Wa Ale Island resort in Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago is redefining luxury tourism. No TV. No air conditioning. No minibar. No pool. No bling-bling. But lots of pure nature… Here is our review
Wa Ale Island is about 115 kilometers or two hours by speedboat from the nearest “town” and is located in the middle of the Mergui Archipelago, which consists of over 800 islands and was off-limits for foreigners until 1997.
The island backdrop? Dense, untouched jungle on an uninhabited island of 36 square kilometers. Pythons feeding in the trees, majestic sea eagles and Brahmin harriers, hornbills, king squirrels, macaques, flying foxes, civets, deer piglets, Malayan pangolins and cobras. Reuse and recycling everywhere. Wa Ale Island is a successful example of “conservation-led luxury ecotourism”.
This may sound more like asceticism, suffering and deprivation than barefoot luxury. US-American Chris Kingsley and his wife Farina have used these ingredients to create a unique offering that is inadequately described by the self-chosen label “Haute Bohemia Utopia”.
Chris made his fortune as owner of Kingsley Bate and Brownstone Furniture. He traveled throughout Burma/Myanmar for over 25 years and ran a furniture factory there for six years. During this time, he apparently established good relations with the Ministry of Fisheries and Forestry.
Unfortunately, the ministry was less responsible for protecting resources than for lining the pockets of the military junta through ruthless exploitation of Burma’s teak forests, which in the early 1990s still accounted for three-quarters of the world’s stock.
Wa Ale Island: Eco-Power against China’s Wealth
Under the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was ousted from power in 2021 by General Min Aung Hlaing, Chris’s unconventional, almost crazy concept won him the contract after the state put Wa Ale Island in Lampi Marine National Park up for lease and tourism development.
This was a stroke of luck for the island and the national park, as it saved the island from the kind of Chinese investment-built mega resorts that are popping up all over Southeast Asia. The creators of the Mergui Archipelago’s first luxury eco-resort for just 28 guests are taking sustainability painfully seriously.
Sustainability and eco-friendliness began with the construction of Wa Ale, which took two years. Only craftsmen from the region, local techniques and materials were used. “No excavators or other heavy equipment was used to work the ground, instead we worked with shovels, hand saws and picks. It was also important to us that no trees were felled. We didn’t hire a large company for the construction, but a local craftsman from the area who built everything with his lads the way he always does,” says Chris.
Wet Landing instead of a Jetty
Instead of the usual paths used on many other island resorts, on which golf cars cart lazy walkers back and forth, at Wa Ale Island only the natural beach connects the eleven tented villas and the small River Café with the main house. No jetty has been “instagrammably” slapped onto the coral and set in concrete.
That’s why a wet landing is the is the usual process for guests arriving on Wa Ale at high tide. Shoes off, pants rolled up, then everyone wades through the water of Mangrove Bay to the beach, watched by lively macaques on the shore. At low tide, it’s a five-minute walk along the rocky coast to the floating pontoon where the speedboats are moored.
Chris meets the photographer and me twice for dinner. It turned out to be two very long, extremely entertaining evenings. Chris’ stories about the development, the construction work and the logistical challenges involved in building the resort could fill volumes.
“Most of the wood used to build our main house, the three Tree Top Villas and the River Café came from old houses and warehouses on the mainland that had been demolished. An old palace in Mandalay provided the large doors in front of the open kitchen in the main house.
Wood from Demolished Buildings
All the furniture was made in the factory on Java to designs by Chris and his wife Farina, he explains. “Solar panels provide about half of the electricity needed, while the rest is provided by two German generators that are particularly quiet and energy efficient. They weigh almost two tons and were pushed up the hill from the bay on logs – just like the pharaohs.”
We want to know how and where he got the staff. “Many of the guys who serve you worked on our construction site two years ago as semi-skilled tradesmen. We train them and they not only do their job well and with pleasure, but with great pride.”
Sous Chef Aung Soe proudly explains the delicacies he creates at each table, using vegetables and herbs from the resort’s own organic garden, fish from sustainable fisheries, and lobster from his own farm.
