
Don’t feel like telling your friends back home that you fell in love with a resort so hard that you just stayed there the entire time and didn’t actually see much of Phuket? Much like Sri Panwa’s young sister Baba Beach Club up North, the resort encourages guests to get out and make the most of their trip through easily organised excursions.
Private yachts and speedboats are available, and staff are more than happy to organise a trip to the bucketlist Phang Nga Bay, the nearby Phi Phi Islands, or the even close trio of Racha, Coral and Lone islands. Sri Pawna’s connections in Phuket know no limit, so guests also have access to reputable private diving instructors, safari adventures, golf clubs, and other activities like sea canoeing and fishing, where guests can bring their catch back to the resort and have a team of chefs prepare it into a five-course meal.
Sri Panwa also seem to offer “elephant trekking”. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, so wasn’t able to ask any staff exactly what that entails. But if it includes riding, then please resist the temptation. Luckily South-East Asian countries are finally phasing elephant riding out, albeit not fast enough. Only demand can drive this change.
There are no less than six food and drink options on-site, and they are all within easy walking distance from one another. Traditional Thai is found underneath the main reception outpost, fuelling the underground atmosphere of Baba Soul Food. Chargrilled meats come straight from an open kitchen at Baba Hot Box, where the flames of a Spanish Josper BBQ keeps flavours tightly packed. Yum cha and other Chinese favourites fill the gorgeous space at Baba Chino. Mexican inspired bites accompany cocktails at the aforementioned Baba Nest. Excellent seafood is meticulously served piece by piece at Japanese restaurant Baba IKI. And all-day dining is concentrated at Baba Q, where the resort’s buffet breakfast is found by day, and rustic Italian is served alongside Hot Pot favourites and basic Thai by night.
May I remind you that Gordon Ramsay stayed here. And if he didn’t like it, you can bet he would be shouting it from the rooftops.
Me? I liked mostly everything I tried. The deliciously juicy meats at Baba Hot Box, the generously stuffed dumplings at Baba Chino, and the surprisingly fresh sashimi at Baba IKI were stands outs. The latter featured what is perhaps the best chu-toro nigiri (medium fatty tuna) I have had outside of Japan, amongst other stand outs like cold Japanese noodles with zaru truffle sauce, salmon roe and black truffle, and a grilled firefly squid served with Himalayan salt and lime.
The sole disappointment would be Baba Q’s breakfast buffet, which for a resort of this magnitude features a very small selection, nothing of which was memorable enough to mention.
Baba Poolclub, the 5000sqm pavilion home to Baba Q, Baba IKI, function rooms, and a games room, is the hub for Sri Panwa’s social scene. One of the resort’s two tennis courts is located opposite its entrance, and it’s not much of a walk on over to the fully-equipped modern fitness centre where Muay Thai Boxing classes and personal training sessions await.
Before guests reach Baba Q, there’s a small space with friendly staff waiting to assist guests with whatever they need, including making the aforementioned activity bookings.
A 25-metre infinity-edge pool can also be found here, edging on to a beautifully designed space of sunken booths surrounded by water, peering out over the resort’s small beachfront. Climb down some stairs and you’ll reach another, much smaller, and much quieter pool nestled amongst the tropics.
Further down you’ll soon reach the rocky beach, which is tiny and quite bare save from some sunbeds and a long, wobbly floating dock, off which you can dive into the ocean. Those expecting an actual beachfront may be left feeling a bit short-changed, but this cosy little inlet of sand and ocean water is still a popular place to relax (and snorkel).
Back at the Poolclub is Baba88, tucked away on the bottom floor of the pavilion. It’s the resort’s secret(ish) nightclub space, decked out with all the modern necessities inspired by hotspots from around the world, including LED lights and disco balls. Although it’s only used occasionally, especially when international DJs pop by for a party. There was no activity during my stay, but you might want to keep an eye out on this Facebook page for any updates.
Rounding out the amenities is the Cool Spa, and as expected service here is held to a very high standard. The space is spectacular as well, feeling like a true escape from the rest of the resort – a peaceful inner sanctum that also takes advantage of extraordinary views of the Andaman Sea. It’s small and boutique in design, coloured with attractive references to Sino-Portuguese architecture.
Plunge pools, vitality pools, a steam room cove, and a floating yoga deck are all features, while the six treatment rooms are tucked away underground. Though many of Phuket’s luxury resorts seem to prefer their treatment rooms come with lavish views, Cool Spa opt for the faint sounds of waterfalls and complete privacy.
Is this the best rooftop bar in the world?
The cocktails are great, but not mind blowing (opt for some of their top-shelf imported wines instead). The food is decent, but nowhere near the level of quality found at Baba IKI and Baba Hot Box. However, they could serve me a schooner of the worst beer in the world (Victoria Bitter) and I’d still say this was up there amongst the greatest possible drinking spots on earth.
