It is 5.30am and I am already late. I have set out to greet the sunrise but dawn came earlier than I expected. The sky is already in lovely shades of denim blue with a smudge of orange at the horizon.
Still, it’s a magical time to be sitting on the beach. I am completely alone with only the sound of waves lapping gently on the shore against a background buzzing of cicadas and chirping of birds for company.
Behind me, against the lightening sky, coconut palms tower over pitched roofs behind a low-rise building in white that is warmly lit up.
This is the Ritz-Carlton on Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. Located on the north-eastern corner of the island and a 15-minute drive from the airport, the resort is YTL Hotels’ newest luxury addition to Thailand’s second most popular holiday destination, after Phuket.
I arrive as a first time visitor to witness its official launch on June 8. It is also YTL’s biggest property, covering 58 acres of hill to beach, which means there is much to explore.
First, my “room”, which turns out to be an ocean view pool villa.
The generously sized 97sq metre building gives me cool relief from the outdoor heat and is filled with natural light flooding in from the floor-to-ceiling windows.
I have a living room, a king-size bed, dressing and bath areas, an open air deck and a private infinity pool.
There are double sinks and a long bath, lots of wardrobe space, fluffy towels and the YTL Hotels signature Asprey bathroom amenities that I love.
I relish the fact that I have three nights to spend in my private little slice of heaven.
Next, to get a great vantage view of the resort, I head for the Peak. Half-way there, I am too hot and the road too steep, so I hitch a ride on a buggy that takes me past buildings nestled on higher ground.
These, I learn, are where the spacious suites are located. There are 126 in eight blocks, each with living, sleeping and bathroom spaces that flow into verandas with sea views.
The Peak turns out to be a terrace with chest-high glass walls perched on the edge of the hill. The view is indeed magnificent. The area is also designed for private functions for small groups, served by a standalone kitchen, a stone’s throw away.
I want to see more but it’s time to get ready for the launch party held in an al-fresco setting.
Guests mingle over aperitifs before sitting down to a showcase dinner of inventive Thai fusion dishes by executive chef Jose Chelo Ballester.
In attendance are managing director of YTL Group of Companies Tan Sri Francis Yeoh, executive director Datuk Mark Yeoh, president and managing director of Asia-Pacific for Marriott International Inc Craig Smith, and area general manager Mahmoud Skaf.
Fireworks signal the end of dinner but not the night which continues with an after-party on the beach.
Over the next few days, I check out the food choices available. First stop is Shook! (yes, same name as the one in Starhill Gallery in Kuala Lumpur) that serves a generous breakfast buffet.
For lunch, dinner and in-between, there is the poolside Tides with its specialities like ceviche and tiradito, Peruvian style raw seafood that is either cubed or sliced and served with Thai-influenced dressings and creative ice cream concoctions.
A more private dining space is Pak Tai that specialises in southern Thai cuisine like Khao Yum Pak Tai, a rice salad with kaffir lime, lemongrass, dried shrimp and coconut, Gang Poo Bai Cha Plu, blue crab in yellow curry and Kua Kling Nu, wok-fried spicy minced beef with turmeric.
A short distance away is Sea Salt Deck where you can feast on barbecued meats and seafood like wagyu beef and lobsters by the beach under coconut trees.
If you like cocktails and catching the sunset, there is the One Rai bar and lounge. The mixologist is adventurous and since it is Thailand, you can get a martini flavoured with chilli padi, a hot and heady combo.
Ritz-Carlton brings popular street food to its guests every Saturday night at its open-air Baan Talat where stalls are set up offering grilled sausages, skewered meat, chicken wings, pork ball noodles in broth and more. There are also local handicraft and souvenirs on sale and a quick-draw guest portrait artist to boot.
Food aside, there are plenty activities, like snorkelling in the resort’s unique swim reef. This is an artificial pool with sea water pumped in and populated with over 50 species of marine life.
Resident reef supervisor Sophie instructs me on how to use a snorkelling mask – my first time – and leads me into the pool that is about chin-deep.
The water is unfortunately murky that day but even so I am absolutely thrilled to be among hundreds of fishes that dart around me and gather to feed when Sophie sprinkles food pellets into the water.
I miss the sleeping baby shark but Sophie makes it up by allowing me to hold a sea cucumber which grows longer as it is stroked. It’s awesome because, as Sophie laughs, all her Chinese guests have only seen the dead, dried ones.
My next must-do is a visit to the Spa Village, a signature brand of YTL Hotels that started in its Pangkor Laut resort.
I feel like I am entering a secret place as I can only see how it is laid out after I am guided out from the reception area. And the sight is a breathtakingly beautiful set-up of individual treatment pavilions or salas around a placid blue lake.