“So far, Wa Ale Island, which opened in October 2018, has created more than 100 jobs in the region,” says Chris. He is passionate about the Lampi Foundation, which is funded by 20 percent of the resort’s revenue and used to maintain environmental projects, schools and a hospital in the national park.
A Visit to the Local Island Sitta Galet
The importance of the foundation becomes clear as Chris leads us through the small fishing village of Sitta Galet on a tiny island at the mouth of the Galet River in the sweltering heat. A collection of 40 poor huts and shacks, windy, often with only thin branches as side walls. Surrounded by plastic waste, free-roaming pigs and dogs.
“We pay two men to collect the garbage and give it to us for disposal instead of burning it wildly or kicking it into the sea,” says Alexander, the resort biologist from Singapore. “There’s still a long way to go. You frown at all the garbage lying around. It was much worse six months ago. We’re making progress, step by step.”
Reefs at Risk: Shadows over Paradise
The fight against illegal fishing is important to Chris. Hundreds of trawlers drag their nets along the bottom of the archipelago, taking whatever they can from the sea. Hordes of small and large long-tail boats do the same in the middle of Lampi Marine National Park.
Underwater you can see the consequences of overfishing. While snorkeling, our guide Jimmy freaks out when he spots two small (!) whitetip sharks under a rock. This is a rare occurrence, he says. These animals are often seen in the Maldives, for example, even on busy house reefs.
There are colorful fish like batfish and surgeonfish, hard and soft corals, tiger-tailed seahorses and (oh my!) lots of sea snakes. “If you dive Black Rock, you can see whale sharks, mantas and barracudas,” Jimmy enthuses.
Off into the Jungle!
One of the highlights of every stay on Wa Ale Island are the hikes led by resort biologist, which start at dawn and, depending on the route, are either relaxed or a little more ambitious and sweaty.
We saw little apart from Brahmin harriers and a few monkeys, but heard a lot – and smelled a lot. If you want to keep the jungle at a distance with its nasty thorny tendrils of rattan palms and stumbling banyan roots, you can go on tours in sea kayaks, for example on the Salet Galet River, where the green banks get closer and closer the further you paddle upstream. Hornbills soar over the mangrove forests, which are also a wonderful stand-up paddling spot to explore in silence and with a good view through the clear water.
The cicadas on Wa Ale Island are unique. These beasts with their monotonous high frequency noise are painful and almost deafening. This is not Mediterranean chirping, but an extremely high-frequency sound that lasts for minutes. It sounds more like microphone feedback at 100 decibels. So it can happen that you almost have to shout at each other during small talk with other guests in the “River Café” in the evening.
Wa Ale Island
INFO WA ALE ISLAND
Eleven tented villas (220 square meters) and three Tree Top Villas (75 square meters) offer space for a maximum of 28 guests from October to June. The resort remains closed during the monsoon. The tented villas have a double bed, double sofa bed, tea terrace and outdoor shower. Cooling is provided by two powerful ceiling fans and the open side walls, whose mosquito nets let in the sea breeze. From 1120 US-$ per night for two people, including full board, good house wine, beer, coffee, tea, soft drinks and water sports activities such as eakayaking and snorkeling tours. In the villas, mosquito nets, environmentally friendly insect repellent and coral-friendly sunscreen as well as biodegradable care products. No laundry service! waaleresort.com
With Singapore Airlines via Singapore to Bangkok. Take a 1 hour and 20 minute flight to Ranong with Air Asia or Nok Air, followed by a short boat ride across the border to Kawthaung, Myanmar. From the Kawthaung Jetty, embark on a one hour and forty minute luxury speed boat ride to the island. singaporeair.com
Protection against mosquito bites is important, the island is located in a malaria and dengue risk area
Due to the military takeover and the unrest, visiting Myanmar is currently associated with risks. Please observe the current safety instructions. Therefore, please pay attention to the current travel information
This article was originally written in German. It was translated into English with the help of Artificial Intelligence