Luxury with a heart: How one Singaporean hospitality group is helping Phuket's needy children
Children come first
Laguna Phuket Food & Music Festival stages its first charity drive in support of the Children First Fund
"Trees are earth's efforts to reach out to the listening heavens," reads a quote by Indian poet and painter Rabindranath Tagore — a saying that isn't out of place when plastered on a wall outside Banyan Tree Phuket's retail shop. The shop stocks MATTER (which Singapore's discerning crowd has come to know as the pants to see the world in), a fashion label by co-founder Renyung Ho, who also happens to be the daughter of KP Ho and Claire Chiang of Banyan Tree Holdings and Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts respectively. These blood ties and Tagore's quote are essential in establishing the importance of what family and community means to the hospitality group which founded Laguna Phuket 30 years ago.
After refurbishing what was once a tin mine, the elder Ho set up Laguna Phuket, which now overlooks seven properties framed by three kilometres of Bangtao beach: Angsana Laguna Phuket, Banyan Tree Phuket, Angsana Villas Resort Phuket, Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket, Laguna Holiday Club Phuket Resort, Cassia Phuket and Outrigger Laguna Phuket Beach Resort. Hot on the heels of Phuket's UNESCO-granted status of a "City of Gastronomy" and in line with Banyan Tree's 30th anniversary, they debuted the Laguna Phuket Food & Music Festival, a three-day event which ran from 3 to 5 March. But they're not celebrating this milestone with their partners alone.
In line with Tagore's saying, the festival reached out to both locals and tourists to support the Children First Fund which was recently set up to support seven orphanages in Phuket: Baan Holland, Baan Lung Pitak, Sosa Orphanage, Baan Suksan, Life Home Project Foundation, Youth Football Home and Phuket Sunshine Village. With food and music as the ultimate icebreakers, over 4,000 participants took part in events such as pop-up dinners, food and music fairs, and a charity gala dinner and brunch. The running theme of "Nourishing hearts, inspiring dreams" was a catalyst that raised close to 2 million baht (approx. $80737) — sufficient to support more than 400 children for at least a year.
Cuisines that care
There's nothing that unites humanity more than food. In fact, you'd want a clash of cultures at a food festival. The festival kicked off with 28 food booths as restaurants all over Phuket popped up at Canal Village, where Laguna Phuket's retail precinct sits. One of the region's champions for inter-racial goodness, the Peranakans, came together with a booth of Thai-Chinese and Malay mash-ups. Mediterranean fare by way of Blue Elephant restaurant dished up ceviche, falafel buns and seared tuna alongside generous portions of sangria. The festival also brought the flavours of Thai and Vietnamese street food in the form of pineapple salads, pad thais and spring rolls. For the adventurous, there was even mango sticky rice in sushi form.
3,000 guests turned up, which saw them split into enjoying the multi-sensory treats as well as kid-friendly activities like face painting and crafts. The Mobile Learning Centre also paid a visit. An effort by Banyan Tree to bring books to underprivileged communities in Phuket, the back of the truck opens up into a mini library, stocking rows of books into shelves as it travels from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.
A night to remember
An angklung performance by the children from Laguna Phuket Kindergarten kicked off the charity gala dinner. With a four-course menu created by chef Audra Morrice (of MasterChef Australia fame), 460 guests dined on her mod Sin version of the traditional lo hei (think: Tasmanian salmon, micro herbs) and XO sauce fish. Apart from the mayhem that follows any charity auction, the real standouts of the night were the speeches by guests such as the Thai minister of tourism and sports Dr. Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul and Phuket governor Dr. Chokchai Dej-amornthan. "Strong families are at the heart of strong communities," said Chiang as her words echoed through the marquee, cementing Banyan Tree's aim to assist in building a society where no one will be left behind.
Starting the morning right with a side of coconut crepes, Banyan Tree gave guests a peek into what goes on at Laguna Phuket Kindergarten. Established in 1992, what started out as a child care centre by Chiang is now a school that teaches 187 students — half of whom are the children of Laguna Phuket's employees themselves. Anyone who works for Laguna Phuket can send their little ones to kindergarten free of charge, and have them taught by 11 certified teachers. Housing 10 classrooms with a maximum of 20 students per class, the centre has grown with Chiang's belief that every child deserves a good place to learn.
Constantly on the lookout for alternative ways to educate the young, the school has a mix of programmes that encourage and uphold different values. The school's diversity day is one where the students put on and showcase their respective ethnic and religious dress in a region that enjoys a wealth of diversity. To teach them the value of money, a small fair is held every last Friday of the month, where students can learn how to sell and buy items from their parents and teachers. To change the behaviour of students who don't like to eat vegetables, the school created a mushroom house, where students harvest and pick their own mushrooms to bring home to their parents.
It's an ecosystem that works. Now well into its 25th year, the school has seen graduates who also send their kids here, while their parents still continue to be employed in Laguna Phuket. Ending the festivities off with a Sunday brunch at Xana Beach Club, diners tucked into international fare presented by the chefs in Laguna Phuket's respective resorts. One to write home about was the melt-in-your-mouth slab of foie gras, nestled juicily in a Yorkshire pudding — a treat that might just be worth all the guilt after a job done well.
You can still contribute to the Laguna Phuket Charity Online Auction from now until 31 March. For details, click here.