Meet the Visionary Founders (Part 1)
Secret Retreats has the most beautiful mission: to be the best representative of indelible, captivating havens that reflect the pure essence and inner spirit of Asia.
While the world seems
to turn faster from one day to another, our members stand strong
with their vision and passion for their destination homes.
Each member is a masterful creator, someone who imagined, dreamt and put all his heart into building a priceless jewel. Shunning traditional hospitality experiences, he offers an intimate, experiential sanctuary. An artisan of life, each in his own individual and unique manner, showcases his country’s most precious gifts: its singular diversity. In times like this, when some of us are losing the will to move forward, listen to their stories, be encouraged and be inspired by our visionary founders.
Muang La Lodge, Muang La – Laos
A French native, Jean-Paul’s love with Laos began in his early 30s when his quest for adventure and off-the-beaten-track-experiences lured him to Asia. Passionate about sharing the story of Laos and its people with fellow travellers, he started a Laos based travel company offering guests authentic experiences in the more remote areas of Laos. Always in search for innovative ways to implement sustainable tourism practices, Jean-Paul founded Muang La Resort in 2007, an intimate 9-bedroom eco-lodge in Northern Laos built in partnership with the local community and with respect to the natural environment.
A peaceful sanctuary situated along the banks of a river, Muang La is an ideal base from which to take day trips into the heart of Laos’ to visit the ethnic hill tribes and experience their diverse and unique cultures. Dedicated to supporting the local communities, Jean-Paul improved the facilities and access to a natural hot spring located near the hotel, and is working to help restart a neighbouring rock-salt mine to create more jobs and natural resources for the Muang La community.
Husna – Tara Prakash
Glenburn Tea Estate, Darjeeling and Glenburn Penthouse, Kolkata – India
Husna-Tara is one of the main forces behind the beautiful Glenburn Tea Estate and Glenburn Penthouse. It began when she wished to make use of her husband’s family tea estate. Despite not having any experience in hospitality or in running a hotel she used her heart, devotion, dedication and her dynamic team, formed from the local community, to develop the estate into what it is today.
Renovating the bungalows into the luxury accommodations they are today took a long time. Before Glenburn Tea Estate came to the Prakash family, the property belonged to a large tea company that owned 52 estates, and every three years a new manager and his wife moved into the bungalows. The new madam of the house would come in and wanted to change something here, paint something there. There were layers and layers of personality left behind at the bungalow. Husna-Tara wanted to restore it to its initial glory.
The tea experience that you will get at Glenburn is more than unique. The hotel is now very much a core part of the tea estate validated by the praise showered on the hotel experience by its guests. Moreover, Husna-Tara’s strong sense of community makes Glenburn Tea Estate special. All the staff and the local community are an essential part of what makes Glenburn Tea Estate possible. To give back to the community, Husna-Tara and her family started an education sponsorship program for children, a nursery and kindergarten, and have created 100s of jobs for the community. The property is not just a physical entity, it is the stories and successes of generations of the community of people that all make Glenburn and the Glenburn experience what it is today.
Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins
Wow Borneo Cruises, Borneo – Indonesia
Inspired by the untapped potential of Central Kalimantan’s rivers and the plight of the wildlife and the incredible natural environment here, Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins converted traditional Kalimantan barges into comfortable cruise boats and founded the first cabin river cruises in the area. Kalimantan teems with potential, of the indigenous Dayak people and their fascinating culture, the pristine forests of diverse flora and fauna including the iconic orangutan, and the mighty rivers that provide the access to these wonderful treasures. An idea for a social enterprise emerged, which involved building a boat to journey guests to inaccessible places while providing comfortable accommodation.
Originally Lorna Dowson-Collins worked with a local NGO on a sustainable livelihoods program in an effort to protect the future livelihoods of the local people which were under threat as logging left the land devastated with poor soils and no forest to fend from.
Gaye Thavisin, an Australian expatriate, was passionate about developing the tourism potential of Central Kalimantan and was also looking at the idea of boats. With her contract from her former hotel coming to an end, the River Cruise began to take shape.
Gaye and Lorna decided to set up a new company and developed a business plan which won a Dutch funded competition called Business in Development which sought innovative ideas for developing businesses that benefited local communities and the environment. The idea was simple: to build a boat that would both be an attraction and would transport guests in comfort to visit Kalimantan’s forests, flora and fauna, and the forest homes of the Dayak people all while supporting conservation and contributing to the preservation of this rare natural environment for generations to come.
H.H. Raja Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal
Stok Palace Heritage Hotel, Ladakh – India
H.H. Raja Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal, the King of Ladakh, is the owner of the beautiful Stok Palace, which was built by his ancestors as a summer retreat, a summer palace, the only royal palace located on the south bank of the Indus river. The King has a master plan for the development of Ladakh through tourism in the hope of preserving the region’s unique heritage for future generations of Ladakhis. It is hoped that with Ladakh appointed tourism status it will attract investment and give rise to better job opportunities to Ladakhis. Comprising a group of businesses that are actively engaged in tourism-related activities, The Responsible Tourism Collective of Ladakh was formed to assist with directing this development. This collaboration between local businesses is bringing together various sustainability advisors to empower not only the business members but also the tourists and travellers to Ladakh’s respective destinations and encourage sustainable and responsible development of tourism in the region. Attracting and expanding the appropriate market of conscious consumers is the key objective.
