Monday, 23 January 2012

The Colours (and Shopping) of Phuket

It’s a well known fact that Thailand is a shopper’s paradise, but until recently I was a little underwhelmed by the retail therapy opportunities in Phuket. To me, its roadside markets seemed a little tired and ho-hum, a motley collection of unflattering beach wear, faux hilltribe crafts, bad designer copies and shirred cotton dresses that look like they’ll fall apart after one wash, all sold under the guise of holiday bargains.

But while I do to some degree lament the ascendancy of mall culture in Thailand, I must admit to being a massive fan of the Jungceylon Shopping Complex in the heart of Patong. Not only can you escape the tropical heat to shop in air-conditioned comfort here, but everything a bargain hunter would ever want is within its 200 stores, from handicrafts to international designer goods, all at brilliant prices. 

Here you can also indulgence in a Japanese facial, which seems to have become somewhat of a Phuket specialty, with at least three similar salons competing for business on the ground floor. My favourite is Takashi, where sweet, mask-clad girls lay you on a high-tech bed, stroke your hair, cover your face with a cool white cloth, then set about steaming, cleansing (with a bizarre vaccuming device) and purifying your skin, all for a special promotional price of 300 baht (for about 30 minutes)

*NB – there are also Takashi salons in Bangkok, Pattaya and Chiang Mai, in Central Airport Plaza.

I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that Phuket has its own burgeoning cottage industry, the art of batik. This oriental artform has been adopted by the island, and adapted with its own unique colours, designs and methods of production, with bright tropical flowers and marine themes a specialty.


Unlike in Indonesia where wood blocks are used to create uniform patterns, Phuket’s colourful designs are freeform, with artists painting the colours directly onto natural fibres. A synthetic bees wax is used to contain the liquid, creating pure, crisp lines and allowing the intense colours to stand alone.

The artform was apparently introduced to the island by a Javanese art instructor,  Adjaan Chuchart Ravichan, who, while teaching at Phuket’s local college, began experimenting with painting bright floral and underwaters scenes onto cotton. “The quality of light on Phuket is very bright. I wanted to capture the vitality of nature, both the tropical vegetation as well as the corals and fish that surround the island,” he’s quoted as saying.

One of Adjaan’s students, Chai Chansongsang, carried on his legacy, selling batiks on the streets then approaching local hotels who agreed to put his beautiful sarongs, shirts and scarves in their gift shops. And so a new industry was born, with the artform employing many local people in several workshops on the island. Khun Chai has also become somewhat of a local celebrity, designing batiks for members of the Thai and Dutch Royal families, and having his batiks featured in fashion shows in Europe. His fabrics also greet tourists as they arrive at Phuket, his colourful banners blowing in the breeze outside the international airport.

For tourists who’d like to learn the art of Phuket-style batik, there are free workshops available at Khun Chai’s shop, Chai Batik on Chao Fa East Road, located midway between Phuket Town and Chalong.




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