Former casino hotel adopts new face

KAWTHAUNG, Myanmar, 20 February 2029: A 24-hour casino and hotel that once boasted a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and a zoo might seem like an unlikely place for bird-watching, yet the Grand Andaman Hotel is an unexpected base for amateur ornithology – as well as other tropical island activities.

Located on an island near the southern Myanmar and Thailand coastal towns of Kawthaung and Ranong, and easily accessible by Thai nationals as well as foreigners thanks to free border passes and USD10 cash seven-day local area visas, the extensive five-star resort occupies 730 hectares (1,800 acres) of Thahtay Kyun Island, just on the Burmese side of the Thai-Myanmar border.

Owned and operated by Grand Andaman Travel since late 2015, the hotel was formerly known as Andaman Club, and was once part of Thailand’s VES Group’s portfolio.

The Grand Andaman is sometimes confused with the first resort in the outer islands of the Mergui Archipelago, the Myanmar Andaman Resort, currently owned by Tint Tint Lwin of travel and tours company Tint Tint Myanmar Group.

Now no longer hosting overnighters in its 22 bungalows, the resort caters to cruise ships on day visits, with Star Cruises taking guests from Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur via Penang and Phuket to MacLeod island aboard the 1480-passenger SuperStar Libra since late 2017, and the 3,500-passenger capacity 335m-long Genting Dream (of Dream Cruises, another Genting Cruise Lines company) also featuring the tropical island as part of a five-night cruise from Singapore, along with its two submarines and 2,000 crew.

While Myanmar Andaman Resort has pivoted to capture the large cruise market, under its new ownership, Grand Andaman has downplayed gambling facilities to appeal to a wider market. Established 21 years ago, the hotel’s 205-rooms have been renovated and previously tired-looking amenities upgraded. New owner, U Kyaw Lwin, wants to extend the resort’s activities.

The zoo is gone, and due to high maintenance costs (and massive damage done by foraging wild pigs on the greens and fairways) the golf course closed in late 2017. The hotel attracts not just Thai visitors, and day-trippers, but also Myanmar nationals, some on Buddhist pilgrimages, for short visits. The hotel also provides a smart way of doing the Thai visa run for expats and tourists needing to exit and re-enter Thailand, with immigration facilities at the arrival boat terminal allowing foreigners to skip the rigmarole of the Ranong-Kawthaung longtail boat excursion. Thais just have to show their ID card. Guest relations staff, English-speaking, are on hand to guide guests through the logistics including boat transfers and immigration.

Grand Andaman has its own boats doing 10-minute island transfers from a dedicated pier in Ranong, with frequent services plying the 5km wide estuary delta, while a large boat (often full with staff based in Kawthaung) is used for regular Kawthaung-resort services (THB100 one way or return – around USD3) late into the night.

With the opening up of the vast Mergui Archipelago over the last few years, the upscale Grand Andaman is one of the few quality options for guests overnighting in Myanmar’s most southern town, and it is the only 5-star rated hotel in Kawthaung.

At the Grand Andaman, the rooms are spread over five levels – with reception confusingly on the 4th floor, the arrival area – and offer private balconies with spectacular sea and garden views, with on-going renovations smartening up the high-maintenance complex, including adding space-age metallic multi-head shower banks in the marble tiled bathrooms of the light and airy, colour-ordinated, comfortable rooms. The resort’s own fuel generators provide electricity, WiFi and mobile signal is strong throughout the resort, and cable TV streams international channels. The hilltop position means sea breezes often cool the complex, which has a large outdoor pool area (with brand new gym), leafy tropical gardens, and open-air walkways.

The resort’s location gives panoramic views, with sunsets particularly stunning, and from the main restaurant, the Thai-influenced Victoria Cafe, visitors can look out through the large floor-to-ceiling windows at the diamond-speckled Andaman Sea between Kawthaung and the closest of the Mergui Archipelago islands.

The terraces and balconies of the resort are also a good place to spot birds, with noisy hornbills often seen in the trees, while occasionally in the thermals high above white-bellied sea eagles circle and soar before swooping down on unsuspecting prey. The most prevalent predatory bird, the Brahminy kite, with its reddish-brown plumage contrasting with its white head and breast, is seen so often that dedicated birdwatchers have camped out for weeks in Kawthaung to photograph the bird of prey in action.

At the Grand Andaman, even for the eagle-eyed, it isn’t so evident that the hotel is also a casino, even though some 7,000 square feet is discretely set aside for table games and gaming machines. Easier than trying to count cards is spotting the duty-free shop, which stocks a wide range of alcohol as well as cosmetics, confectionery and imported chocolate.

The resort runs short sightseeing tours of Kawthaung’s markets and monuments, including the southernmost point of Myanmar, where a statue of the conqueror of Thailand, King Bayinnaung, stands malevolently defiant.

The resort offers jungle adventure activities such as a zipline and ATV rides, and also has rights to take guests on day trips to Cock’s Comb Island, which has gained worldwide fame following social media postings of aerial photos showing its heart-shaped inlet. Also known as Emerald Heart Island, the limestone atoll doesn’t have any beaches, but visitors can swim through a natural tunnel to the calm inlet, ideal for snorkelling. The price for day trips is THB3,900/2,900 (around USD127 adult/92 child) and include three other snorkelling and beach sites, and lunch, with the option of overnight and dinner package, staying at the hotel, for a good value THB4,900-6,300 (USD156 twin share/201 single).

The Grand Andaman has kept the ethos of the Andaman Club as being ‘entirely devoted to the pleasure and enjoyment’ of visitors – along with some of its branded products – but these days, a wide range of leisure activities mean it is more family-friendly. While the gaming rooms are open 24 hours, and the grand ballroom can accommodate up to 600 guests for cocktails, the resort is big and well-managed enough that it never seems crowded, or noisy, even on weekends or Thai holidays.

Burmese art and artefacts adorn the walls of the resort, with displays of lacquerware giving an authentic feel, and in the courtyard of the main accommodation block, a fountain provides white noise in the daytime. Not even the sauna, snooker room or Thai massage centre (from THB400/USD13) get too busy. Just before the next boat departs to Ranong or Kawthaung, a staff member goes around the eateries and gaming rooms with a bell to remind diners and punters that the real outside world beckons.

While the Mergui Archipelago was mentioned as the drop-off location for a ransom in the James Bond film Thunderball, and the kind of boats Bond would have loved speed visitors out to luxury resorts and secret dive spots, the Grand Andaman has a stately and nostalgic comfortable rather than seedy and glitzy feel. Room rates for the simple yet elegant rooms (www.grandandamanisland.com, booking@grandandamanisland.com) start at USD80, with the hotel’s GM Supachai Chuamchit (supachai.gm@gmail.com) the man to talk to about contract rates.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the 800 plus islands of the Mergui Archipelago, the first guests set foot on the fine white sands of the Memories Group showcase Awei Pila resort (https://aweipila.com) in mid-December last year, while Victoria Cliff Resort on Nyaung Oo Phee island (https://www.nyaungoopheeresort.com) opens soon to complement its Kawthaung mainland resort hotel.