The mangrove forest of southern Thailand’s Thalen Bay is a strange place, and a place for the strange. The flora stands on spidery mud-sucking fronds. The fauna is just as eerie: grey Macau monkeys sit in tangled branches like primitive people, directing contemptuous stares at occasional intruders.
We were in kayaks, paddling through a tidal world overlooked by cliffs on whose sheer faces clumps of tropical forest cling. From a rocky ledge a snake, the colour of wet slate, lowers itself into the water and s-bends its way round a crag.
“Cobra. Very dangerous,” says Bond, our guide. “Like James,” he had said earlier as he introduced himself on one of three sandy shores that skirts Rayavadee. The luxury resort is surrounded on three sides by the Andaman Sea and flanked on the fourth by a neck of impassable, hump-shaped hills. The final leg to Rayavadee, therefore, is by bouncing, speeding motor launch that takes you within whooping distance of the absurdly paradisiacal Phi Phi islands where The Beach was filmed.
After the flights to Bangkok and Krabi, weaving through Thailand’s southern archipelago in a speed boat is a life enhancing antidote to living off an aeroplane’s recycled oxygen for 12 hours or more.
There is however, one final, unlikely mode of transport used, though barely needed, to reach this five-star haven: a tractor. It pulls a trailer from the boat up to the top of one of the resort’s gently shelving shores so that its five-star guests avoid getting their ankles licked by the warm sea.
We disembark, not in front of a high-rise hotel but a sprawling, impeccably manicured village. And it is this setting that sets Rayavadee apart.
Accommodation is provided not in the form of rooms or suites, but self-contained lodges. There are 98 of these “pavilions” — as the resort grandly calls them — scattered throughout the semi-forested landscape.
Quite what architectural movement inspired the design of these cosy but sumptuous dwellings is hard to tell. Through a process of elimination I quickly discounted classical, Baroque and high-rise functionalism in favour of, erm, mushroom.
According to the marketing puff, the intention is to recreate a typical southern Thai village, which is a bit like saying the Dorchester is based on a typical British block of flats.
Inside each of these typically Thai village dwellings it’s all air-conditioned colonial elegance. They start at deluxe level and end at a film-star standard, three-bedroom Phranang Villa (named after the peninsula on which Rayavadee nestles), which comes with a butler, if you want one, a service which I’m guessing is rare in most Thai villages.
From the outside, these pavilions look like giant toadstools, but where this Disneyfied design succeeds is in allowing residents to feel they are living in harmony with the nature reserve that surrounds Rayavdee instead of being protected from it. And it’s this harmony that lends the place a kind of other-worldy magic.
For Rayavadee, with its monkeys leaping through the canopy overhead, is about as close to Middle Earth as you are likely to find on this planet. I half-expected to see Frodo skipping through the undergrowth.
A maze of paths guide residents through either tropical forest in one half of the resort or a plantation of towering coconut palms in the other. My pavilion was in the forested half — a place so outrageously verdant and fertile that a discarded apple core might result in an instant orchard.
The sultry air, dripping with humidity, is charged with the electric hum of cicadas. And when their rhythmic rasping subsides, frogs kick up their own throaty chorus. They live in dark mysterious pools populated by gulping carp and at night these fat fish congregate in a writhing mass of piscine ritual, drawn by beams from occasional path-side lamps.
And it is at night also that you might see something so utterly extraordinary, it could make a cynic swoon. A pinpoint of light bigger and brighter than the North star darts through the forest and abruptly stops in mid-hover as it takes its bearings. This creature’s luminosity is the result of the remarkable chemical reaction that takes place in the abdomen of a firefly. But if the aforementioned cynic didn’t know better, he or she would swear to having just had a close encounter with Tinkerbell. There she goes darting off again, careering around Frodo’s gaff, into the forest, turning Rayavadee into Neverland.
Night transforms most places. But Rayavadee embraces the transformation like few others. A late afternoon swim in the resort’s infinity pool (so named because once in the water the pool appears to merge with the sea beyond), is a gorgeous way to cool off before watching the sun set from Railay beach.
It’s here that local lads, some of them Rayavadee staff, play an occasional game of beach football on the flat sands exposed by low tide. I sat watching them with a margarita served by the Raitalay Terrace restaurant. Although Thai food is very meaty (and often porky) there is a wide selection of fish and vegetarian dinners offered here in an array of eateries, from the posh to the beachside chic of the Raitaly Terrace whose menu is Mediterranean.
The sun went down as fast as my cocktail, setting the sky alight and turning the barefooted footballers into silhouettes. Later I returned to the pool indulging in my own piscine ritual — gazing at the constellations, watching the Milky Way rotate as I drifted on my back, the vastness occasionally encroached upon by one of the black sheer cliffs that overlook the pool.
The next day started with a pre-breakfast game of tennis on a court sited on the edge of the nature reserve. Like nothing else, leaping monkeys can put you off your serve.
For those staying on the resort, sea canoes and snorkelling and wind surfing equipment is provided at no extra cost. And anyone who prefers their activity to be as inactive as possible, the spa offers that ubiquitous Thai form of relaxation and invigoration — the massage.
But for me this trip’s highlight started at Phranang Beach, after a superbreakfast, when the crew of Rayavadee’s most handsome vessel, a 70ft Siamese red-sail wooden junk called the Pla Luang, waited to take me and my guide Bond around the peninsula.
The conditions were flat calm and the Pla Luang’s captain opted for engine power to take us along the coast passing the sublime (a gold and white palace owned by Thailand’s revered royal family), and the ridiculous (a new vulgar hotel that has caused much resentment in the area because the architects based their ornate design on Thai temples). From what I could see from the Pla Luang, the hotel would have been more suited to Vegas than Thailand.
Suddenly the Rayavadee village-look seemed in the best possible taste and an example of how the best tourist operations are not only sensitive to the surrounding natural history but to the local culture too. Rayavadee even restock marine life by releasing hundreds of fish into the sea every year.
An hour later and the Pla Luang dropped anchor. We had arrived at Thalen Bay where Bond and I disembark onto kayaks and paddle into the mysterious mangroves where Macau monkeys, the slate-coloured cobra, the strange mud houses built by the elusive crawfish, and ancient caves where local people still appease primeval sea gods, all wait to be discovered.
Tropical Locations (www.tropical-locations.com 0845 277 3310) offers five nights at Rayavadee from £1,945 per person, based on two sharing a deluxe pavilion on a bed and breakfast basis. The price includes return international airfares to Bangkok with Thai Airways and is valid for travel March 10-31. Book by 15 March 09.
The first Jews arrived in 1683, and more arrived during the 1800s, as merchants
The Jewish population grew in the 1950s and ‘60s and in 1964, the Jewish Community of Thailand was established
There are around 300 Jews in Thailand, including many Israelis. Bangkok has two synagogues, the Even Chen and the Beth Elisheva. The latter has a mikveh and community centre
Koh Samui, Chiang Mai and Phuket have kosher restaurants, supervised or run by Chabad
Information on the community at: www.jewishthailand.com