Baba Nest is a flat deck with only enough oversized coloured pillows and tables for 30 guests at a time. One, this means you won’t have many people in the way of your inevitable 2,000 Instagram shots. Two, it keeps things feeling nice and intimate as the relaxed vibe swirls around the open air and downtempo house creeps through.
And by open air, I do mean open air.
Surrounded by an infinity-edge pool (too shallow to swim in) that snakes from one end of a small bridge to the other, Baba Nest is entirely exposed, feeling like a flat bird’s nest perched on top of the world.
There’s a distant infinity pool in sight – atop a private residence – but beyond that is nothing but those turquoise waters and bumpy islands. Needless to say, the view is further enhanced at sunset, when the sky turns into a dreamscape of pinks and oranges folded on top of one another. Phuket’s sunsets are already famous; Baba Nest trumps all expectation.
Baba Nest opens nice and early at 5am, allowing guests to book in for sunrise yoga. And you can imagine how special that is.
Head downstairs to a breezy space reserved for cooking classes. Another addition to the list of activities guests can book in for during their stay.
The main types of accommodation are split between Sri Panwa’s original private pool villas, which each sit greatly spread out in rows amongst the tropics, and the resort’s newest development The Habita, best thought of as a luxury hotel deep within the resort grounds with 20 modern pool suites and 10 stunning penthouses, each with their own infinity pool.
The Habita is a slick building, facing its own large Olympic sized forest waterfall pool, as well as both Baba Hot Box and Baba Chino. Within are suites lifted by thoughtful design, bringing in a bit of retro cool with a clear love of high-concept features like Smeg fridges and maximised views.
Guests staying in the original villas still have access to The Habita’s common areas, which also include the craft cocktail focused Shishi Lounge.
Though it’s the breathtaking private pool villas that remain Sri Panwa’s most iconic accommodations. With one to two bedroom options, they are the height of luxury living on an island paradise, each featuring their own 12 meter infinity-edge swimming pool which slinks around the main pagoda-like bedroom like a protective moat.
Guests can wake up, slide open the floor-to-ceiling glass doors (of which there are several) and simply dive in, swimming up to the edge for a view that’s almost as jaw-dropping as the one up at Baba Nest (almost – the view at Baba Nest will turn you into a view-snob for eternity). I have never spent so long just soaking in a pool, jets on, looking out over the endless expanse of natural wonder.
The villas feel absolutely private and untroubled, with careful design and measurement ensuring that neighbours can’t even see the pool next to them.
A separate glass-encased sala with a day bed, second bathroom and kitchen is fronted by a dedicated sun bathing terrace. There are numerous pre-loaded iPods, with music that you’d actually want to listen to, in both rooms (although my playlists are better and I want my Bluetooth). The bathroom includes a private sauna, enormous jacuzzi and an essential outdoor shower (no one can see in, no matter the angle) with views over the Andaman. Traditional hand-crafted furnishings blend seamlessly with the tranquil vibe. It’s an exciting, addictive stay, to say the very least.
Sri Panwa’s Managing Director, Wan Issara, is a beacon of classic hospitality with modern sensibilities. Surprisingly young for such a mammoth role, his friendly and relatable approach to guests (he joined myself and a group of journalists at Baba Nest for sunset) puts him amongst the most approachable hotel managers I’ve met over the past few years. It’s clear his worldliness and constant travels have led to a personality that fits seamlessly with the resort’s vibe: fun, refreshing, unpretentious.
But all of this wouldn’t mean much if Issara’s strong grasp on hospitality wasn’t mirrored in his staff.
As he explained himself. Sri Panwa doesn’t have much of a turn-around when it comes to staff. I guess everyone just loves working here so much that they stay for as long as they can. This has created a tight-knit group, which in turn has strengthened the communication and consistency in service.
It’s all greatly finessed, and ninja-like as guests will barely notice the energetic staff as they make sure a metaphorical red carpet is laid out at all times. Everything happens smoothly, with no bumps – the way five-star service should be.
You’re looking at nightly prices starting from around THB$16,000, which at the time of publishing is AU$737 for a Pool Suite West. That’s nothing to take lightly, but it’s far from the most expensive resort in Phuket (Trisara springs to mind).
Worth it? You’re damn right it is.
If you were a fine toothed comb you’d surely find some things to sigh about (no real beach, no Bluetooth), but all things considered, Sri Panwa is an exceptional experience and absolutely deserves its untouchable reputation. Luxury has never been this soulful.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Address: 88 Sakdidej Rd, Vichit Muang Chang Wat Phuket 83000, Thailand
Contact: +66 76 371 000
The author stayed as a guest of Sri Panwa.
All images by Chris Singh unless otherwise tagged. Feature image supplied.