We felt among the privileged few as we were led to the sleek launch waiting to take us on the 40-minute ride to the glorious Racha Resort on Racha Yai Island.
I was seeking a respite from this madness by visiting my old friend Devan Bhaskaran, the convivial General Manager of The Racha Resort. Devan has managed this fabulous independent property since 2013 and has extensive previous experience with some of Asia’s pre-eminent hospitality groups and iconic properties.
We planned a dinner together to talk about the vital question of where Koh Racha and Andaman tourism are heading.
The 85-villa Racha Resort, located on one of the Andaman’s most beautiful and pristine islands, is one of Thailand’s premier sanctuaries for mind, body and spirit. It offers a range of ultra-luxurious accommodation upon its gentle hillside above Batok Bay and is ideal for guests seeking romance and ‘get-away-from-it-all’ elegance, fabulous cuisine and an abundance of enthralling sports and activities.
Importantly, The Racha practises ecological and environmentally responsible development and is the winner of many awards in this area.
The speedboat trip was invigorating and, with the wind in our hair, the sense of relief and the escape from the confines of angry Phuket were palpable.
We entered what should have been the hallowed sanctuary of Koh Racha’s Batok Bay, only to be assailed by a cacophonous chaos of day-trip boats disgorging their human cargoes into the crowded waters. Dozens of orange life-jacketed tourists were being led, lemming-like, along the fringe of the sands, as scores more simply stood knee-deep in the churning water looking stunned in the broiling sun.
Sadly, Batok Bay is the target for hordes of day-trippers leaving from Chalong Pier and from 10am to 5pm it is almost as congested and stressful as mainstream Phuket. However, when the speedboats depart for their hair-raising run back to Chalong, the bay returns to its true natural glory as one of the region’s most beautifully sculpted and verdant pieces of topography.
The sunset hour within the confines of The Racha is simply transcendent as the guests relax and drink in the sensory balm of this truly magical place.
Devan and I enjoyed a memorable supper by The Racha’s huge infinity pool on its upper deck overlooking Batok Bay. This is, in my opinion, the most stunning dining spot in the Andaman, and as Executive Chef Massimo Rossi plied us with sensational fresh, healthy cuisine and cheering liquid refreshment, we settled in to talk.
I asked Devan about the schizophrenia which has overtaken this fabulous corner of the Andaman.
“Since the government closed Maya Bay to tourists to allow regeneration of the coral and environment, I estimate that the number of day-trippers coming to Koh Racha has doubled. During Chinese New Year you could hardly see any water in between the congested boats churning up the bay. There are no facilities, not even toilets, for all these daytime visitors and clearly this continuing growth of boats and tourists is just not sustainable.”
When I last enjoyed cycling around the island to write a Blazing Saddles article in mid-2017, I noticed huge piles of bottles, plastics and cans mouldering in the palms. I asked Devan about the island’s environmental stresses.
“At The Racha we are leading the way in the use of solar power and adopting best environmental practices of recycling and waste management. Our hybrid solar power system currently supplies 15% of our energy needs and this is expanding.
“But the local residents who call Koh Racha home are just trying to survive, and protecting the environment is totally alien to them.
“The piles of glass and plastics you saw do get shipped off the island regularly and end up back in Phuket for recycling as this brings the locals some income. However, it’s a sad fact that any sort of infrastructure management lags way behind the mad scramble for cash that’s driving tourism to this lovely island. I am pretty pessimistic about this special place which I have come to love.”
I too have come to love this island through biking and hiking trips here and I am happy to report that my early morning ride and swim at deserted Sayam Bay the next day were as beguiling as ever.
But once the daily speedboats descend, Batok Bay undergoes a Jekyll and Hyde-like transformation that represents a classic example of the ‘greed over sustainable management’ approach which seems to drive so much of Thailand’s tourism development.