My two-hour Samui’s Coconut Heritage experience starts with a coconut scrub and a songkran shower where a basin of water scented with flowers is splashed over the guest.
After a proper shower to remove the scrub, I am thoroughly pampered with one-and-a-half hours of full body massage with warm coconut oil. To finish, my masseuse kneads my scalp with a coconut hair masque.
While there are plenty more activities like paddle boarding, kayaking, beach football and yoga, I save what I consider the best for the last: a Muay Thai lesson.
I join the free 8am class on Mondays and for one hour, I learn to jab, punch and kick with gloves and my bare feet that leaves me sweaty but so empowered.
But for all its physical beauty and facilities, what makes my stay truly memorable is the absolutely fantastic service from the staff. They are friendly, attentive, genuinely helpful, and seem such a happy lot.
I fly home thinking YTL Hotels’ tagline, “Treasured places, treasured moments”, is spot-on as it exactly describes my weekend at Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui.
How to build a world class resort
The newly opened Ritz-Carlton Koh Samui has all the hallmarks of a YTL luxury resort.
The gorgeously designed and spacious suites and villas, the beautiful finishing touches, the lush greenery, the facilities, the food outlets and its incredible spa are so well-thought and presented, I wanted to know just how everything was put together.
To find out, I turn to YTL Construction executive director Baldip Singh, the low-keyed, long-time architect for the group who is responsible for many of its properties.
He introduces me to Wong Yow Kwai, vice-president of Projects, YTL Hotels and Yeoh Soo Chee, project manager for YTL Construction (Thailand) Ltd. All three have been with YTL for decades.
Baldip tells me the project was mothballed for several years after YTL’s partner, Lehman Brothers, went bust in 2008. When it was revived in 2012, his “Boss” – as everyone calls him – YTL Group executive director Datuk Mark Yeoh’s instruction was create a product that would “beat all the competition (which included established luxury brands like the Four Seasons, Banyan Tree, Six Senses, Conrad and W) on the island at a reasonable cost.”
To do that, Baldip had to study the terrain, the vegetation, what the competition had to offer, the psychology of the guests, and even what’s next to the property.
“There’s no inspiration like a bolt of lightning and ‘Viola! I got it’. It’s actually a science to it,” says Baldip.
The first thing they did was to survey and count every coconut tree (the land was a former coconut plantation) and other vegetation and save as much of it as possible.
There is also building height control – no more 6m high within 50m of the sea, and nothing above 12m from 50 to 200m.
By law, every building must have at least 80% traditional pitched roof.
“It fits the feel of Samui. That’s the difference with Phuket which is large enough to accommodate different types of architecture.
“But on Samui, the soul and character is so strong, if you put something modernist, you will fail. It just doesn’t jive with (the natural setting),” explains Baldip.
Two materials widely used were Yellow Balau hardwood from Sabah and cedar from Canada for the pitched roofs which Baldip says will age beautifully.
Baldip deliberately sited the swimming pool to face a stretch of beach where there is a natural rock barrier – which means it will be protected from erosion — and a dramatic view of the waves.
A major concern for the design and construction teams was controlling flooding during the monsoon months.
“The terrain is unpredictable so it’s hard to model how the water will flow which can also be affected by the structures we build,” explains Baldip.
The resort was completed in October last year and it was put to the test when the first monsoon started in November and lasted till middle of January.
The three men spent hours in the rain watching where the water flowed and flooded. Adjustments and improvements were made and Baldip reveals that the spa’s placid meditative pool is actually the resort’s main retention pond. Beauty and practicality combined!
For Yeoh, who has spent five years on the island, completing the project was a triumph because of the many challenges he had to face. The greatest difficulties were communication and cultural differences with the contractors and workers.
“We had a lot of unskilled workers and the turnover was very high,” he says.
Wong adds: “They were mainly Myanmars and Cambodians who couldn’t speak Thai or English. We had to rely on the headmen to translate and often there were misunderstandings which led to the workers having to redo their work.”
It was a severe test of their patience and to be sabai sabai, which is Thai for “take it easy” or “chill”.
“That’s how you have to work here. Even if they screw up, you can’t scold them. If you are too hard, they will run away or even threaten you,” recalls Baldip wryly.
But their many sleepless nights paid off. Baldip and colleagues breathed a sigh of relief when Da Boss gave his nod of approval.
So too their guests so far. Wong shared how a guest came in November and despite the rain, loved the resort so much, he extended his stay by two weeks.
During my weekend visit, a wedding party of 42 from Shanghai also extended their holiday.
But Baldip says the best is yet to come: the two-storey, three-bedroom Kasara villa. So far there is only one in the resort where the wedding couple stayed. And stayed.