On a remote tropical isle in Thailand,finds that being a modern-day Robinson
BORDERED BY CAMBODIA to the east and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest, the Thai province of Trat is one of the least visited in the country. While much closer to Bangkok than Phuket, Krabi or Koh Samui, it’s been eclipsed as a tourism destination by all three, as well as by Hua Hin and the resort towns of Chonburi that lie within easy drives from the capital.
Quite why is hard to fathom, for southeast Thailand is as lovely as anywhere in the country, a place where green, forest-covered hills dissolve into the deep blue sea in a shimmering patchwork of paddies, ponds and causeways – a coastline so delicately intricate that it’s hard to work out quite where the land ends and the ocean begins. Equally enticing is the string of islands that lies along Trat’s western horizon, verdant blobs in the sparkling water and all – with the singular exception of Koh Chang, which has seen a steady growth in tourism over the past decade – largely devoid either of inhabitants or visitors.
Anchoring the southern end of this island chain off the point where Thailand and Cambodia meet beside the sea, Koh Kut has remained unknown to all except a handful of hardy backpackers. But with one of the most exuberantly imaginative resorts I’ve ever experienced now attracting affluent adventurers to the island (and, just as important, with Thailand’s recent political nastiness having moderated to a more civil normality), no wonder it’s suddenly making an appearance on the luxury tourism map of Southeast Asia.
Spread out around a bay, a headland and a kilometre or so of coastline at the northwest tip of Koh Kut, the resort in question is Six Senses’ Soneva Kiri. Although reached from Bangkok via a one-hour flight aboard an eight-seat Cessna, which touches down on nearby Koh Mai Si, followed by a brief blast over pellucid turquoise water to the resort’s jetty in a gleaming retro-style speedboat, it’s a world away from the city. And to reinforce the sense of remoteness, the resort even occupies its own micro time zone, one hour ahead of the mainland (and, for that matter, everywhere else on the island).
Spectacularly expensive, but so casually laidback as to be almost supine, it’s also the last word in what the travel industry likes to call barefoot chic. Disembarking the speedboat, we cross a shallow pool on a bridge whose arched thatched roof resembles a Borneo longhouse and arrive at the heart of the resort, which is constructed almost entirely of wood bleached bare by sun and sea, raised on stilts, and linked by elevated walkways and decks that gently ascend the hillside. Enlivened by bold splashes of primary colour and blocks of blue-green glass whose striated sides appear as if hewn from the sharp end of a glacier, the various structures are as coolly funky as they’re shipshape and chic, exuding the air of an encampment knocked together by a boatload of designers who washed up on the beach below.
That castaway ambience is taken even further in the guest villas, whose white canvas roofs poke out from among the palm trees, and stockade-style compounds with furnishings cleverly contrived to look as if they’ve been improvised from steamer trunks, giving off a distinctly Crusoe-meets-Tarzan vibe.
Although by no means the biggest unit in the resort (some retreats, as they’re known, have as many as six bedrooms and a network of swimming pools and slides that would comfortably cater to a moderatesized resort), my beach villa is absolutely enormous. It’s so huge that I have constant difficulty deciding whether I’m going to settle myself on one of several bright yellow daybeds facing the private pool that extends along the front of the villa, walk down to my personal patch of beach at the water’s edge, stay in my room with the windows opened out onto the garden, or stretch out on the divan in my outdoor “bathroom” (in which there’s also a capacious Jacuzzi and a choice of two showers).
With the array of mod cons on hand, including a flat LCD screen that rises from within a stack of “trunks” at the touch of a button (though to comply with Soneva Kiri’s “no news, no shoes” policy, there’s no TV signal but rather a DVD player), an iPod dock and a flashy espresso machine, it’s admittedly fanciful to imagine spear-wielding natives milling about outside. Indeed, whenever I do open my front gate, all I find is an electric golf cart ready to whisk me around on the several kilometres of paved pathways that meander around the resort.
As a planned – and much anticipated – day trip by air to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat falls victim at the last minute to Cambodian red tape, it turns out that I have ample time to explore Soneva Kiri, both on foot and in my buggy, during the next three days. The resort’s main area is an easy stroll from my villa, so I’m constantly popping back and forth to the bakery (or as they rather archly call it, Ever Soneva So Deli-cious), where the world’s tastiest baguettes, along with croissants, pastries and cold cuts, are laid out for us to help ourselves. A similar arrangement holds in the gaily decorated and utterly irresistible ice-cream parlour and chocolate room, from which a constant stream of guests emerges throughout the day, guiltily licking lips. Equally accessible but in the opposite direction is the Six Senses Spa, where I enjoy a deliciously relaxing late-afternoon treatment in an open-air sala, cooled by the gently wafting breeze.
The Beach restaurant, with its woodfired and tandoori ovens, as well as cooking pits, quickly becomes the place for lunch, followed by a laze on an ocean-facing sun bed beneath the palm trees, while evenings bring me to The View, which serves locally caught fish and seafood, and organically grown vegetables, as diners gaze out towards the horizon, the sunset and the moon. Conveniently placed next door, the Wine Cellar has an upstairs tasting room, where a glass-topped dining table reveals an impressive collection of vintages, displayed one floor down in dramatically lit alcoves.
Unmissable, too, is the resort’s off-property Benz’s restaurant, reached by a boat ride along the coast and up a creek lined with mangrove and palm trees, where the food is authentic, classical Thai and the ambience not quite Heart of Darkness – but you get the idea. Following a morning visit to a nearby village fish market, I return to Benz’s two days later for a tutorial, in which I learn one or two secrets to perfecting the art of Thai cookery.
There’s also the dining pod, in which a maximum of four guests are winched high into the rainforest canopy for breakfast, lunch or dinner, where they’re served by a smiling waiter who artfully balances plates, jugs and tiffin boxes, while navigating himself back and forth by a system of ropes and pulleys. It’s certainly a memorable place to dine, though after 30 minutes aloft and with nature calling, being stranded up a tree does begin to have its limitations.
Otherwise, save for an afternoon picnic beneath a nearby waterfall, I’m perfectly happy to loiter in the lap of luxury in my beach-front villa, splashing about in my absurdly large pool, relaxing with a book (but, to be accurate, more commonly dozing) on the deck, bubbling in my Jacuzzi and generally doing nothing. In fact, so content am I to lock myself away inside my stylish stockade that when the time finally comes to leave, I’m seriously considering grabbing a hanging vine, hoisting myself into the trees and staying put.
I don’t, of course, but it is with genuine pangs of regret that I reluctantly pack the Samsonite, make my way down to the boat and begin the journey home.
+ The Siam
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ The Pavilions
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Phnom Penh
+ Buenos Aires
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Passage to Hong Kong
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ Samui Wind
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ Wolgan Valley
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Langham Hotel
+ The Best of Boston
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI
+ ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO