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Song Saa, Cambodia: Sustainable luxury on a fantasy island
An economic meltdown and a battle with cancer haven't stopped an Australian couple from building Asia’s next-generation luxury destination
“Welcome to your new home,” says Narith Asan, pushing open the villa’s heavy wooden door and lugging our bags inside.
Then he launches into his checklist: iPod over there, espresso machine there, drinks inside this fridge right here. My wife and I try to listen, but Asan’s getting some serious competition from the view.
Beyond the sliding glass doors, past the patio and the pool, the plush lounge area and the patch of private beach, the Gulf of Thailand gleams in the midday sun.
The odd fishing boat bobs on its turquoise waters. The untouched hills of a neighboring island decorate the distant horizon. Not much else is going on.
It’s is the kind of simplicity that’s been luring people to Song Saa, a new luxury resort located on a pair of islands off the Cambodian coast.
Visitors relish the isolation of Song Saa's 27 well-appointed villas, built into the jungle or out over the water. They feast on top-notch Khmer-inspired cuisine in the open-air restaurant, sun themselves on white-sand beaches, swim and snorkel and finish off the day staring at the stars.
“It’s very relaxing, very laid-back,” says Christian Beck, who’s here with his family from Norway.
But guests also visit because they’re interested in what Song Saa is doing for Cambodia’s tourism industry, its people and the environment.
“Because we’re the first resort out here, the first island to be developed, we knew that whatever we did was going to change things,” co-founder Rory Hunter tells me over coffee with his wife and business partner, Melita. “That in itself came with a big responsibility to do it right, to set the right benchmark.”
The Australian couple, who have an adopted Cambodian son, began to forge their deep bond with this country when they moved to Phnom Penh in 2005 to follow up a career opportunity for Rory. A year later, they went to the coast for a holiday, traveling around on fishing boats, snorkeling, and sleeping in tents on the beach.
That’s when they came across two tiny islands and a group of locals looking for a change.
“We were the first foreigners to arrive and I guess they saw us as their ticket out of here,” recalls Rory. “They asked if we wanted to buy it, and that was really the catalyst.”
The Hunters paid US$15,000 for the land rights, secured a 99-year lease with the national government, and started the long process of building an expensive and exclusive getaway on Koh Oeun (3.5 hectares) and Koh Bong (four hectares).
But in 2008, it all fell through.
“Lehman Brothers crashed the same day I was diagnosed with cancer,” says Melita.
Getting better took precedence, so that took them back to Australia. But as Melita grew stronger, the global economy weakened, forcing the Hunters to throw out three years of work and start over again.
The Song Saa that exists today -- a resort where people can buy a villa for US$600,000-1.75 million to gain a guaranteed return on their investment, dividends, and 30 days of access a year -- is a scaled-down version of their original dream, even though it cost US$22 million to build.
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The philosophy, though, remains intact. The Hunters say the drive for profits is balanced by a desire to help people and the planet.
Cambodians hold more than 80 per cent of the jobs. The resort itself, all designed by Melita, is made partially of recycled materials -- driftwood, wood from old boats, scrap metal, stone.
Sewage is treated on site. Programs to encourage sustainable fishing, recycling, composting, and small-scale aquaculture have taken root in a fishing village on nearby Koh Rong.
“It took a long time to build up trust,” notes Rory. “There are so many people who come to places like Cambodia and promise the world.”
“But don’t deliver,” Mel finishes.
The Hunters were instrumental in creating a 200-meter no-fishing zone around their islands. Their conservation team, made up of marine scientists and biologists, works to maintain the flora and fauna of this region and reverse the impact of years of neglect and abuse.
Guests, when they’re not tanning or sipping fine wine and tropical drinks, are eager to see it all up close. They kayak through fragile coastal mangrove forests and visit the fishing village of Prek Svay, which is home to a mere 600 souls.
"Look around,” says one of Song Saa's conservation officers, Victor Blanco ,as we walk by the Khmer-language "Don’t Litter" signs Song Saa has erected. “You barely see any rubbish, if any."
That's quite the feat in this country, where waste disposal can prove a challenge.
Further inland, past wooden shacks and huts, we meet Nouk Pon, a father of seven who has been working with Blanco’s team to increase the size of his aquaculture facility.
“I used to raise fish just for my family,” he says, through a translator. “Now I can sell fish.”
Pon, who lost his right arm fighting against Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime and wears a gold watch on his left wrist, is paid to welcome guests to his farm, which sits next to a creek. He offers shade and some cool coconut water, but few words.
By contrast, the Cambodians who work on-site at Song Saa gush when asked about their employer.
“It’s a good place for me,” says Narith Asan. “It’s the best pay and they hire Cambodians. They develop the local people.”
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However, the resort itself is still a work in progress. Guests in January and February saw and heard construction on the Driftwood Bar and the Champagne Bar.
The spa, currently housed in one of the villas, is being moved to Koh Bong later this year. And plans are in place to build a helicopter pad for visitors who can afford to skip the three-to-four-hour drive from Phnom Penh.
But with 20 villas sold and a buzz helping to generate bookings, some are already calling Song Saa -- whose name means "The Sweethearts" -- a success. And a leader.
"I talk to some friends and show them some pictures, and they say, ‘This is nice, but it's not Cambodia, is it?’" says Darren Gall, a Phnom Penh-based wine importer who supplies Song Saa and also runs wine tastings for guests.
“This whole region is going to change and it's going to be driven by places like this.”
The Hunters, who are already searching for a location in Cambodia or another neighboring country for their next property, hope what they’ve created will show tourists another side of this Kingdom, long defined by its dark past and wealth of temples.
“It’s a good story,” says Rory. “It’s not the ‘Killing Fields.’ It’s not the Khmer Rouge. It’s not negativity. It’s about a beautiful part of the country that not many people know about.”
“And the beautiful people who live in it,” concludes Melita.
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Song Saa guests take a 30-45 minute speedboat ride from the port of Sihanoukville to the resort. Travelers can reach Sihanoukville from Phnom Penh by car or bus.
Cambodia Angkor Air flies between Siem Reap and Sihanoukville on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (the schedule is revised during low season).
Song Saa villas cost from US$1,595-5,155 (US$1335-4350 in low season) a night. The rate includes all meals, drinks, and the majority of activities. The resort sets its clocks forward one hour so guests can enjoy sunrise and sunset a little later.
High season: Feb 13-May 31; Nov 1-Dec 22
Low season: Jun 1-Oct 31, 2012
Peak season: Dec 23-31, 2012
www.songsaa.com; +855 236 860 360