There's a quiet revolution happening in the watery highways and byways of the remote Krabi River in southern Thailand – the vision of German-born Australian entrepreneur and hotelier Wolfgang Grimm.
It might seem like a bit of a fairytale, but Grimm is on a mission to replace the belch and roar of the classic longtail boat engine with the near-silent purr of an electric motor – the Thai Tesla, as it were.
In a recent world-first trial I tried out a mini version of what Grimm hopes will soon be gliding soundlessly through the Krabi mangroves without deafening tourists, boat drivers and wildlife alike.
With a helmsman at the rear and a guide up front of the prototype, we took to the water two at a time, heading away from the main watercourse and into a bosky, snake-like tributary through one of the larger islands in the river.
Like driving a Tesla car, it's quite eerie at first to find oneself propelled along in total silence, especially if you are used to the guttural, gas-guzzling growl of the leaky second-hand car engines that power the larger boats.
And it's not just we who are surprised by the soundless craft as it glides through the tight bends of the mangrove swamp – at one point we come upon a gaggle of monkeys who gape at us in naked, almost human, astonishment. They are, it seems, unused to people who don't arrive in a noisy monster that announces its arrival long before it appears.
Grimm is hoping to get a larger, solar-powered version of the boat up and running this year. "I am," he says in his lightly accented English, "at this moment just following my heart."
It's a heart that believes solar and electric power will transform these waterways once he persuades the traditional boat owners of the power, range, efficacy and long-term environmental benefits of the new machines. (As proof that he's on the right track the first all-electric commuter ferry went into service in Bangkok in November last year.)
Grimm is a third-generation son of a German hotelier family and has been in the hospitality business for 50 years, 25 of them in senior management at InterContinental Hotels in Europe, Asia, and Australia. He was general manager of Intercontinental Sydney for eight years and was on the successful Sydney Olympic Bid Committee. He was also instrumental in starting the InterContinental Hotel School Sydney.
Passionate about sustainable tourism, Grimm's latest project – quite apart from the electric longtail engine – is the Anana Ecological Resort just outside the small town of Ao Nang in Krabi.
This 59-room hotel only opened just before Christmas 2018 but has already earned a Green Globe sustainable tourism certification – a standard that demands "44 core criteria supported by more than 380 compliance indicators". This essentially means it's greener than Kermit's armpit.
Its Eco Manifesto, available in full on its website, declares that "our ecological commitment is at the heart of our operations and drives our daily managerial decisions because ecology – human and nature interrelationships – is destined to become tomorrow's heritage".
This means a commitment to sustainable supply chains, presenting the lowest carbon footprint possible via use of smart appliances and smart transportation as well as nature restoration and the minimisation of the use of non-reusable material.
They compost pretty much everything and ensure that local community members are involved in, and profit from, any recycling. A biomass generator, to be built of sustainable material in one corner of the hotel's farm, is next on Grimm's lengthy to do list.
Just a 10-minute drive from the bustle of Ao Nang, Anana sits next to towering limestone cliffs and backs on to a jungle filled with the high-pitched, almost birdlike gibber of gibbons that may or may not deign to show themselves if you take the time to wander up there for an early morning walk. It's worth the stroll along the well-marked path even if the gibbons decline to make an appearance. You might not see them, but you most definitely will hear them.
The first surprise at Anana is that it doesn't look like any eco-friendly hotel I've ever seen. Seven storeys tall, with a 25-metre pool at its base, it looks like a self-service apartment block in the Costa del Sol.
Disappointing exterior aesthetics aside, this is a resort that shines in ecological and sustainability terms. Only taking up 400 square metres, with a rooftop Sky Garden that restores 50 per cent of that footprint, Anana is plastic-free, has its own water source, collects rainwater and is cultivating its own permaculture farm next door, using the organic produce grown there in its Streats restaurant and Cooper's vegan cafe.
At the cafe, which sits across the road from the hotel, you can pick vegetables straight from the garden and have them made into a farm-fresh smoothie or chow down on a super-healthy vegan breakfast bowl made from rolled oats, raisins, date, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cashew nuts, coconut flakes, salt, activated almond milk and banana. It might read like the sort of stuff you would feed a gluten-intolerant hamster but it both looks and tastes delicious.
In the rooms all the furnishings are natural, the soap, shampoo and conditioner come in ceramic pots, the toothbrush is made of wood and even the toothpaste is organic. There are yoga sessions on the roof, Nepalese singing bowl experiences if that floats your boat, a salt crystal halotherapy room in the spa and, for the more adventurous, the chance to go rock climbing on the nearby limestone cliffs. There is tree hugging, too, which in retrospect wasn't as daft as it sounds.
Basically, if it can be grown here, found locally and is ecologically sound, biodegradable, organic, sustainable and all the other watchwords that are exercising travellers and the tourism world right now then Anana has them in spades. Even the bricks that make up Cooper's vegan cafe were handmade using mud-and-straw bricks.
The resort also has its own beach "club" about a five-minute drive away and which is pretty much devoid of the crowds and hawkers that can ruin the more accessible and popular beaches. Regular Bali-goers will be heartily disappointed, though, as "beach club" here simply means a restaurant on a stretch of private sand. It's an oasis created, says Wolfgang Grimm, as sustainably as possible and while they had to cut down one tree in the construction he planted three more in its stead.
From the hotel there is a regular free shuttle bus (until 8pm) into Ao Nang itself and a local taxi back costs next to nothing. It's a tranquil setting away from the noise and bustle of town but that's not to say there are no downsides.
The existence of an illegal rock quarry just next to the gardens isn't the best outlook for some of the rooms, and the guy in the house right behind the hotel is the proud owner of dozens of cockerels that go off like clockwork at dawn. I'm not sure if he knows it, but he's also got a faulty one that sometimes goes off accidentally at 1am.
Vegetarianism and veganism might be the healthy choices in this paean to ecological and sustainable living but that is one bird I'd happily see on the Anana menu.
Thai Airways International flies to Krabi International Airport via Bangkok daily from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. See thaiairways.com for details and prices.
Anana Ecological Resort, Krabi, has 59 air-conditioned rooms ranging from family studios to 55-square-metre luxury spa suites. Features include organic bathroom amenities, free high-speed Wi-Fi and, in the spa suites, a bath you can do laps in. Visit ananakrabi.com for details and prices.
Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Anana Ecological Resort and Thai Airways.