Welcome to the barefoot jungle life! by Irina von Gagern | 7th June, 2019 | Personalities
Imagine living on a deserted island surrounded by tropical rainforest and turquoise seas with every luxury imaginable at your fingertips. The SONEVA KIRI in southeastern Thailand offers this unique mix. But the difference is, this resort places as much emphasis on environmental awareness as on opulence.
Getting to this “desert island” involves traveling through a busy Bangkok airport. A young Thai woman skillfully guides me to the check-in desk. A small private plane stands at the ready, and I sink into the leather seat. We take off in a southeasterly direction. After a while, the landscape below us turns green, then a deep blue. We fly over the Gulf of Thailand, heading towards Cambodia. After roughly an hour, we start our descent towards a tiny island where a Japanese lady with a beaming smile is already waiting for me. Taeko Taguchi introduces herself as my “Miss Friday” – a job title inspired by Robinson Crusoe’s loyal manservant and companion.
A motorboat quickly takes us to the neighboring isle. Koh Kood is Thailand’s fourth-biggest island. It is sparsely populated and largely untouched by tourism. Its lush rainforest stretches all the way to the white sandy beaches, where turquoise waters shimmer. The manager of the Soneva Kiri and her colleagues in colorful uniforms are waiting to meet me personally at the jetty. I almost feel like I am on a state visit. Every guest, I am told, is welcomed this way. With the aid of an electric cart, Taeko takes me to my villa via a narrow path through the jungle. The villa is located on a hill and is surrounded by a faded picket fence. Dotted around the pool are several wooden buildings connected by stairs and walkways. Huge sofas and deck chairs invite visitors to relax. Everything is spacious here: the dining table that seats twelve, the openplan kitchen, the five bedrooms all of which have their own en-suite bathroom. Natural materials like timber and stone abound; everything is simple but stylish. In a spacious structure reminiscent of a treehouse, there is a children’s bedroom with bunkbeds and a table soccer game. But that’s not all: A slide connects the balcony directly to the pool. My room is on the upper floor on the far side of the pool. It boasts large window frontages on three sides and a view over the lush jungle, directly onto the sea.
Koh Kood, Thailand’s fourth-largest island,
is largely untouched by tourism.
Eleven years ago, Sonu Shivdasani and his wife Eva Malmström Shivdasani discovered this picture postcard idyll. The Eton and Oxford alumnus from India and the Swedish top model became very successful hotel owners almost by accident. In the mid- ’90s they wanted to build a private vacation home in the Maldives, but the islands’ government did not grant permission for the venture. So Sonu, who is from a very affluent family, and Eva built a hotel there instead: the Soneva Fushi (“Soneva” being an amalgamation of their first names). They quite obviously managed to tap into the zeitgeist, because the hotel attracted many loyal regulars in a very short period of time. (The Soneva Jani – also in the Maldives – followed three years ago).
The Soneva philosophy is as simple as it is successful: “No news, no shoes.” Guests are encouraged to disconnect completely from the hustle and bustle of modern life: There are no newspapers, no TVs and those who would like to can walk around barefoot. Most guests do, even in the restaurant. Many resorts now promote themselves as a place offering “barefoot luxury,” but the concept was invented by Sonu und Eva Shivdasani: wooden villas, locally sourced organic food and high-quality wellness treatments far from city life yet easily accessible. In order to shorten their guests’ journeys, the couple bought two airplanes and had an airfield constructed on one of Koh Kood’s neighboring islands. Just how sustainable it is to use a private jet is certainly up for debate, but a carbon-dioxide levy of two percent on all hotel bills goes straight to the Soneva Foundation. The foundation plants trees and supports projects to deliver clean drinking water and build sanitary facilities around the world. You quickly realize that the owners and employees genuinely care about their natural environment. Drinking water from the resort’s filtration system is served in reusable glass bottles. In the bathrooms, shampoo and body lotion are dispensed from refillable ceramic containers.
The Soneva philosophy is as simple as it is successful:
“No news, no shoes.”
Taeko has been working at the Soneva Kiri since it opened ten years ago and proudly drives around it in her electric cart. Thirty-five villas are dotted around the jungle, the smallest of which have only one bedroom and are popular with honeymooners. Prices start from €1,860 a night. The largest of the luxurious villas has six bedrooms and can accommodate up to 16 guests on its 3,000 square meters, for roughly €10,000 a night. A “Miss” or “Mister Friday” butler service is included. Evidently Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt like staying here with their six children – in the past as a couple, now separately. Taeko remains silent on the matter, of course: The team pride themselves on their discretion We drive past the spa, the tennis court and the open air theater, where classic movies are shown in the evenings.
The heart of Soneva Kiri is a huge wooden structure like a village on stilts consisting of many small houses that are all connected by a large, rising walkway. This is where the reception, several boutiques and the library are located. At the very top, among the treetops, is where the Dining Room restaurant can be found. In the evenings, it serves Mediterranean and Asian delicacies by candle light. Directly behind the gigantic treehouse is where the jungle begins. The calls of kingfishers and thousands of other exotic forest dwellers reverberate through the air. In the morning, guests can have breakfast up here consisting of local fruit, specialty cheeses made on the premises and fine ham served appetizingly on palm leaves. A temperature controlled room with locally made chocolates beckons a short distance away.
Dinner at Khun Benz’s Thai restaurant is also a very special experience. Sonu and Eva discovered the master chef several years ago. Getting to the restaurant requires a short trip by motorboat up the coast, and then up a small river. The restaurant itself is located on stilts in the middle of a mangrove forest. There is no menu. Instead, a steady flow of bowls containing steaming delicacies arrives in front of me – a true explosion of flavors. Gwyneth Paltrow seems to have been equally impressed. She told the New York Times that she had never had Thai food as good as at Khun Benz’s restaurant. If you keep feasting like this, you better get active. So I meet the manager of the spa for a morning yoga session. The spa is a mini-village in itself. Small, round houses offering various treatments are tucked away in the mangrove forest. Later, I enjoy an Ayurvedic massage complete with soothing, warm oil flowing across my forehead. After that, I take a walk along the deserted beach. I could get used to this kind of Robinson Crusoe existence in a heartbeat.