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Thai Surprises

In a pair of Phuket resorts on opposite coasts, the expected is upended.

At Sri Panwa in Phuket, slate-surfaced infinity pools run the length of the coveted pool villas.  


When Sutep Patsuteesutti of Studio Chemistri in Bangkok set to work on two family-owned Phuket resorts—the lavish Sino-Portuguese-style Sri Panwa and the swank Baba Beach Club—his goal boiled down to one word: surprise. Let other designers talk about seamlessness or discretion. This is not to say that Patsuteesutti was indifferent to local styles and surrounding nature (quite the opposite). But his designs make a mark, demand comment, inspire joy. It’s a direction Patsuteesutti has honed over his 17-year career. 

Sri Panwa, which enjoys a spectacular position on a 40-acre peninsula, dates from 2005. The completion of three phases resulted in 45 pool villas, plus penthouses, pool suites and residences—all expressed in a resort version of the Sino-Portuguese style found in Phuket town. Sri Panwa draws upon this low-rise colonial style, the vivid blend of Chinese and Western elements that originated in Macau, near Hong Kong. I have the good fortune to stay in LV1 (room rates from $800 per night), a pool villa from the third phase. Composed of two pavilions—a master suite and living-dining space—the spread is connected by a dark-tiled infinity pool. I am underwater when I discover the glass window beneath the surface; it affords me a view of the coastline while I hold my breath. (“That’s the sense of surprise,” Patsuteesutti tells me later.) Inside, the Sino-Portuguese touches include the stained-glass reveals on the sliding doors and a gray-green screen designed in a local tile pattern.

Meanwhile, the main reception building boasts a spectacular water garden on the roof; narrow rooftop paths lead to dining and lounging areas that actually sit below the waterline. “I wanted to create something extraordinary that people will remember,” Patsuteesutti says. But the resort’s fourth phase, called the Habitat, is what really gets the designer going. It’s a multilevel structure that feels like a resort-within-a-resort, with a bar, restaurants and suites with their own plunge pools. The main pool commands considerable attention, evoking nature by eschewing a rectangular shape. “Instead we created a wavy design with a waterfall,” Patsuteesutti says. The pool, surfaced in a shade of green Balinese slate that changes color with the light, feels organic and simple. The roof that soars over the Habitat reinforces the rainforest aesthetic. “The wooden roof and balustrade were designed to look like leaves,” Patsuteesutti explains. “It’s a more tropical look."

Baba Beach Club features a striped granite pool shaped like a Chinese key.

Located an hour’s drive on the island’s northwest coast, Baba Beach Club delivers a different kind of experience altogether. Featuring an audacious design to exceed the beach club standards of international destinations like Ibiza, Baba is nevertheless homey. A pair of sweet house dogs nap in the lobby and walk the toffee-colored beach. “It should not feel like a resort,” Patsuteesutti says, “but like a family compound surrounding a central pool.” In line with Patsuteesutti’s tendency to look for surprise in water features, the designer lined the pool with wide diagonal granite stripes in black and white.

Baba Beach Club, with just 16 villas and suites, offers its own interpretation of the Sino-Portuguese style—and the fact that it looks and feels so different from Sri Panwa is a lesson in the flexibility and richness of Phuket’s colonial architecture. Of course, some of the striking effect is no doubt due to the integration of the colorful Shanghai Tang style. The most noticeable design motif is what Patsuteesutti calls the “Chinese key” form; in a doorway, it consists of a large circle that sits atop a small base. “The view is framed through the Chinese key,” Patsuteesutti explains. “The entrance is constricted, then opens up.”

In my two-story Gabana Villa (room rates from $665 per night), sloping dropped ceilings, crafted in pale oak, serve to “tuck in” the bedroom, while the glassed-in bathroom is lined in handmade subway tiles from Spain. “They are imperfect and should not look manufactured,” Patsuteesutti decrees. In my little garden, Chinese symbols are carved into the richly grained square teak doors that lead to the pool—a circle within a square, like those found on the sidewalks in town. Patsuteesutti notes that Baba Beach Club looks especially impressive in drone shots; though modestly sized, the resort is not shy about advertising its jewels. And Patsuteesutti is not hesitant about sharing his aspirations for the project:

“I wanted,” he says, “to create a landmark.”