Thai Hideways

by Kit C.Cauw

Diamonds and Bombay Sapphire
Destination: Racha Island

My first memories of Racha Island include the most bizarre Christmas pageant ever, one which featured the Christ Child emerging full-grown, and covered in tattoos, from beneath Mary's gown.

The production was held at Baan Raya, which was, in 2001, the most up-market bungalow operation on the island, on a hill beside cliffs that plunged to the sea. The night's clarity and bright stars were the only elements of the pageant that rang true to the original story. Audience members didn't seem to know whether to laugh or gasp at the sight of the Prince Of Peace, wrapped in swaddling clothes, standing wobbly upon the grass, having clearly consumed more than his fair share of the night's grog. As the laughter and shock wore off, the newborn clutched a staff and shouted in a heavy Finnish accent, "Follow Baby Jesus to the sea!"

Down at the base of the hill, where the rocky coastline breaks to host a small bay, a red light glowed from the water, increasing in luminosity until a man's head came into focus, crowned in bright red light sticks, rising from the depths. A diving mask, regulator, and long, drenched beard followed, then the man's scrawny torso, clothed in red, a sack of presents clasped in his hand, a dive belt tight at his waist. This is what happens to Santa Claus in the tropics-his blubber, so necessary at the North Pole, melts and he makes his annual visitations with the aid of SCUBA tanks rather than reindeer.

Until recently, one didn't read much about Racha Island, also known as Raya Island, which was one reason that my family and I had chosen to visit for Christmas. We spent four days there, snorkelling the same bay from which Santa had emerged, walking along the dirt and sand pathways that led through the coconut plantations to other coves, beaches, and small restaurants. Just 12 miles south of Phuket, it was small, with but a handful of huts and a few sturdy bungalows. Water buffalo wallowed about in the mud and the only motorized transport was a tractor that had been rigged up with a seating platform and a separate luggage shelf. The beaches, of fine coral sand, practically glowed in the dark, they were so white. Underwater, the reefs, though not as diverse as some, flourished; a school of barracuda called Bungalow Bay home, countless varieties of bright reef fish swam about, and rumour had it that the occasional manta would put in an appearance. Its sandy bottoms, clear water and proximity to Phuket made Racha the perfect training site for beginning divers; most open water courses conclude with dives here.

Racha was beautiful, quaint and very quiet, but offered little more than tranquility. The walks through coconut palms were memorable and made us feel productive and well exercised. The diving and snorkeling were good, but without the great abundance of life that draws people repeatedly to the Similans and other marquee sites. Accommodation was nice, clean, but hardly luxurious. It was the kind of island that you left feeling happy for having visited but without any burning desire to return, unless you were of a reclusive nature. Accordingly, while Krabi's Phi Phi and Lanta islands have boomed into warrens of bungalows, reggae bars, roti pancake stands and even luxury resorts, most people never knew that one could even stay the night on Racha, let alone find a meal or a pint.

Enter The Racha, the new five-star boutique on the island's most perfect beach. Overnight, the island that nobody ever mentioned became the talk of the town. Delays in opening only fanned the flames of anticipation; the resort had only just got up and running when it garnered inclusion on the Conde Nast Hot List 2004 as one of the best new resorts in the world.

The concept of development divides my thinking. On one hand, when I hear that a new resort is being built, I cringe and wonder when is this ever going to end? When is enough? On the other hand, I get curious. I want to see what is happening, if any progress has been made since the destruction of such destinations as Patong and Samui. I want to know if people have learned anything from the mistakes of the past. In the case of The Racha, I wanted to assess-in my utterly subjective aesthetic way-the impact upon the island. Since our Christmas visit, I had thought about returning but always concluded that I had seen everything and done everything already. Suddenly everything had changed. Suddenly luxury called. If tastefully done, I surmised, the transformation of Koh Racha would be nothing short of exquisite.

The first pleasant change to the island experience made itself known in Phuket-the resort's speedboat. Most operators run boats with two benches running fore to aft, like the interior of an army transport truck, with about as much comfort. In contrast, The Racha's speedboat has actual forward-facing seats with sturdy backrests, perfect for couples to sit and and watch the sea and islands pass by. I chalked this advancement up as an omen of good things to come.

As the boat decelerated into Ao Batok, or Bungalow Bay, I felt the surge of excitement that comes upon arrival. Sunlight sparkled on the water like diamonds on the surface of Bombay Sapphire. Risen from the creamy white sands, the crisp, clean lines of a white stucco hotel stood flanked by palm trees and lush hillsides. Upon the rocks that bookend the crescent beach, a smattering of tasteful bamboo huts perched. I remembered these little Raya Bungalows from my previous visit; we had eaten a nice seafood dinner at their restaurant. I was as pleased to see that they remained unchanged as I was to notice that the line of huts which had formerly blighted the face of this dazzling beach had been removed to make way for The Racha. A dash of local colour seemed to compliment the modern, Zen-like resort, but an entire mish-mash village of thatch and bamboo might have diminished its stature.

As someone who spent many weeks island hopping from one tiny bungalow to the next, who considered $10 per night expensive, the upgrade to luxury feels almost generational, like the evolution of hippies to yuppies. I have discarded the mosquito net and undependable sea breeze for glass windows and air conditioning. The Racha and others of its ilk-the Pimalai and Rayavadi spring to mind-seem to take this maturation into account and play to our nostalgia. Reminiscent of yesterday's beach bungalow complexes, The Racha features a clear focal centre, a common space or living room where guests can mingle, only here they call it the library and they set it beside the shimmering blue-tiled infinity pool. Guests pad barefoot on the cool marble floor, polished so smooth as to mirror the simple furniture, indeed to evoke the sea itself. Cool breezes circulate through the open room; futon sofas invite readers, writers and dreamers to pass an hour or two, either in conversation or in quiet company. Two air conditioned rooms with nearly full glass walls comprise the internet centre, which provides broadband service. I can safely venture that I have never checked my email in a more picturesque setting.

