S01 E02 - SONEVA KIRI
In this episode Richard visits Soneva Kiri in Thailand’s hard-to-reach Koh Kood. Unlike some of the better-known Thai resort destinations, Koh Kood still has the rugged jungles, pristine beaches and fishing-village charm that drew people to Thailand’s islands in the first place. It’s the country’s fourth largest island but its least populated, with only about 2,000 residents and a peppering of small, independent guest houses and 3 and 4 star hotels.
The resort is owned and run by the Soneva Organization, founded by Sonu Shivdasani and wife Eva in 1990. Since then the couple have built one of the most playful, high end luxury brands in the business - all whilst staying true to their abiding passion of sustainable luxury.
Sonu and Eva have always taken their responsibilities as custodians of the beautiful places in which they operate very seriously. They wanted to develop resorts that would satisfy their desire for a dream destination for those who liked to travel in luxurious style but with a core desire to protect the environment. Together they conceived a unique philosophy of simple sophistication whilst returning luxuriously to nature. One resort led to another, and in 2009 Soneva Kiri became the newest eco-luxury member of the Soneva family.
Most visitors to Koh Kood fly from Bangkok to Trat, then take a public boat. Not Soneva Kiri guests, though! Richard is flown on the resort’s own airline to the neighbouring island of Koh Mai Si, and then takes the hotel’s zippy private boat between the 2 islands. The reward for the journey is a palatial, private villa — there are just 36 spread across a vast acreage. Even the simpler villas boast three outdoor showers, direct beach access, a private pool, large outdoor living and dining areas, outdoor spa-like bathrooms and a mobile phone for summoning your own personal butler - known at the resort as Mr (or Miss) Friday.
Things to Do
Richard discovers that the resort, although remote, provides plenty of entertainment. Long-tail boats glide you to spectacular, nearly deserted beaches and waterfalls. The home made, organic ice cream shop, cheese room, wine cellar and the famous 24 hour refrigerated chocolate room make snacking an almost full time occupation. There are weekly cocktail receptions serving gourmet canapés made from food that would have otherwise gone to waste in the resort’s restaurants. From sunset you can visit the luxurious outdoor Cinema Paradiso where gourmet food and cocktails are delivered to your pool side lounging area while you watch movies under the stars. For more serious stargazing there is a state-of-the-art observatory where the night’s sky can be viewed unpolluted by city lights. To keep fit there is yoga, mediation and other spa activities, non-motorised water sports, language classes, and wellness assessments from the resident Ayurvedic doctor.
The resort features four eateries, each with their own unique feel. Richard visits Khun Benz, purportedly Gwyneth Paltrow’s favourite restaurant on the planet. We meet Chef Benz who was scooped up from a local Thai village restaurant by Sonu and Eva and given free rein to make upscale yet authentic Thai tasting menus from locally produced and sourced ingredients, in keeping with Soneva’s passion for sustainability.
Other gastronomic experiences include gourmet tree top dining - Richard experiences breakfast after buckling his seatbelt as his dining pod is winched into the canopy allowing for an epic sea view while his morning coffee is zip lined in by his waiter.
For a hotel that aims for the sky as far as decadent R&R goes, there are areas that the founders take very seriously. There is a strong emphasis on wellness. Kiri offers an extensive spa and the resort’s food is predominantly healthy or, for the odd indulgence, at least organic. The resort is run alongside Soneva’s SLOW life philosophy and lives by the motto of “No News, No Shoes”. It’s a barefoot luxury take on resort life that fits snugly within Soneva’s use of “intelligent design” in its architecture and planning. The resort’s no impact look and feel is echoed in its very foundations - during building the resort sourced the most environmentally benign building materials available in Asia, without compromise. To preserve the site’s identity and ensure wildlife corridors are maintained, a monitoring system protecting indigenous flora and fauna was implemented during construction. The on-site nursery propagated many species of native plants for landscaping, while a microgreen organic garden has been established to provide produce. Fruit trees, ginger, lemongrass and pepper plants have been scattered across the site as part of an edible landscaping concept.
