An earthly taste of paradise

A rich man’s getaway in Thailand affords the writer a peek at the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

By
April 23, 2010 17:04
Thailand

thailand 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

For all the multimillionaires among you, jaded by the usual holiday destinations, your next vacation just has to be at the Soneva Kiri resort on Koh Kood, a small, pristine island overlooking the Gulf of Thailand on Thailand’s east coast. Luckily, Koh Kood also has resorts catering for the budget conscious and backpackers, but first let’s concentrate on luxury.

Open only since December, Soneva Kiri is the ultimate holiday hideaway. Arrive at Bangkok Airport at say 10 a.m. and, thanks to the resort’s private plane and landing strip, by noon you’ll be in your spacious villa (we’re talking more than 400 square meters here, some reaching up to 1,000 sq.m., complete with private swimming pool and patio, the majority with a sea view), ready to do absolutely nothing in perfect peace and harmony.

Actually that isn’t totally true, there are plenty of activities to keep one busy, but the emphasis at Soneva Kiri is on the slow life and relaxation with a capital R. Run by the exclusive (that means very, very expensive) Six Senses Resorts and Spa company, Soneva Kiri (www.sixsenses.com/Soneva-Kiri) seeks to pamper its guests while maintaining an atmosphere of pastoral simplicity.

And with a ratio of five staff to every guest, pampering is easily achieved. Every villa has its own Mr. or Mrs. Friday (the name comes from Robinson Crusoe’s servant “my man Friday”) for whom no request is too large or small.

Service is a traditional Thai characteristic and from organizing whatever activity is wanted or just being on hand to offer a welcoming smile or a much-needed cool drink, the local employees work hard but seemingly without effort to ensure that all is well in what can only be described as an earthly taste of paradise.

The overriding concept of Soneva Kiri is “intelligent luxury.” As Six Senses owner Sonu Shivdasani explains, there might not be any marble in the bathrooms or gold taps, but instead the bathroom is a stunning 100 sq.m., including an outdoor shower for those who really want to enjoy the feeling of being close to nature.

Indeed, the resort is environmentally friendly, but without forgoing the better things in life. Each villa is constructed from ecologically forested wood and guests travel around the 100-acre site in electric golf buggies. Organic vegetables are grown using compost from waste food, and imported water or plastic bottles are banned from the resort.

The three different on-site restaurants place the emphasis on locally purchased food, but there is also a fantastically well-stocked wine cellar for those for whom dinner is incomplete without a vintage Burgundy. Thai food is stunning, particularly at Soneva Kiri, but challenging for the kashrut observant, as seafood and pork feature prominently. The resort’s top restaurant, a 10-minute speedboat ride away situated on a shack built over the water, doesn’t have a set menu. Chef Khun Benz simply takes whatever catch has come in that day and creates that night’s dinner based on the freshest ingredients that she can put her hands on.

“Not having to make a decision [over what to eat for dinner] is a luxury for the top-level executives who come here on holiday, as they have to make hundreds of decisions a day in their working lives,” notes Shivdasani.

Another intelligent luxury, he adds, is that the food is fresh and local, “not the type of food that you can get anywhere else.” A further boost is that Khun Benz is on hand on Tuesdays to take guests shopping to the local market and then hold a cooking class based on the purchased ingredients.

A TYPICAL day in this paradise might include a snorkeling trip to a coral reef a 30-minute private boat ride away. Once back aboard the boat after swimming among the multicolored fish and attractive coral, Mr. Friday is immediately on hand with a soft, fluffy towel and a refreshing cold glass of water. Snorkeling helps one to work up an appetite, so a beautifully prepared and served picnic lunch on one of the island’s private beaches provides the perfect solution, followed by a spot of sunbathing, looking up at the coconut-laden palm trees that provide some much-needed shade.

Come late afternoon, it’s time for a massage at the spa. This being Thailand, the list of massages and treatments on offer is exhausting, and one needs a lie down to recover from the effort of making a decision as to which treatment to take. The soft hands of the masseuse and the hot oils leave one’s skin glowing and positively radiating good health. There are both male and female masseuses, so if one has a preference, it is easily taken care of.

My holistic massage was an out-of-body experience, as I found myself drifting off into the dream-filled zone between sleep and wakefulness. It was certainly very different and much more pleasant than the fish massage I had later in a market in Bangkok, where you simply put your feet in tank filled with small fish, who then come to nibble at your legs.

After dinner, the seriously minded can retire to the library, full of the latest in award-winning English-language novels as well as a variety of nonfiction works, all chosen by Sonu Shivdasani’s wife Eva (hence the name “Soneva” in Soneva Kiri). Unlike other libraries, if you’re only in the middle of your book by the end of your stay, there’s no pressure to finish it quickly – you simply take it home with you.

The outdoor Cinema Paradiso is another evening entertainment option, showing Hollywood films on a massive screen and top-quality sound system. The combination of the night sky, popcorn and top-of-the-range alcoholic drinks makes this a unique cinematic experience.

The whole ambience at Soneva Kiri is definitely adult, but the resort is also child friendly. There is a children’s club in the trees, complete with wooden drawbridge locked by a secret code given only to the children, meaning parents have to request permission to enter. In this little world, overseen by full-time child minders, activities include learning traditional Thai musical instruments, origami, craft work and such. There are even sleep-over parties in a tree house, with the child minder staying around the clock with the young guests.