“My idea was to sustain the palace and create awareness amongst the community to show them that it can be preserved. I had the urge to protect the very tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Ladakh, which is so important since it is nestled in the heart of the Trans Himalayas. So, in 2007 I began to convert my property into a Heritage Hotel. It was a very humble beginning with just one room, to begin with. Now, we have six well-appointed rooms, which blend in with the palace’s architecture,” said H.H.Namgyal.
A property that rewards on so many levels, preservation of culture and tradition, the sharing of stories from down the ages for visitors and Ladakhis alike, incredible architecture to inspire local business people and developers to look to the region’s heritage for age old wisdom that is still relevant to today’s design especially in environmental terms, and a deep sense of place, what could be better than staying in a King’s summer palace for your next Asian adventure?
Yin Myo Su (Misuu)
Inle Princess Resort, Shan State, Inle Lake – Myanmar
At the age of 18, without knowing a word of French, Misuu had to find refuge from her troubled home country of Myanmar in a small but respected hospitality school in the French provinces, one hour away from Reims, the famed city of kings. Three years of hard labour and training from which Misuu now says: “it taught me discipline, the love for a job done to perfection, the cultural openness and the special sense of terroir in Reims, that creates the link between family, culture, craftsmanship and the environment: in fact, a bypass to rediscover my own roots and many ideas”.
In 1996, as a result of changes in Myanmar, Misuu decided to return to Myanmar to launch the Inle Princess Resort with her family and a team made up of the local community, or Misuu’s ‘extended family’ as she prefers to refer to her team. The resort is 46 refined traditional chalets set on the bank of Inle Lake, with Misuu as Managing director. Since founding Inle Princess Misuu and her team have not stood still. Regardless of the many setbacks and difficulties that beset a business in Myanmar (“an opportunity for challenge and a ladder for the next step to take” she says..) in 2007 she launched Mrauk Oo Resort, in the utterly disinherited state of Rakhine which she maintains in spite of the difficulties in getting tourists to this little known (sadly now known or rather misunderstood for the problems in the northern part of the state with the Rohingya) but fascinating and beautiful region. She’s an adept of the “triple WIN” concept, where she claims that success is not measured by the number of positive transactions between two parties but also inclusive of the third parties who contribute to the overall success: wealth of know-how, culture, relationships of the surrounding community and nature. This triple-win concept was a philosophy inspired by her grand-parents’ teachings about the “middle-path”.
Misuu’s business ventures support a vocational school (hospitality) and the Heritage Foundation which aside from supporting Myanmar youth by providing an education and a career that can be pursued near their homes (preventing the death of rural villages as a result of migration for work by rural youth) also supports the “visible and invisible richness” of local traditions such as the re-introduction of the Burmese cat, bio-farming, and the founding of a primary school set in cutting edge eco-architecture built as it is from bamboo and natural local materials: we would need to write to share the stories of all the initiatives and businesses inspired by Misuu, her family and her ‘extended family’. Misuu has won many awards, including the 2013 Goldman Sachs and Fortune Women Leaders award and the French recognition 2016 Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite. Born from the Inthar tribe, modestly raised in a context of civil and harsh upheavals, exiled for her own safety, taking up the risk of returning, Misuu never forgot her childhood eyes, her curiosity for foreign cultures as well as her own, her belief that “if you rely on yourself, have compassion, use your positive energy, then you will learn so you can never loose”. A truly inspirational woman from one of the most beautiful and inspirational destinations on earth, if you haven’t planned your visit to Inle and the Shan States yet, why not?
Chef Pola Siv
Banlle Vegetarian Restaurant, Siem Reap – Cambodia
It was not an easy road for the talented Cambodian chef, Pola Siv, to get to where he is today. Starting from a humble rural background, his passion and ambition drove him from a quiet life in the village to where it is today, running one of Cambodia’s most innovative restaurants.
He was inspired as a child by his mother’s cooking and he wished that he could extend his knowledge in cooking, but his family could not afford to send him to the luxury hospitality school in Siem Reap. Pola would not be denied his dream, so he pushed himself to leave home and find work abroad in order to save money to fund his ambition to study. He landed his first overseas job as a waiter in Bahrain then moved to the Cayman Islands where he saved enough money to pursue his dream. Instead of coming back to Cambodia, he went to Switzerland and put himself through a Swiss culinary school and later honed his craft at a Michelin-starred restaurant before returning to his homeland to become part of the new Cambodian Cuisine movement.
His hard work and dedication have paid off. Chef Pola is well-known for his elegant and inventive contemporary Cambodian cuisine rooted in local produce and European cooking techniques.
Apart from his creativity, Chef Pola has been recognised for his commitment to the environment, to the community, and his desire to develop the food scene by using primarily locally sourced foods. We are proud to have Chef Pola Siv and all of our visionary founders as members of Secret Tables, Secret Retreats.