Who needs an Instagram filter when the glorious sun has painted everything with a golden halo? The warmth of its rays hit my cheek just before 7am, and I rise out of bed and head down a stoned paved path. Seated upon rattan chairs, I peer out through open folding patio doors to Cape Kudu's infinity pool and then beyond to the far-reaching shimmering waters of Phang Nga Bay. In the distance, I can barely make out a smattering of limestone cliffs, and above them, a swath of wide open sky with not a single high-rise in sight.
For four days and three nights, this was my morning ritual at Camp Cape Kudu, an artist retreat at the five-star Cape Kudu Hotel. While it was more short-lived than a typical artist residency, the notion of carving out time and space to become immersed in a new environment, culture, and community was still just as resonant.
This romantic idea of cultural travel has been documented to have a significant impact on a creative's oeurve. For Cubist artist Pablo Picasso, it was the picturesque Mediterreanean coastline of Côte d'Azur that inspired the creation of La Joie de Vivre (1946), while Marrakesh's vivid colours sparked the imagination of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970s. For us, it would have to be Thailand's lush coastal tropics. We were in good company too. In 2012, actress Tilda Swinton, fashion designer Haider Ackermann, photographer Ryan McGinley among others descended on the island to enjoy architect Ole Scheeren's floating cinema on the bay.
The journey to Koh Yao Noi, an exotic lesser-known island sandwiched between the tourist havens of Krabi and Phuket, transpired like a carnival bumper ride. After flying into Phuket along with a horde of Australian and European travellers, I took a 40-minute car ride that meandered through back alleys, bumped along potholes, and passed by palm plantations and mangrove swamps before arriving at a busy pier. There, with the salty sea breeze in my hair and the smell of fresh seafood stinging my nose, I huddled together with locals onto a speedboat for a 20-minute journey that ended at a nondescript concrete embankment. It was only when I headed inland towards Cape Kudu that I finally entered an oasis of calm that disarmed my city eyes: schoolboys playing barefoot soccer on the lawn, fishermen tending to their kelongs by the shore, and teenagers cruising by on scooters well below 50 on the speedometer.
It might sound like an oxymoron, but the real joy of Koh Yao Noi was that there wasn't really much going on. While its infamous neighbours across the bay seduce with the allure of flashy neon lights, kitchsy souvenir stalls and thumping club beats with the promise of debauchery, Koh Yao Noi succeeds in its cultural authenticity, sense of community and environmental stewardship.
Take for instance, Bung Nheed's fish nursery (pictured above). Bung Nheed has been supplying technicolour rainbow lobsters to the handful of resorts and restaurants that are dotted around the island for 2600 Thai Baht a pop for years. Interest in his nursery has since grown in the last decade not only because of his prized catch, but because of the pair of leopard sharks that he had rescued after they had tangled up in his fishing nets. These days, his nursery has become a marine sanctuary of sorts for nearby schools, who visit him to learn about the assortment of sea creatures under his care. Kissing a ballooned puffer fish, he said that he is working towards creating more eco-friendly rigs for his nursery instead of the common plastic ones.
If Koh Yao Noi's mise-en-scène told a story of long-held tradition and pristine nature, the camp's host, Cape Kudu, injected a tropical air of laid-back refinement. The staff's breathable white linen outfits complemented their gentle mannerisms, while its modest palette of cream, Tiffany-blue and natural woods offered an ideal cool and composed backdrop for the camp's deep dive into the creative psyche.
When rest was on the agenda, a four-option pillow menu provided that indulgent touch while the attentive therapists at the Cape Spa pampered my wearisome sun-beaten body with an aromatic oil massage.
That sense of warmth extended to its on-site dining options too. While it might be seem unrealistic at first glance for an island in the middle of nowhere to compete with Bangkok's popular Michelin-rated street food and fine dining scenes, Cape Kudu's Hornbill Restaurant plesantly surprised with its wholesome locally sourced menu. Weeks have gone by, and yet I can still recall the lingering spiciness of a particular shredded crab salad.
If the setting seemed resplendent, then the company I had enjoyed can only be described as a fleeting magical bubble that any one would be privileged to experience. The participating creatives were hand-picked and invited by Camp Cape Kudu's organiser Lynn Visudharomn of acorn and associates to ensure the experience had the right mix of personalities, perspectives, and professions.
"This pilot project was inspired by the exciting stories and photographs that Cape Kudu's owner Tirawan Taechaubol would share with us after her personal trips around Koh Yao Noi. They are such fun and unique experiences that we felt should be made available to the hotel guests. We also saw it as a way to enhance our community engagement efforts. This camp allowed us to test out all these activities, create things inspired by the island, much of which will be linked to future programs that give back to the local community," explained Lynn. "We have a medley of projects already lined up by all the creatives we brought with us on this trip, and we are definitely looking into making this camp more than just a one-off thing. Best part of all, most of the activities we conducted on the camp from visiting the fish nursery, batik painting to picnics in the lagoon can now be requested and arranged by the hotel staff. Essentially any guest can plan their very own Camp Cape Kudu itinerary!"
Read about the full experience on Buro. Singapore.