“The children of our guests tend to be prisoners at home,” notes Shivdasani. “They’re chaperoned by bodyguards and driven everywhere. Here they can run around, and we try to give them a space of their own.”

Naturally, all this doesn’t come cheap. The quoted price for a stay at Soneva Kiri ranges from around $2,000 a night to $10,000, depending on villa size and view, and if you want to buy your own home on the resort (so far nine of the 22 villas built as private residences have been sold), prices start at upward of $2 million, reaching $9 million.

Thankfully, Koh Kood is not just the preserve of the rich. The island also has a number of resorts catering the more budget conscious family or individual backpackers. The Peter Pan resort (www.peterpanresort.com), for example, offers excellent accommodation at a fraction of the price of Soneva Kiri, and also provides snorkeling, scuba diving and night fishing as well as a wide variety of massages, all very reasonably priced.

The island, the fourth-largest in Thailand, is just as beautiful at Peter Pan as it is at Soneva Kiri, with soft white sand and water as clear as a mirror, as well as the inland rain forest with its stunning waterfalls. Obviously there is no private jet to take you from Bangkok straight to the Peter Pan resort; you first have to make your way from Bangkok to Trat, and then take a lengthy ferry trip from there to the island, but it’s a journey definitely worth making.

ABOUT 110,000 Israelis visit Thailand each year, and they tend to visit Bangkok, the beaches of Phuket in the south and mountains and jungles in the north. Indeed, go to any of the huge shopping malls in Bangkok or outside night street markets, and you’re bound to hear Hebrew, even from the merchants gently hawking their goods at zil hazol, the cheapest possible price.

But there are other regions worth visiting, such as the northeast and the Khao Yai national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. A couple of hours’ drive from Bangkok, those looking for luxury accommodation can find it at Muthi Maya (www.muthimaya.com), which offers beautifully designed villas, each with its own pool, situated inside the forest area. Advertised rates start at $667 a night, but better rates can probably be negotiated.

For golfers, the resort backs on to the Kiri Maya 18-hole course, designed by Jack Nicklaus and set within natural surroundings with panoramic views of Khao Yai’s lush greenery and mountains. The adjoining Maya Spa will help soothe away any aches and pains brought on by a faulty backswing.

Activities in this area include trekking in the rain forest (you need to take care not to step into the piles of elephant dung along the trail or fall into the crocodile-infested river), nighttime safaris when you have a better chance of actually seeing the elephants and gibbons who live in the forest, visiting the numerous and spectacular waterfalls and rafting.

For those who want a taste of Thai culture, the Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical offers examples of traditional Thai dancing and theater, including the appearance of elephants on stage, but is not for those who find watching elephants dancing to music distasteful. I chose to skip the exhibition of elephants using their trunks to paint childlike pictures of trees.

Again, as in Koh Kood, there is no need to stay in luxury villas to holiday in Khao Yai, with hotels such as the three-star Greenery Resort providing the answer to families traveling on a budget. Its well-equipped swimming pool and nearby adventure park make it a perfect location for a few nights’ stay.

NO STAY in Thailand, however, is complete without a few days in Bangkok, a fascinating if frenetic city, where you’re just as likely to be stuck in a traffic jam at 2 a.m., as indeed we were when returning to our hotel from the excellent live jazz and blues Saxophone Pub, as at any time during the day. When choosing your hotel in the capital, make sure it’s close to a Skytrain or MRT underground station so you can avoid the clogged roads.

As Bangkok is hot and humid all year round, it really is worth going for a comfortable, well-situated hotel where you can rest, shower and change and then get back out into the city without losing precious time. We stayed at the five-star Grand Sukhumvit Hotel (www.grandsukhumvit.com), which answered all these criteria. Room rates vary according to whether you book on-line or via a package with a travel agent, so it’s best to shop around, but this being Thailand, rates are far cheaper than they would be for a similar hotel in Europe or the US.

If you really want to live it up in Bangkok, the Vertigo Grill and Moon Bar, an open-air restaurant on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel, is the perfect spot for an evening meal. Towering over the city, with the mighty Chao Phraya River winding its way beneath you, the food does justice to the view.

For a closer view of the river, you can take a river cooking class cruise run by Manohra Cruises (www.manohracruises.com), departing from the jetty at the Marriott Hotel. You need to book in advance (the cost is about NIS 240 per person) and if you’re kashrut observant, tell them in advance so that the dishes can be suitably modified.

The morning-long cruise includes a stop at a local food market to stock up on the day’s ingredients and ends with a Thai lunch you yourself have made. It has to be said that my chicken in spicy green curry was not a success, but my stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts and dried chili was a triumph! Along the way, as you’re eating, you get glimpses of the Grand Palace and Temple of Dawn, whetting the appetite for visits to these fascinating and beautiful buildings.

A word about getting to Thailand: We flew courtesy of Royal Jordanian, which meant a stopover at Amman. At no point did we feel uncomfortable about being Israelis in Amman Airport, and the duty-free there is much cheaper than at Ben-Gurion Airport. With Royal Jordanian offering cheaper prices to Bangkok than El Al, I would have no hesitation in flying it again.

The writer visited Thailand as a guest of Royal Jordanian Airlines, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) and Noya Tourism.


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