Thailand is not an easy trot from the U.S. It takes strong intention and a lot of patience to sit in a plane for the 15- to 18-hour trek to this land of smiles. Yet, Americans are coming – in droves. More than a million Americans will visit Thailand this year as part of the expected 40 million international visitors the country expects to see in 2019.
Most of those visitors will head to well-trod territories around the country: the beaches of Phuket, the jungles of Chiang Rai covering Thailand’s northern tip around the Golden Triangle, the sophisticated and artful secondary city of Chiang Mai and maybe the party island of Koh Samui. Naturally, a day or two in Bangkok is on the list with its 6-star hotels and 5-star shopping malls, but most visitors will venture forth toward soft sand beaches and raw natural beauty Thailand offers to shake off urban stresses and steep in the slow life for as long as their time will allow.
Business travelers trying to wedge in some bleisuretime between meetings and pit stops might want to go a little farther afield to escape the crowds and Instagrammers flocking to the country’s many stunning temples and UNESCO World Heritage sites. For that “deserted island” effect, the choice would be Soneva Kiri on the island of Koh Kood and the rustic luxury that awaits on Thailand’s fourth largest and least populated island. This protrusion of land in the Gulf of Thailand that edges up to Cambodia along the country’s southeastern borders is so remote that the staff at this 34-key resort are referred to as “Fridays.” It does not matter who it is or what their position, Friday will be the name.
On this outreach of wild land mass that is home to maybe 2,000 people, the Crusoe-style adventure will start at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok where a private, eight-seater Cessna Caravan aircraft takes guests on a scenic hour-long flight to an adjacent island. The island’s dirt landing strip offers a clean and stylish open air bathroom, an open waiting room with a few seats, even a security portal of sorts for enplaning guests.
But it isn’t long before a few “Fridays” come in golf carts to whisk passengers and luggage to an awaiting speedboat for a five minute sprint to Koh Kood and the Soneva Kiri resort. From there, more “Fridays” with golf carts come to pick up passengers and then fan out along a series of jungley paths to assorted fancy stand-alone residences hidden behind forests of bamboo and opening up to secluded manses with private pools and calm private beaches. Like Robinson Crusoe, one welcomes the company of Fridays in these isolated expanses. And as the resort would have it, these Fridays become personal butlers.
Soneva started as a Six Senses resort when it opened in 1995. It eventually became an Evason branded resort but maintains its spa product as a Six Senses spa. The location is odd but in character with the owners who also have island properties in the Maldives.
Villas dotting the island may have one bedroom or up to six and thus are popular as romantic lairs but also strangely accommodating to groups. Layouts vary but generally have large sleeping rooms, outdoor baths, outdoor (and indoor) showers, views on all sides that look out to the ocean or to the jungle but maintaining privacy, separate dressing rooms, private porches or terraces, grand beds with mosquito nets and cooled by ceiling fans (and air conditioning). Our villa had several individual bungalows plus a master suite with a slide from the second floor bedroom into the pool. It also had a private fitness room, plenty of lounging furniture and opium beds, a large dining table in the open air common area and a kitchenette stocked with snacks, fruits, wines and sodas. Each villa was given its own golf cart. As a walker, I balked at the cart amenity but the saturating heat and humidity made it impossible to walk anywhere or spend much time outside when not soaking in cool water.
Cooling off in Koh Kood
So water it will be and there is plenty of it on and surrounding Koh Kood. Guests are taken by speed boat on a 40-minute journey to idyllic diving and snorkeling areas given mostly to parrot and angel fish, but also the occasional turtle.
Unfortunately, much of the coral is now bleached and dead. Our guide alluded to the poisonous effects SPF products are having on the underwater landscapes. Still, no one attempted to stop any of us from slathering it on. Clear blue waters allowed us to see what sea life there still is and we meandered through subterranean rock gardens of spiny urchins and star fish.
On a different day I chose to see the island beyond the resort, which promised a swimming hole with hidden waterfalls. The adventurous exploration took in a precious fishing village where regular ferries from Trat bring day trippers to the island. The island offered some sublime empty beaches in a resort corridor marked mostly with budget bungalows. The island life is raw and natural in its simplicity. This is not a place to go for shopping and nightlife. And, indeed, the promised waterfalls were up a rocky path and commemorated with petroglyphic-like signatures left by visiting kings of Thailand’s past. A few locals and tourists gathered there to swim that day and played with a friendly feral dog looking for handouts.
Adventures in dining, however, are tied to the resort. Soneva has four restaurants and some creative dining experiences to consider. It is not an all-inclusive (although a lavish breakfast buffet does come with the nightly rate) and none of it comes cheap. Accommodations run approximately $1,000 a night.
Among the unusual dining options is a treepod tea hour. Guests find their place at the table within a basket, strap themselves in with what looks like a leather pants belt, and pullies lift them some 50 feet into the trees for wonderful views of the ocean and forests. A waiter ziplines in with provisions, such as little cakes and mini Croques Messieurs and voila! Tea is served. Guests can arrange private beach picnics and caveside mushroom lunches or take a cooking class to prepare local fish dishes. And they should not forget to check out the Cinema Paradiso – nightly classics on a big outdoor screen that seems to float between the palms, complemented by popcorn and comfortable pillows to turn these outdoor movies into memories.
There is plenty to do or not do on Koh Kood, a place far away from everywhere but seemingly close enough to spend a weekend or a week.
Getting there: The private flight to Koh Kood is operated by the resort and runs $600 per person roundtrip. It makes two to three trips per day and can be booked by the resort. Alternatively, guests can take a four-hour drive or one-hour Bangkok Airways flight to Trat, then drive 45 minutes to pick up a speed boat that will take an hour to a arrive at the resort.
More information: www.soneva.com/soneva-kiri, https://www.tourismthailand.org/home