Mergui, 13 February 2019: It’s a case of ‘take only photos and memories, leave only footprints at the newest five-star resort in the remote Mergui Archipelago, off the coast of southern Myanmar and Thailand.
With its opening listed as among the most highly anticipated by luxury lifestyle Robb Report and Luxury Travel magazine, Awei Pila (aweipila.com) received its first guests recently.
Owned by the ever-expanding Myanmar tourism trailblazers, Memories Group (memoriesgroup.com), the company also holds development rights for Bo Ywe and Nga Mann islands, two of the 800 plus islands, which make up the extensive archipelago previously out-of-bounds for all.
The waters around Pila are usually crystal clear with good visibility, complementing the reputation of the resort’s owner, Burmese property mogul Serge Pun (also known as Theim Wai), whose investment firm FMI, established in Yangon in 1992, was one of the first publicly traded companies. Pun’s SPA companies are among the highest-ranked for transparency in Myanmar, a country with lingering stigma of crony capitalism and military land-grabs.
With plans to develop more accommodation and facilities on other sandy bays and jungle sites on the large Pila Island, Awei Pila aims to offer its own unique brand of sustainable luxury, providing guests a comfortable exclusive resort while maintaining the balance of the island’s ecosystem.
With 24 tented villas along the fore-dunes of a 600m long white-sand beach set in the lush tropical jungle of a previously undeveloped island, the barefoot luxury resort joins a handful of others offering exclusivity, privacy, and serenity.
“It sometimes takes until the second day before guests really unwind and relax into the place,” says general manager Jon Bourbaud, who greets new arrivals at the resort’s flexi-jetty, in smart casual attire and often, in bare feet. The creamy white sands of the main North Bay are fine and soft underfoot, providing an inviting access-way to the gently sloping safe-swimming beach with warm azure waters.
The vista from the main reception area, with the gleaming curved infinity pool, white coral sands, and emerald-blue ocean, provides a picture-postcard view, akin to the Instagram island-porn from the Maldives.
The Mergui Archipelago is like the Maldives, but grittier, raw and unspoilt. The lifting of some restrictions and the development of some infrastructure means the island group is more accessible, and now the largest resorts such as Awei Pila have enough space (and personal professional service) to ensure guests feel they have escaped the stresses of modern life and can truly relax in an exotic tropical hideaway.
Key to the sense of seclusion on Pila Island is the unique thatched-roof ‘yurt-style’ circular tents, which are strategically located on the dunes and throughout the rainforest of tall luxuriant trees, spaced apart and shielded by leafy tropical vegetation. Each with their own private path and walk-down access to the sea, the structures are elevated on a raised platform with a front terrace facing north, complete with a comfortable couch and shade umbrella, as well as the obligatory beach recliners set on the sand.
The living domes are also oriented towards the calm-inducing views, with floor-to-ceiling clear PVC panel windows framed by a supporting wooden lattice giving guests the feeling of being immersed in Nature while being kept in elegant comfort. Creature comforts at Awei Pila include a four-poster bed with cloud mattress, a quiet air-con unit hidden in the wardrobe, a portable bluetooth speaker, a fridge stocked with cool drinks, and a quirky vintage sail-style ceiling fan. Beach and dressing gowns, room and beach slippers, wicker trunks for storage and unbleached canvas bags for every occasion add to the amenities packed into the rooms, which including indoor-outdoor areas totals 60 square metres (over 635 square feet). Behind the tent, the bathroom of polished concrete and wood with rattan matting features a rainforest shower, lined with tropical plants, with lemongrass spa products continuing the natural theme of the resort.
There is no mobile phone coverage at Awei Pila – or once you’ve left the mainland port of Kawthaung – but telephones connect the rooms, and Wi-Fi is provided by satellite for those unable to break the internet addiction and the urge to post the envy-inducing images to social media. Solar panels and generators provide the electricity, the resort gets its water from a natural spring (though bottled water is available along with refillable bottles to reduce wastage), and the resort has invested heavily in providing all the facilities likely to be required by discerning guest.
Services include the presence of a full-time medical professional, in the unlikely event of an emergency. Coral reef-friendly sunscreen and calming lotion are provided to prevent and treat sunburn and marine life stings. A massage spa provides therapeutic treatments, as does the cafe-bar, at the centre of the main reception area, which incorporates open-air dining, carefree lounging and the photogenic swimming pool.
