‘It’s all a part of the adventure,’ calls Chris Kingsley, reaching out to me from the back of the speedboat. At this time, a little after sunset, these pristine sandy shores are pounded by the surf. I laugh out of exhilaration as I swim through the mounting waves to climb aboard.
Chris is the owner of the resort we’re bobbing next to. It’s the remote island of Wa Ale in Myanmar’s isolated Mergui, or Myeik, Archipelago, off the southernmost tip of the country and Thailand’s Andaman Coast.
The 2,000-hectare island sits at the heart of Lampi Marine National Park. Chris and his wife Farina, who lease the island from Myanmar’s forestry department, set up the resort with the primary intention of protecting the land and ocean.
‘Can I call it private land?’ Chris says, ‘No, because it’s part of a national park – but is it the biggest, most beautiful private island in the world? Maybe.’
Now the island is at the forefront of a quest to create resorts that preserve both community and the environment hand in hand – and as we speed around the wild, forested coastline to the resort’s mangrove-enshrouded jetty on the other side of the island, the evidence is everywhere.
We’d set out hours earlier from a trailhead close to the resort. From here a pathway cuts through dense wilderness to the isolated bay known as Honeymoon Beach. Box fruit trees and strangler figs engulf the trail, which is home to a kaleidoscope of blue tiger butterflies. Winged lizards glide down from the canopy, vipers curl up in the trees and mouse deer tiptoe through the undergrowth. This is where long-tailed macaques shriek from the treetops and palm civets emerge after dark.
We stop at the top of the trail’s highest ridges for views out of the rainforest to the ocean beyond, before reaching Honeymoon Beach for sunset, via the resort’s small organic farm, which backs this paradisiacal stretch of coast.
Putting environmental consciousness at the top of the list doesn’t make something easy to build. ‘I wanted the resort to be simple and wild,’ says Chris, ‘and I guaranteed a lot of things, like not cutting down a single tree.’ With this in mind, Wa Ale now consists of 11 beachfront tented suites, three treetop villas and an open-sided ocean-view pavilion, all crafted from reclaimed materials and filled with handcrafted teak furnishings.
This secluded enclave lies where the jungle meets golden sand on the wildest side of the island, accessed by boardwalks made of old fishing boats that wind through twisted mangrove. There’s yet more seclusion on the way, with a collection of new ultra-luxe villas beginning to take shape on Honeymoon Beach and set to open in autumn this year. Just like the rest of the resort, each villa is being built by hand, in harmony with the shape of the land and trees.
The opening of the resort in 2018 was joined by a series of conservation and community projects. These efforts are led by the Lampi Foundation, set up before the resort opened. Some 20 per cent of Wa Ale’s current profits go back to these projects.
‘I want to show by example how the country can benefit from eco-tourism,’ Chris explains. ‘Saving the coral reef and stopping illegal fishing in national parks, for example – I want to help clean up the ocean.’
To date, the Lampi Foundation has provided the forestry department with patrol boats to better protect the national park, and the resort built the park’s first sea turtle hatchery to collect data and provide a safe environment for endangered green and leatherback turtles to nest. The foundation has initiated a coral protection programme, along with support, education and medical programmes for the local community.
Being on the island introduces you to these initiatives while immersing you head-first in the environment. I’d been deep into the forest, plunged into the ocean and skimmed the water’s surface. I’d hiked up the steep slopes of Wa Ale’s panoramic trails, kayaked through snake-inhabited mangrove and snorkelled with pulsing jellyfish and shoals of colourful fish over mushroom coral that makes the seabed look like the forest floor. I’d cruised between thickly forested islands – some with stilted huts on the water’s edge – passed fishermen on long-tail boats and looked down through the crystal-clear water at the coral below. And I’d visited the neighbouring island’s fishing village, Salet Galet, where children line up outside the school to sing the national anthem each morning and a monk welcomes visitors into his monastery.
‘We can now see the difference the resort is making. It has become a vehicle to produce income for conservation, charity and entrepreneurship with women in local communities,’ says general manager Aung Zin Latt. ‘Wa Ale shows locals and international guests what eco-tourism really looks like – and the dedication needed to make it successful.’
It’s a dedication that dovetails with the resort’s focus on sustainability. Solar panels and other alternative energy sources power the resort and water comes from a natural spring. Single-use plastic is kept to a minimum, produce such as rock melon, okra and lemon grow in the resort’s organic farm, and barramundi and lobster come from Wa Ale’s own fishery. The team is now developing the farm to provide even more of the resort’s fresh produce, and a new conservation centre and an observation deck for wildlife viewing. As for the foundation, plans are to establish a women’s community centre in the nearby port town of Kawthaung.
The Lampi Marine National Park’s protected status means no other resorts are likely to find their way here. But as it’s flagged for potential Unesco World Heritage designation, the Mergui Archipelago as a whole is much more likely to see growth in eco-tourism.
Conservation charity Fauna & Flora International, with whom Wa Ale collaborates on a number of projects, monitors the environmental wellbeing of this area.
‘Done well, tourism can support livelihoods and fund marine protected areas and conservation efforts,’ says Filippo Carli, the marine programme officer for the organisation’s Asia Pacific arm, stressing the risks of overfishing – and the importance of a strategy to regulate how the area develops. ‘Cultural sensitivity must be considered as important as environmental responsibility,’ he notes.
Wa Ale is a worthy template for such a strategy. Before leaving, I go to the mangrove boardwalk at the ocean’s edge to see the dawn. As the sun rises, appearing as a red ball reflecting on the still water, a hornbill flies overhead. This extraordinary environment is what people come for; but then Wa Ale shows you how eco-tourism at its best can really make a difference.
Wa Ale Wildlife
Lampi Marine National Park is home to an abundance of wildlife. The islands’ mangrove and tropical rainforest are habitats for about 228 bird species, including the plain-pouched hornbill and kingfisher, along with a number of reptile species, mammals such as the Sunda pangolin and mouse deer, as well as primates like the long-tailed macaque and langur.
In the Ocean
The seas surrounding these wildlife-rich pockets of land are no less beguiling. See green and leatherback turtles nest on the shores – and if you’re lucky, catch sight of marine mammals such as the dugong. Snorkel or dive down to see the coral reefs and seagrass beds, which provide an important habitat for molluscs, crustaceans, echinoderms – like starfish and sea urchins – and tropical fish.
Wa Ale lies 100 minutes by speedboat north of the Burmese port of Kawthaung, whose airport is served by flights from Phuket and Yangon. Alternatively, fly to Ranong Airport in western Thailand from Bangkok and then board the ferry to Kawthaung.