The library's marble floors flow out to the pool area; to patterns of sunlight dancing on the blue water, which then flows over a glass edge, providing maximum access to the view of palms, the beach and the bay. The Fire Grill occupies a corner of the pool area, offering fine Mediterranean cuisine by evening; pizza, pasta and light meals by day. Just downstairs, The Earth Cafe serves Thai and international fare, including the sumptuous breakfast buffet. On Saturday night, we enjoyed a Thai feast that highlighted food of the northeast region: spicy papaya, pomelo and mixed fruit salads; grilled chicken and sticky rice. After dinner, we climbed to the roof of the library, a verandah that doubles as a star deck. I could understand why the average guest stays for a full week.

The Racha's pool villas are a microcosm of the entire resort. Mirroring the general hotel rooms, there are no paintings hanging upon the walls, no decorations or bric-a-brac. The only portrait is the actual seascape framed by the dark wooden border of heavy sliding balcony doors. In the pool villas, however, the doors open to not only the view, but also to their private infinity pool. For those who like to turn up the heat, the jaccuzzi, though enclosed by a glass wall, affords the same views of the sea. Already, demand is so high for the pool villas, management is speculating the need to construct new ones, most likely on the opposite end of the resort.

The Racha is managed by Hong Kong based Sanctuary Resorts, who strive to create holistic environments in which people balance their bodies, minds and spirits. Already an excellent site for meditation, contemplation and reflection, the addition of the Anumba Spa, to open in February 2005, will signal the resort's grand opening. Yoga will figure prominently, as will massage and other holistic treatments. The spa will invite visiting teachers of healing arts and maintain a "Master in Residence."

Since The Racha is meant to be a marriage between modern art and nature, the resort has been especially active with regard to environmental conservation, aiming for sustainable tourism. This emphasis upon eco-friendly practices is an underpinning of Sanctuary Resorts, who hope that The Racha will serve as a model for future development in the region. Only seven coconut palms were cut in the construction of the entire 69 villa resort and for each one, two others have been planted. Villas have been laid out along the natural profile of the land; one pool villa was redrawn and built specially around the contours of a rock, which otherwise would have been dynamited away. Features such as double exterior walls, a heat recovery system and energy saving lighting all contribute to energy conservation, while the ozone treated pools eliminate the need for toxic chlorine.

One of the most innovative additions that The Racha has made to the island has been their Reef Conservation Programme, which not only serves the local community, but may represent an environmental boon for all of Thailand. The introduction of Reef Balls, constructed of concrete, dead coral and sea shells, is hoped to prove groundbreaking in the building of artificial reefs and propagating new corals throughout the region. Already used widely in Australia and in the USA, these are the first Reef Balls in the kingdom, launched on 18th September 2004 by His Excellency Khun Suwit Khunkitti, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment. For USD50, guests can launch a Reef Ball of their own, with their name written on it.

The Racha has gone to great lengths to enrich the community; to work with rather than combat the pre-existing businesses and resorts. The entire island is welcome to use their new garbage incinerator and everyone benefits from the staff's bi-weekly collection of litter along interior roads and paths and their daily cleaning of the beach at Batok Bay. Vendors of beach chairs, who target day visitors from Phuket, continue to operate. The Racha has installed public toilets and showers for their customers' use.

A lot of luxury goes a long way. The Racha has indeed transformed the island, though from my perspective, in only positive ways. Since the resort has introduced sea kayaks, sailboats and quality Trek mountain bikes, I could see spending a week or even a month here, whereas just three years ago, I was ready to leave after four days. The spa will enhance their guests' experiences. Although the future may attract new resorts here, the present offers a charming island with lovely walking and bike paths, good snorkelling and diving and one of Thailand's prettiest beaches.

Nearly ten restaurants are open, from The Fire Grill's fine cuisine to local specialties and seafood at Raya Bungalow and the Hippy Bar. Many of the small businesses have seen increased volume as the resort's guests venture forth for dining and imbibing variety. This was the first year that Racha Father, a small bungalow complex in the interior, stayed open through the low season, the reason being that their restaurant continued to do very well. Nearby Siam Bay, an old Thai cove with but a sprinkling of thatched beach bars, is popular with staff from all of the island's resorts, who walk or bike through the coconut palms to escape for a few hours. Currently both Baan Raya, where I spent that memorable Christmas, and Racha Father are booked to capacity, though with people from different markets-primarily divers and backpackers. The mood is cooperative rather than competitive. As one staff member of The Racha put it, "It's an island, everyone knows everyone, it's like a big family."

I didn't ask her if that meant she would participate in this year's Christmas pageant, nor whether a skinny Santa Claus is expected to make his appearance, bearing gifts aplenty from the sea.

Addendum: While some of the buildings at The Racha suffered damage and some villas were destroyed in the tsunami of December 26th, GM Urs Aebi reports that: "We count ourselves blessed to report that no lives were lost among our guests and team members. All persons staying or working at The Racha at the time have been accounted for and nobody is missing. We remain firm in our commitment to create Thailand's premier deluxe island hideaway, where people can balance body, mind and spirit in an environmentally friendly space. We have set ourselves the target to welcome guests again in the second half of 2005. We plan to announce the re-pening date of The Racha during the first week of March, 2005."


 Benjarong Magazine - February 2005, Volume 8 Issue 2


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