FIVE yards above the sapphire blue water of the Gulf of Thailand, Rory Hunter sips a beer and tries to explain how he came to own an island. We’re on a large wooden platform, the spectacular restaurant centrepiece of a new luxury resort that has opened with bold claims of ecological awareness.
‘Luxury resort’ is a leading term. While superficially Hunter’s island of Song Saa on the untouched Koh Rong archipelago resembles a Maldives-style set-up, with beautifully appointed villas and infinity pools among the palms, this is a development rooted in sympathetic appreciation of the surroundings.
For Hunter it has been a draining six-year-journey that began with a job offer. In 2006 the former advertising executive was offered a position in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. He and his wife Malita arrived from their native Australia to a grinding cultural shift. “It was just mayhem,” he says. “You’d hear gunfire at night and it had the feeling of a country still finding its feet.”
The madness and murder of the Khmer Rouge regime may have officially ended in 1979, but it is only in recent years that Cambodia truly reached stability with the emergence of an autocratic government making attempts at democracy.
When the Hunters looked for accommodation in 2006, they found grand French colonial buildings blighted by decades of neglect. They became unlikely property developers. “We were buying apartments for $2,000,” says Hunter. “A few years earlier apartments were bought for cases of beer.”
The Hunters formed a business that took a softened capitalist approach. They used (and trained) local craftsmen to restore apartment blocks, found Cambodian architects that could track and imitate the original colonial design and felt they were a positive part of the resurgence of Phnom Penh.
A local friend told them an anecdote from his father, a traditional fisherman working off Cambodia’s southern coast. Their friend’s father spoke of forgotten white-beached islands that bore a handful of inhabitants and lay an hour’s journey offshore.
“We read every guide book we could find”, says Hunter. “There was nothing about them. Then we went on Google Earth.”
Sitting in front of their computer screen, Rory and Malita saw tiny green blobs in the Gulf of Thailand. A few weeks later they were on a fishing boat, skimming across the ocean, when they saw those same islands rise on the horizon. After investigating the largest of the archipelago, Koh Rang, they navigated round its furthermost tip late one afternoon.
“The sun was going down”, says Hunter, “and we came round Koh Rong and there were these two tiny little islands, lit up by the sunset. The family that lived there came rushing to see us. We were the first foreigners that had set foot on their island and the first thing they asked was ‘would we like to buy it?’”
Five years later, the twin islands of Song Saa (The Sweethearts) have been transformed into a stunning idyll. We arrived from Phnom Penh, where we’d spent two days between the peaceful enclave of Raffles Hotel and the bedlam of the city, but were yet to fully shake off the flight from the UK. After the draining drive to the coast (the highway has three lanes – left, right and chicken) we were starting to wilt.
From the moment we arrived on Song Saa, however, churlish concerns about sleep patterns soon vanished. The accommodation is, as you’d expect in a five-star setting, superb. Villas have individual plunge pools and steps leading directly into waves, while the island’s main pool curves out into the ocean. The restaurant serves inventive fine dining from a daily menu and there’s a spectacular spa.
The smaller of the two islands, connected by a thin wooden bridge, has been designated by the Hunters as a nature reserve and is the first sign of their militantly ecological approach.
When we take a kayak trip up a river in Koh Rong, our Kiwi guide Rob has a masters degree in marine biology. He points out Song Saa’s carbon-neutralising scheme, a newly cultivated underwater forest of sea grass, and details ambitious plans to help local fishermen follow preservation programmes.
We’re encouraged to take a trip to a local village, where the island recruits up to 30 per cent of its workforce) and has built a community centre that runs everything from sanitation and waste disposal programmes to a garden where they teach fertilisation and agricultural techniques.
A local worker explains that Song Saa has offered village women an unprecedented opportunity for employment. Usually they would be destined for factory compounds on the mainland where they’d work for less than $100 a month and make it home once every six months.
“We’ve employed staff who have never been to Phnom Penh,” says Hunter. “Otherwise they’d be illegally fishing or illegally logging. You see these guys,” he points to a passing fishing boat with its bow lifted out the water by the heavy net it trails behind. “That’s illegal. They’re dragging right along the sea bed, but until we arrived it was that or logging for the local guys.”
There’s a foundation that offers help with youth education on Koh Rong and the Hunters’ personal commitment to their adopted country is demonstrated by the joyful presence of their adopted Cambodian son Naryth.
Behind the admirable ethos of Song Saa lurks a price tag that reflects the luxury. However, if you’re seeking an unforgettable experience you’ll find it here. As well as the trappings that make days drift by alarmingly fast, you leave feeling you’ve taken part in a unique exercise that might just change the way comparable high-end resorts relate to their surroundings.
“We spent $500,000 on conservation before we opened the doors,” says Hunter. “It isn’t about marketing. We’re trying to help rebuild a country that is in need of being rebuilt.”
Song Saa Private Island rates start from £1,046 (US$1,649) inclusive of local government tax and service charge (double occupancy). Also included are all meals and drinks, 24-hour room service, water sports equipment, wifi, laundry, pick-up from Sihanoukville Airport, return speedboat transfers to and from Song Saa and guided tours of Koh Bong and Koh Ouen (www.songsaa.com).
Flights from Heathrow to Phnom Penh with Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com), from around £987.89.