But where Soneva really gets serious is with sustainability. Arnfinn Oines, Sonevea’s Social and Environmental Conscience, teaches Richard more about Soneva’s philosophy, SLOW LIFE (Sustainable-Local-Organic-Wellness and Learning-Inspiring-Fun-Experiences) which is helping Soneva pioneer this new form of luxury travel. Soneva’s main environmental concerns are focused on energy management, water management, waste management, biodiversity and social responsibility. Several villas feature private spa suites and each has an electric vehicle and charging station to ensure that all noise and air pollution is avoided as guests silently cruise the jungle without disturbing wildlife. The zero-carbon-emissions bio-climatically designed Eco Villa showcases a range of futuristic environmental technologies.
Richard visits Soneva Kiri’s on site waste facility, known as the ‘heart of the house.’ This ‘Eco Centro’ is the driving force behind the ‘Waste to Wealth’ philosophy of Soneva, where materials that many would view as waste are seen as an asset or a resource. Nearly 80% of the resort’s waste is recycled. Organic food and garden waste is composted, vegetable oil is turned into biodiesel and paper, metal, plastic and glass is recycled. Even woody materials are turned into bio charcoal and used for barbecues.
As well as dealing with waste, composting also produces fertile soil used in the Soneva Kiri’s vast vegetable garden, which provides the kitchen with fresh herbs and vegetables, helping to both improve Soneva’s carbon footprint from freight of food items and to be able to serve fresh and nutritional food.
We also see Richard learn about Soneva’s water treatment process. The hotel sources all its water sustainably and is 100% self-sufficient – 47% rainwater collected, 6% deep well and 47% desalination. In October 2008, Soneva resorts banned imported bottled water and instead bottle its own drinking water enhanced with minerals bottled in reusable glass bottles. Soneva gives 50% of the revenue generated from its water sales to The SLOW LIFE Foundation, which works with various charities to implement Clean Water Projects. Soneva has helped over 600,000 people to have access to safe water. 492 projects in 53 countries have been implemented. Main implementing partners are Water Charity and Thirst-Aid.
Soneva wanted, however, to do more and through The SLOW LIFE Foundation it initiated and funded the establishment of the Whole World Water campaign, which aims to bring the whole hospitality industry together to address global water challenges.
The Soneva Foundation
The Whole World Water campaign is by no means Soneva’s only environmental programme. Indeed, Soneva is so focused on reducing carbon emissions that they have funded countless projects that have had such a positive environmental impact that each Soneva guest leaves a negative carbon footprint. Soneva acknowledge that the travel required for guests to reach their resorts will take an emission-wise toll on the environment. Soneva Kiri charges guests an environmental levy that is invested through the SLOW LIFE Foundation into projects that compensate for these emissions. These programmes include the Social and Environmental Responsibility Fund, Carbon Sense Fund, Clean Water Projects, Care for Children and Restaurants Against Hunger. These endeavours are lead by Arn Finn who engages the Soneva SLOW LIFE team members (Marine Biologist, Permaculturist, Horticulturist, Human Resources, Engineering, Food & Beverage, Gardening etc.) to ensure that programmes are implemented throughout Soneva resorts.
The Myanmar Stoves Campaign
Richard joins Arn Finn in Mandalay to learn more about one of these programs, The Myanmar Stoves Campaign. This was the first Gold Standard carbon credit project in Myanmar and distributes energy efficient cook stoves in rural Myanmar. Benefits of the project to the local community are extensive including financial savings for households, protection of biodiversity, training and employment opportunities and health benefits from significantly reduced indoor air pollution. The project will mitigate around 350,000 tonnes of CO2.
In addition to the The Myanmar Stoves Campaign, the Soneva Forest Restoration Project has planted 511,920 trees since 2011of 90 different local species in Northern Thailand, which will mitigate 255,000 tonnes of CO2.
These projects offset far more CO2 than emitted from Soneva Kiri’s operations including guests’ air travel to the resort. Additionally they have a positive impact on the communities where they take place.
Minimal Impact A+
Social Responsibility A
Guest Experience A+
It would be hard to envisage an organization doing more to maintain a sustainable ethos and Soneva can be said to go above and beyond. Not only do they negate the carbon emissions of their guests travel and stay they do it in the most luxurious of surroundings. As far as luxury travel goes we may have found a way to holiday while leaving no trace!