Out on a limb

It's a noisy Saturday night in the jungle on Koh Kood. Early-evening karaoke beats coming from a distant stage have given way to the much closer clicks, chirrups and whoops of an all-night nature concert and I tune into the "music" beyond the mosquito net of my villa at Soneva Kiri, a resort built with nature in mind.

About 1500 people live on Koh Kood, Thailand's fourth-largest, but least-populated, island, in the far reaches of the Gulf of Thailand. Fishermen live in stilt houses in the village of Ao Salat on the island's north-east; Cambodia is a four-hour speedboat ride away.

Earlier on Saturday, trekking the island with Soneva guide Andrew Wade, we stop to admire a rosewood tree, a 600-year-old giant considered a type of spirit house, on which ribbons are hung in offering. "Thai culture deeply respects elders, just like the tree at its age having seen many wonders," Wade says, before we make our way to Nam Tok (Secret Waterfall), where pink dragonflies flit by. Thailand's King Rama VI walked a path here in 1911 to the popular three-tier Klong Chao waterfall, carving his name on a rock at the edge of the pool. Aside from that royal graffiti, modern markers are scarce on this island - 70 per cent of it is covered in dense rainforest, there's no ATM, petrol is sold in glass bottles and outdoor restaurants turn to karaoke once the dinner plates are cleared.

Arriving at Soneva Kiri is equally understated. Its motto of "no shoes, no news" sounds fun and terrifying in equal part as I contemplate my naked feet, those of others and, worryingly, survival without technology. Kiri is the Soneva group's second property, after Soneva Fushi on Kunfunadhoo island in the Maldives, both promising barefoot luxury with a SLOW LIFE philosophy - a busy acronym said to mean sustainable, local, organic, wellness, learning, inspiring, fun experiences. The price of this eco-chic starts at $US1156 ($1120) a night for a villa, rising to $US12,413 a night for a residence. For the celebrities who visit (I'm not saying who), the latter is the price of privacy.

For the rest of us, Soneva Kiri is a surreal departure from reality, where a day might include breakfast in a tree house, an off-the-back-of-the boat snorkel among butterfly fish and staghorn coral and a spot of stargazing from an outside bathtub. "We work 12-hour days, six days a week and we want complete relaxation with all the touches when we go away," one half of an English couple I meet tells me.

From Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport I board an eight-seater Cessna, then it's a quick speedboat ride to Soneva Kiri, where I'm greeted by a battery-operated buggy at the jetty, along with butlers Kaew and Chompoo. Both are barefoot and dressed in cool cotton. These dedicated Ms Fridays and other hosts (don't call them staff) are a speed-dial away should guests want a skim latte, power adaptor or insect repellent.

The quiet buggy ride on a path flanked by jungle takes in dreamy tropical cliches: a beach of powdery sand and suspended day beds rocking in the breeze; an observatory in a night sky of little light pollution; a chilled chocolate parlour packed with truffles and an ice-creamery serving 60 flavours. The resort's main decked area has wooden staircases leading this way and that. Whimsy extends to the kids' club - a vertiginous bamboo structure in the shape of a manta ray, with sandpits, a music room with Thai instruments and a slippery dip for an exit.

Back in the buggy, I pass clusters of solar panels, an aquaponics garden with a crop of fat, red chillis (freshwater fish "feed" the plants, the plants clean the water for the fish) and gardeners bearing bundles of lemon grass (for cooking and pest control) as I motor to my villa. It's a traditional pine-and-acacia building with a bedroom, dressing room and bathroom, and lounge areas. Drinking water comes in glass bottles; a television is packed in a leather safari-style suitcase and tubes of sunscreen are in cotton pouches. Just as I'm stabbing and cursing at my phone, Kaew appears and flicks the switch for modern comforts, wi-fi included, that are controlled from a wall panel. A post-and-beam staircase leads to an outside shower, with water-saving head, and a low-flush toilet.

The villa's elevation, for maximum ventilation, has a further upside - a view to my pool and, beyond the lovely coconut palms, turquoise-coloured sea.

The next morning, I'm high again, strapped into a rattan cocoon and winched into the trees, five metres above the ground, for breakfast. A waiter ziplines back and forth, delivering baskets of fruit, pastries and coffee without spilling a drop. My feet are bare, the phone is silent. Adaptation has occurred.

Jane Reddy travelled courtesy of Soneva Kiri, Qantas and Mandarin Oriental.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Qantas has a fare to Bangkok from Sydney for about $1005 low-season return, including tax, for the 9hr 20min non-stop flight. Melbourne passengers pay about $25 more and fly Qantas to and from Sydney to connect; see qantas.com.au. Soneva Kiri is about 350 kilometres from Bangkok on Koh Kood island. Transfers from Bangkok by air and boat can be arranged by the resort.

Staying there

Soneva Kiri has 29 villas and eight private residences. A Hill Villa costs from $US1156 ($A1120) a night for two, minimum three-night stay. A two-bedroom Cliff Villa Suite costs from $US3103 a night for four, minimum three-night stay. A four-bedroom Private Hill Residence costs from $US7971 a night for eight. Residences include up to six bedrooms and five bathrooms, a tree house, infinity pool with water slide, multiple lounges, steam room and gym. The cost includes return plane transfers between Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport and Soneva Kiri Airport, and all meals, house drinks and resort activities. See soneva.com.

Eating there

The View is the resort's fine-dining restaurant with vistas to the gulf and outlying islands. Dishes include wahoo and preserved Thai mackerel soup of roast cabbage and potato, honey meringue and Thai basil oil. Choose from more than
500 wine labels housed in a climate-controlled cellar.

Benz is a traditional Thai restaurant built among the mangroves. Chef Khun Benz — her father was a fan of the vehicle — serves dishes such as sea bass with green mango salad, and red curry pork.

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