Driving helter-skelter through the Rakhine Yoma towards the Bay of Bengal, aiming for the coast somewhere between beach towns Ngwesaung and Ngapali, we kept hoping for this mountain to be the last only to be surprised with another crest between us and the sea. The sun had dropped low. After about seven long hours on the road, we found level land and made the final sprint from Gwa to Zikhone Village. We entered the grounds of the Arakan Nature Lodge through humble wooden gates that were a good hint of what we were about to experience.
Arakan Nature Lodge is nestled among the coconut trees at Zikhone beach 35 minutes north of Gwa.
We tumbled out of the car and were immediately drawn past the large, grass-roofed reception and dining area down to the beach below where at that moment, everything was glowing a magic shade of pink. The sun, a fiery red ball, dropped over jagged rocks in the sea to the north. We found ourselves on a heaven-like stretch of curving beach with fine white sand in our toes and coconut trees standing in formation as a backdrop to the idyllic beach scene. Aside from the lodge’s thatched roofs and bamboo loungers, there wasn’t a man-made construction in sight.
We were led through tall grasses beneath curving coconut tree trunks and along a winding sand path. Our room – a stilted Rakhine house with walls of woven bamboo – was an open-plan design and the cool sea breezes flow through and kiss your skin. Two wide folding doors open up the entire front side of the small house. The breaking waves were a low and constant lullaby.
Ueli Morgenthaler, a Swiss man who had previously been working as a trainer in the Ngapali hotel industry, visited the 5-acre site in 2012. After his observations of the negative impact hotel projects are having on the natural landscape of Ngapali, it was visiting this beach that ultimately gave him the inspiration for the concept of the project. Ueli had a vision to create unique accommodation experience that is sympathetic to the environment and connects guests to nature. Though far off the beaten tracks and in a remote part of southern Rakhine, Ueli made the brave move of sacrificing accessibility for quality of the location of Arakan Nature Lodge.
“I realised it would be better to be a first-class location far away than to be a third-class situation near a first-class location that’s already established.”
Former colleague and friend, Yangon-native Myo Kyaw Thu then came on board as Project Director. Myo Kyaw Thu has years of experience working at high-end hotels in Myanmar and abroad and was keen to implement the concept. In 2014 they began to turn their dreams into actions.
When the construction of the lodge began, there was no electricity supply to Zikhone, the surrounding village. A costly 24-part solar panel system was put in place and now guests have an electricity supply 24 hours per day – a notable achievement considering even high-end hotels and resorts at Ngwesaung beach further down the coast rely on C02-emitting generators for their electricity supply.
Completed in 2017, each of the houses at Arakan Nature Lodge reflect local Rakhine house design. No two houses are the same and rather than following an architect’s plans, teams of carpenters from different villages were brought in to make their traditional style of home while adding minor adjustments – such as wider terraces – for guests’ comfort.
“One important guideline of real, true ecotourism is that the architecture should reflect the local building traditions,” said Ueli on his decision not to use a European architect who was set on designing something new and modern.
The lodge welcomed its first guests in October last year. There are nine houses of three varieties including five Beach Houses, three Beach House XL options and one Garden House which has two bedrooms and is set a little back from the beach in the coconut grove. They are all are built of recycled wood and bamboo which lend to a special feeling on entering the room: there is a softness in the atmosphere and in the feel of the timber under your feet. A woody fragrance emanates and a soft green colour meets your eyes through the large open windows.
“There was no need to create very much human beauty because the place itself has enough to show.”
The rooms are kept purposefully minimal but comfortable – the windows are glassless and there are no air-con units or even fans in the rooms. All rooms have an attached dressing room and an external bathroom area. Guests wash in the shower area among trees and plants and surrounded by a bamboo fence for privacy and the sky as a roof. Toilets are in a separate hut and each have a Wostman Eco Dry composting toilet which has been shipped over from Sweden. Guests are given instructions on using these as soon as they arrive. They work using minimal water and thus avoid creating black water waste which may ultimately contaminate fresh water or be released in the sea. They are designed with a ventilation system to whip away the smells (there really was absolutely no toilet smell) and what remains goes through an on-site composting system.
The project has not been without its stumbling blocks. Being the first project of its kind in Myanmar, there was a lack of specific laws and regulations the team could use to guide them. Ueli constantly feared the authorities and Myo Kyaw Thu had to wade through much bureaucratic paperwork and only recently managing to obtain an official license for international guest accommodation.
`But once the lodge opened its doors, the team was pleasantly surprised at how many bookings they were receiving. And so far, the feedback – including the composting toilet experience – has been largely positive. Guests are open to the new experience, this ‘little adventure’ as Ueli put it. In fact, the team has decided not to sell their rooms over traditional booking websites. People have to seek them out, learn about them through word of mouth or via the website and send an enquiry. Moreover, they don’t have a desire to fill all rooms every night of the season.
“Maybe it’s a quality seal that you don’t need to be on these booking websites.”
Arakan Nature Lodge’s slogan ‘A celebration of simplicity’ seems to catch exactly what has made this project an unprecedented success.
“From the first guest we had, the response has been very good. [Guests] are very happy that they can find a place where they can sleep without air conditioning, they feel the transparency of the buildings – you can feel the wind, and you can hear the sounds and you can see the sky when you take a shower and so forth.”