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Idyllic Thai island resort untouched by turmoil

TWO thousand years ago, famed poet and writer Tao Yuanming of the chaotic Eastern Jin Dynasty (317-420 AD) wrote of how a fisherman by chance discovered a hidden haven called Peach Blossom Spring - a paradise of peace and happiness - and its existence was secret.

Tao called Peach Blossom Spring a heaven with marvelous natural scenery, honest men and women and rare freedom. The entire place vanished, however, when the fishermen returned to his friends.

Today city dwellers long for a Peach Blossom Spring where they can escape urban crowding and frustrations.

It is no wonder the nearby Thailand, with many beautiful islands and luxurious resorts, has become a popular destination.

On these islands, these Peach Blossom Springs, everything you want - the size of your personal space, the quality of cuisine, the views from your villa and your physical exercise - all depend on how much you are willing to pay.

On our way to such a haven, we first arrived in Bangkok, capital of Thailand. The cab driver who picked us up happened to be a Thai of Chinese heritage, but he could only speak the dialect from Chaozhou in Guangdong Province. His cousins live in China but he has never managed to save enough money to visit them. The financial crisis, political turmoil and decline in tourism have all made it worse.

The driver, around 50 years old, keeps complaining about how hard it is to make a living. He has fewer passengers than ever, even in this high season for travel - the weather is great and not as hot as it is in summer.

His relatives and friends have lost their jobs. His daughter, a college graduate, is afraid she won't find work. He figures the situation is much better in China, especially in Shanghai, since he still sees many Chinese tourists.

I had a strange feeling. I began to understand how Americans and Europeans felt when they visited Shanghai 10 years ago. I couldn't help feeling privileged, and thus feeling guilty and confused.

Anyhow, the first stop was the Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok, in the central business district on South Sathorn Road. We passed five banks and three hotels before getting to the five-star lodging. I had high expectations since it was the same hotel group in Bhutan that hosted the wedding of Cannes Film Festival Best Actor Tony Leung and Carina Lau.

The standard room was a pleasant surprise. The lotus painting hung above the bed was a charming reminder that I was in Thailand, a country that adores Buddha. I loved the spacious bathroom with a separate shower and bathtub - so unlike cramped quarters in Shanghai.

The wide Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)-style chair was a plus - a great place for meditation.

The unique fragrance was a mystery until I spotted the shampoo and conditioner in the bathroom - all made by the hotel's self-branded spa Shambhala. The same light, refreshing and exotic scent fills the hotel.

I only had time for a quick visit to the night market two blocks away. It opens at 6pm and closes around 1am every day. Expecting narrow aisles packed with vendors, I was startled to find myself in middle of a huge labyrinth. Hundreds of small shops and barter-traders filled two sides of the plaza, leaving large food court in the center, and a simple stage where a local rock band was playing.

Soon, I found myself lost in the market that reminded me of Shanghai's long-gone Xiangyang which sold the same goods, cheap accessories, souvenirs and clothes. Here there were tourists' T-shirts with "Thailand" instead of "Shanghai" on them, cheap knock-offs and many tiny Thai massage places that could accommodate four customers at most. A foot massage was around 150 baht (US$4).

I ran into a little trouble on my way back to the hotel after midnight. The cab driver turned off the meter and just asked for 200 baht, four times of the price. I bargained it down to 100.

On the second day, I got on a private jet for the first time in my life. The six-seater took us to the site of Six Senses Soneva Kiri resorts on Kiri, Kood Island, the fourth largest island in the eastern Thailand. Construction is nearly finished and the resort is to open in April.

The island is the last remaining isle in Thailand tourism that has over 30 island resorts. The government master plan identifies Kood as an "exclusive zone."

Local Thais say tourist prices for recreation such as speed boats have gone up at least four times in the past three years.

Then I realized just how special that one-hour private jet flight was - Six Senses guests will be ferried from Bangkok in luxury.

The luxurious Soneva Kiri will have 42 villas for rent and 21 private residences for sale.

The villas will cost at least 40,000 baht a night, based on prices at other Six Senses resorts. The villas are around 200 square meters and the residences are in the thousands, with the largest having six bedrooms.

They are not that expensive either - starting from US$4.5 million for a four-bedroom residence. An apartment of 500 square meters in Shanghai's most luxurious areas might cost just as much, if not more.

The views and scenery are magnificent. The island was an untouched rainforest before construction started. I was attracted by the "green" house, built of natural materials found on the island, using solar panels, rainwater and seawater that has been naturally desalinated and filtered by flowing over planted areas.

We stayed at Six Senses Hideaway Yao Noi on the small Yao Noi Island, an hour away by speedboat from the famous Phi Phi Island (from the film "Beach"). We had a private villa of around 200 square meters with a pool and a 24-hour butler.

To some extent, it was a haven like Tao Yuanming's Peach Blossom Spring. Turmoil in the outside world has no discernible impact. It's fully occupied during our stay. Staff told us the hilltop reserve, the most expensive villa costing over US$12,000 a night, has been reserved for Christmas and New Year's for the next two years.

Most guests are Europeans - French, Swedish, Swiss, German, etc. The owners of the resort, as well as many other resorts in Thailand, are also Europeans. Under Thai law, they have a 30-year lease, renewable three times - good for 120 years. And they can sign another contract afterwards, in virtual perpetuity.

It was very rare to see Asians, not to mention Chinese. All services are provided in English. That's fine for Europeans but what about rich Chinese who want to rent a villa?

The hotel management isn't worried about selling the private residences in the tough economy. In fact, seven of the 21 residences at Soneva Kiri were already sold though construction was underway.

From Yao Noi island, it's easy to take a speedboat ride to other beautiful islands, including the James Bond Island and Phi Phi Island. Seen from far away, the islands with different shapes in various layers form a scene like that in traditional Chinese landscape painting. The islands with jagged peaks, caves and fantastic cave rock formations are natural miracles. They remind me of Guilin in Guizhou Province in China - but with much cleaner water and bluer sky.

Surrounded by this beauty, I couldn't help thinking how much it would cost to visit again in five years' time.


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