Big Motor Lovers in Phuket

Confession: I’m a biker chick wannabe. I wrote this story for Window on Phuket magazine a few years back. Republishing here in anticipation of the Phuket Bike Week festival, which runs this year from April 14-21.


Long before ‘lifestyle design’ concept came into vogue there was a group of people in Phuket, guys mostly, who were travelling a decidedly offbeat path to success. Alongside Phuket’s growth into an international tourism destination, they built their lives and businesses around a love of living loud and fast with motors to match, assaulting the streets with their choppers, Harley-Davidsons, sports bikes and sexy cars.

Call of the wild: Phuket big bike tour.

At the forefront of this big motor lifestyle design is Somnuek ‘Nicky’ Phonkaew, who has parlayed his passion for roaring engines into a thriving business that keeps stretching into ever more pockets of Phuket life. Starting out with a Patong biker bar more than a decade ago, he now runs a multi-faceted operation that includes a biker-themed resort, Harley tours and rental, big bike repair and detailing, a private villa, and luxury sports car tours.

Stepping into Nicky’s Handlebar is like entering the headspace of a manly man in fantasy mode. The bar-restaurant is filled to the rafters with biker memorabilia from around the world, and the beer is served quickly and ice-cold. Tucked away behind the bar is a shop with some 20 Harleys and other gleaming big bikes, as well as a hot red Ferrari and yellow Lamborghini. Behind this is the 27-room Handlebar Hotel, a vivid illustration of Nicky’s quirky personality and motorhead aesthetic tastes: loads of colour, cheerful with a bit of grit.

Big-bike elements are infused throughout the design, from the metal sun loungers made from gears to door handles of stainless-steel motor parts and wrenches. The rooms are in steel-toned concrete with rustic teak ceilings, and a large biker-styled lighted logo at the head of the bed. Blue lighting glows from the bed’s underside. There are no whips or chains to be seen, but they wouldn’t look out of place here.

A soothing retreat? Hardly, but that’s the point.

Helping Nicky bring alive his vision of a motor dreamland was John Underwood, one of Phuket’s top designers whose distinctive industrial style and elaborate lighting designs are seen in many top resorts and villas in the region.

Nicky’s also formed another unlikely creative partnership with his newest hire, Kevin Shortt from Ireland, who has joined the growing business as General Manager. Polished and clean-cut, looking less a biker than someone who’s just stepped off the pages of GQ magazine, Kevin brings in some considerable hospitality experience, having worked for a number of five-star branded resorts around the world including Four Seasons, Banyan Tree and Le Méridien.

It seems that between Kevin’s marketing skills and Nicky’s extensive motor-lover network they won’t have any trouble filling the rooms. Indeed, Nicky reveals that for Phuket Bike Week, an event that takes place every April during the Thai Songkran New Year’s festival, his hotel is fully booked for the next five years.

The hotel and bar are certainly great places to unwind, but the main attraction at Nicky’s remains … The Ride.

Nicky runs his Harley tour with his cousin Jarod ‘Kai’ Rakton, who, though quieter and more reserved than Nicky, is probably the world’s most cheerful biker. Both born in Phang Nga, they delight in taking groups of five to 13 riders on tours around the back roads and stunning scenery of their home province. 

There are few better ways to explore the Andaman region than on a Harley, squinting in the tropical sun while streaking past coconut trees and karsts, being part of a sparkling serpent of bikes rounding the curves, motors revved to the max.

The day tour covers some 250 kilometres, starting in Patong and winding its way up Phuket’s west coast, then over the bridge to Phang Nga. A lunch stop on a floating restaurant, a visit to a big glittering cave and scenic rides along coastal roads are among the highlights, but it’s the camaraderie and thrill of chewing up miles of tarmac on a powerful, beautiful bike that make the tour especially memorable. Those wanting a longer ride can join the Ranong tour, a two-day adventure covering 900 kilometres.

Nicky’s amazing and unlikely trip from rural Phang Nga to the bright lights of Patong has been taken firmly in the fast lane, but one wonders if, after more than 20 years of riding and married with a three-year-old daughter to care for, he might now be ready to mellow out.

When asked, Nicky smiles slyly, whips out his iPhone and starts a video. Recording from the inside of his Lamborghini on a recent drive, the video camera is fixed on the speedometer as it zooms from 80 kilometres per hour to 100 to 150, and then climbs further and further up to a heart-stopping number well beyond 250kmh, the sound of the engine screaming in the background.

Slowing down? Not quite yet. Nicky’s big ride has only just begun.