The perfect antidote

Chilling out at the Himmaphan villa in Phuket

"Hell is other people," concluded Jean-Paul Sartre in his play 'No Exit'. I can't say whether this is true in the afterlife, but it certainly can be the state of affairs when on vacation.

This is why I get a little curmudgeonly when faced with a big resort in Southeast Asia, despite their obvious attractions.

Enter the private villa. My girlfriend's colleague was getting married in Phuket. In the past we had stayed at some very comfortable resorts but we thought we should try something different. We settled on spending a weekend at a new villa residence, the Himmaphan.

It's a good name. In Thai mythology, Himmaphan is a magical forest that had the power to rejuvenate visitors. It's pronounced with an audible 'p', although my Cantonese girlfriend preferred to aspirate it, point to me and say "Him ma fan (troublesome)." Fortunately her trilingual pun was about the most mental activity that was required of us during our stay.

We were met at Phuket's international airport by Khun Sompob, the villa's driver. The villa is located on the trendy West coast, just south of the Laguna complex. We wound through little villages and rice paddies to our destination. The Himmaphan is tucked away and doesn't announce itself. It's not like travelling to one of the big hotels at nearby Laguna; the villa complex is discretely situated within a little village. At hand to greet us was Michael Murphy, the villa's general manager, with a complimentary cold drink.

The complex itself is an arc of six spacious pavilions clustered around a pool with a striking yin-yang design. The main building that opens to the pool houses a kitchen and dining area, a common room to chill out to music, and a separate room with modern communications for those poor darlings that can't escape from e-mail. There are also bedrooms upstairs in the building, creating effectively eight villas.

The pavilions are spacious and done up â la Jim Thompson of Thai silk fame. They are well designed, both beautiful and utilitarian, opening onto the pool but set back enough to be private. Each offers a wonderful en-suite bathroom. Overall the complex offers an effective mix of traditional Asian charm and modern chic.

Although the Himmaphan can arrange for a massage on the premises, we opted to take ours at the Laguna, whose offerings were open to us. The villa sources Thai and Western food from the nearby Red Room restaurant, and placing orders with the Himmaphan staff is a quick affair; the food arrives 10 minutes later by scooter. The staff will prepare anything you want if you tell them what you'd like, and the villa can also provide you with your own chef upon request. There is also a complimentary breakfast, and we enjoyed taking our meals poolside while taking breaks from this vacation's reading - Umberto Eco for me and Dan Brown for her.

The location of the villa is close to everywhere we wanted to go. The Laguna complex is less than 10 minutes away. Patong is roughly a 15-20 minute drive South, and several beaches such as Bangtao are also inside of 10 minutes' driving distance.

The cost of staying at the Himmaphan is less than at a resort, and yet it offers access to the same amenities. Khun Sompob was available to provide us a lift, although there was also a cluster of tuk-tuk drivers just around the corner. Guests at the villa are advised, however, to take one of the villa's cards along. The Himmaphan is relatively new and its location is unobtrusive. Some taxi and tuk-tuk drivers don't know it.

The Himmaphan is a very comfortable place to stay for people who want to unwind and enjoy Phuket. It would also make a marvellous site for a group, as my girlfriend noted.

With up to eight villas available, it can comfortably fit a big family or a circle of friends. Whether just getting away from modern life's bustle, or hosting, say, a wedding party, the Himmaphan with its private pavilions and shared pool is ideal for a gathering of just the people you want to be with. It would also make an excellent location for a business' offsite gathering, as it has the internet and telephone connections to make this possible.

Like the nobility of Thai lore, we emerged from this contemporary Himmaphan wearing big smiles and feeling completely de-stressed. Not ma fan at all.

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