A wide variety of options are provided at breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a set menu giving a choice of three courses for the main meals. “Because most of our guests are Westerners, from Europe, North America or Australasia, our cuisine is mainly international,” says Memories Group Executive Chef Aung Thein Oo, who is overseeing the menus, which feature local seafood as well as tasty, but less spicy food, for Western palates.
GM Bourbaud says guests may not realize the challenges and high setup costs faced in providing quality in such a remote setting, with the nearest town nearly three hours away by fast boat. The resort, which currently employs three expats and has more than 60% of its staff from the southern Myanmar region, has a commitment to employing more locals. Awei Pila is also working with Burmese fishing and trading families which have settled on the large island.
The Moken ethnic group, which has had a semi-nomadic subsistence gathering and foraging existence for hundreds of years, has a few basic huts in one small cove, while enterprising Myanmar fishing families and traders have established in a nearby bay. The resort built a bridge to enable cross-village travel during the rainy season, which runs from June to September, and it plans on building a new school for the dozen children who currently are taught next to a newly erected pagoda and Buddhist monastery.
Guests can hike or take a boat to the Moken shantytown and Burmese village, and other activities include snorkelling, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding, with extra charges for boat excursions, diving trips and instruction. Resident marine biologist and dive master, Brazilian Marcelo Guimaraes has been developing eco-friendly land and water activities for guests, as well as surveying the island reefs and mangroves to identify species and working out ways to encourage conservation and protection, including with the Moken and Burmese fishers.
There are plans for other development on Pila Island, with forest villas suitable for year-round occupancy, and a new jetty in another bay will replace a temporary landing. Awei Pila has a low-impact environmental ethos, and is striving to be plastic-free, with paper straws for bar drinks, glass bottles crushed to sand, and other rubbish sorted for proper processing or disposal in Kawthaung or the Thai border town of Ranong. One of the last remaining items to find a non-plastic replacement is toothpaste tube caps.
The resort’s location and logistic challenges – Awei Pila’s own boat with four 450 horsepower engines and a maximum cruising speed of 21 knots provides one transfer a day during the October to May season depending on demand – also presents challenges in marketing the resort. While the resort can list on hotel booking sites such as Agoda and Booking.com, to manage the midday boat transfer and Myanmar authorities’ requirements necessitate advance booking and communication with the customers.
It is likely Memories Group will promote Awei Pila as a premier destination among its portfolio of boutique hotels, most of which are in new off-the-beaten-track destinations in Myanmar including Loikaw (home of the long-necked Padaung women seen in Thailand’s tourism refugee camps), Kipling’s Mawlamyine, and karst-country Hpa-an. A new golf resort, Awei Metta, is opening this month in the former capital Yangon. The diverse company now includes Mergui Archipelago liveaboard operator Burma Boating and the well-established Balloons Over Bagan, which flies in Bagan, Inle lake and now, Loikaw.
There is potential for the company to leverage Myanmar’s tourism products to encourage visitors to go to Awei Pila at the end of a Myanmar itinerary, or as a sole holiday destination. Kawthaung is more easily reached via Thailand’s Ranong than Yangon, due to the high internal flight costs for foreigners (around USD160 one way Yangon to Kawthaung), flight schedule changes and flight delays with the only operator Myanmar National Airlines. The unreliability of flight services means that many guests instead are advised to stay overnight in Kawthaung, either at the sunset view 4-star Victoria Cliff (www.victoriacliff.com, from USD73) or the newly renovated 5-star Grand Andaman (www.grandandamanisland.com, from USD85), situated across from Kawthaung on an island.
There is talk of Kawthaung airport being upgraded and allowing international flights from Thailand and further afield, meaning visitors can skip the longtail boat transfer from Ranong or the five to six-hour drive from Phuket. The opening of new resorts and day snorkeling trip destinations on a selected number of the islands of the archipelago has increased visitor numbers, though park royalty fees, the need for eVisas for Myanmar (USD50 for most nationals) and lack of facilities and activities in Kawthaung mean the island group’s discovery and development are still in its early stages.
The difficulties as first-movers and challenges with Myanmar’s bureaucracy mean that all resorts have opened much later than initially expected.
Awei Pila, which will appeal to couples, friends and those seeking a stylish place away from the crowds with virgin deserted beaches and cocktails at sunset, is currently offering three-night all-inclusive honeymoon packages in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, from USD1690 (https://aweipila.com/).