December 9, 2011 10:03 pm

Island dreams

Cambodia’s first private island resort opens this month, keenly anticipated by tourists in search of unspoilt luxury

The night I arrived in Phnom Penh I asked the hotel receptionist if she knew anything about the car coming for me in the morning. It was supposed to take me from Cambodia’s capital to Sihanoukville, the main port on the country’s curving, palm-edged coast. From there, a speedboat would deliver me to Song Saa Private Island, Cambodia’s first truly expensive seaside resort, due to welcome its first paying guests on December 24.

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While the receptionist looked through her papers, a suntanned Irishman standing next to me spoke up: “You must be from the Financial Times.” I was surprised at how he could know this. The man apologised, saying he could not help overhearing. He was from the Four Seasons hotel company and he had been at Song Saa (which means “the Sweethearts” in Khmer) that very afternoon. Before he went on his way, he commended Rory and Melita Hunter, the Australian couple who have built the resort despite having no previous experience in the tourism industry, in the warmest possible terms. “If they knew what they were getting themselves into,” he said, admiringly, “they would never have done it.”

Over the next few days I learnt that encounters like this happen all the time in Cambodia. What used to be one of the world’s most reclusive, dangerous countries is now a bubbling, gossipy land of business plans and foreign money. Phnom Penh, in particular, crawls with rumour and entrepreneurs – Chinese, Australians, Europeans – asking you if you want in on their project. “It’s sort of Graham Greene-like,” one told me. Later that night I went for a drink at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. Old ceiling fans turned slowly next to huge, open windows.

The car came at eight the next morning. We edged west through Phnom Penh’s solid traffic, past portraits of Sihanouk, Cambodia’s “King Father”, who has just turned 89, and after whom Sihanoukville is named. We were heading for Highway Four, a road built by Americans, which would take us the 140 miles to the port, built by the French.

map of cambodia

Both these projects were completed in the early 1960s, shortly before Cambodia, a former French colony, became a battlefield in the cold war. After 10 years of fighting, hounded on all sides, the country imploded and underwent its own, hideous erasure at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Almost 2m people died. The trauma was ended by Vietnamese occupation in 1979, which in the 1990s gave way to UN-supervised elections and billions of dollars in international aid.

Since then a much more optimistic, if rather loosely regulated, chapter of Cambodia’s history has begun and as Phnom Penh fell away, Highway Four revealed it. For 10 miles the road was lined by new factories, mostly Chinese-owned garment manufacturers, that are now the main engine of the economy. There were tourist buses too. Throughout its depredations, Cambodia managed to protect Angkor Wat, the world’s largest temple complex, and the site now attracts more than 2m visitors every year to Siem Reap, in the north-west.

Beyond Angkor, however, tourism in Cambodia has long been missing a beat. More specifically, it has been missing a beach. The country has more than 250 miles of tropical coastline and 60 islands off its shores that, until recently, have been largely unvisited by foreigners.

Enter the Hunters. Young, Australian, apparently indefatigable, they are creatures of the new Cambodia. Rory, an advertising man from Sydney, came to Phnom Penh in 2005 to run the local WPP subsidiary. He brought with him his now-wife Melita, a stylist and designer who works with natural materials. Within a year the pair had decided to go into business together, restoring old colonial-era apartments. They were interested in other property development as well and in early 2006, after being tipped off by a Cambodian colleague whose father was a fisherman, they hired a boat for two weeks to explore a collection of islands known as the Koh Rong archipelago, off the south-west coast.

Cambodia’s second largest island, Koh Rong, is about half the size of Koh Samui, across the Gulf of Thailand, but has no cars or roads. Since being cleared alongside the rest of the islands by the Khmer Rouge (which banned coastal fishing), it has been slowly repopulated. There are now three small villages, a coconut farm and, somewhat precociously, eight mobile phone masts. On the last day of their visit in 2006, the Hunters’ fishing boat rounded a northern corner of Koh Rong to reveal two much smaller islands – “the Sweethearts” – green bundles of sand and coral and palm that they decided to try to buy. The islands’ 60 inhabitants, led by a fisherman called Vut, wanted to sell and, a few weeks later, the deal was signed in a bobbing boat in the bay.

Of course, nothing is quite that simple in Cambodia. It took the couple more than a year, going from ministry to ministry in Phnom Penh, to be granted a formal concession for the islands, becoming only the second company to acquire coastal property in this way. Nothing is simple for the Hunters either. After another year – this time of enlisting investors, consultants and potential hotel operators for the resort they planned to build – their plans were torn up in 2008 due to serious illness (Melita developed cancer) and the financial crisis. They retreated to Sydney to recover and returned the following year, toughened by circumstance, and determined to do most of the work themselves. “We had the islands and each other and nothing else,” they say.

Two years later the $21m result is almost finished, ready for me to be the first journalist to stay. One of Song Saa’s white, liveried speedboats was waiting by a concrete pier in Sihanoukville to take me out on to a bright green sea. My first sight of the islands, just over half an hour later, was of a neat line of reed-roofed villas against a billow of treetops and white-topped waves.

As the boat pulled up at the hotel jetty, however, I suddenly saw quite how much building work was left to do. Four huge, blue water tanks lay on their sides under the palm trees. “Cosmic Lubricant” was written on the side of an industrial vat. There was a digger on the beach. The Hunters’ taste for adversity has not gone anywhere: one of their contractors went bust a few months ago; the monsoon dumped four metres of rain on the islands; and now strong winds were preventing building materials from coming ashore. December 24 is what the hospitality trade calls a “soft opening” – the official launch is on February 13 – but, even so, one of the first things Melita said to me was that there were 26 days until the first guests showed up. “That’s why we’re a bit ‘Arrgghh’,” said Rory, raising his hands and making the universal gesture of panic.

Inside my room, none of this mattered. Designed by Melita, Song Saa’s 27 villas are large, cool, high-ceilinged places. The walls are lined with sandstone and the floors are all dark hardwood gleam, the boards reclaimed from old factories and houses in Cambodia and Thailand. Two mornings in a row I woke myself up by opening the curtains, walking out into the liquid silver of the early sun on the Cambodian sea and falling into a saltwater plunge-pool. I didn’t even mind being jetlagged. One night, jerked awake at 3.30am, I went to lie on my deck under a sky sagging with stars.

Part of the reason the Hunters have been so up against it is because they have chosen to do so much. Song Saa’s larger island, Koh Ouen, contained a small, non-electrified fishing village in 2006. Now it is connected by undersea pipe to a spring on Koh Rong and has the same waste water treatment system as the local US embassy. The villas are arranged in three clusters – the most exclusive stretching out in a curving row into the bay – while the social life of the hotel: the pretty beach, infinity pool, two bars and restaurant-on-stilts taper to a point at the opposite end. Koh Bong, the smaller island, a place of rattan, vines and tall, swaying trees, has been left to grow wild.

a spa at private resort in Cambodia

The new resort’s spa

Then there is the scale of luxury that the Hunters want to provide. At an all-inclusive price of nearly $1,000 per night, per person, that includes unlimited spa treatments, boat rides to Koh Rong’s five-mile beach of white sand, and the locally sourced “contemporary Cambodian cuisine” of chef Neil Wager, recently arrived from North Island, in the Seychelles, the honeymoon destination of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Finally, there is Song Saa’s considerable hinterland. Idealistic does not quite cover the Hunters. Before the former residents had even left the two islands the Hunters were offering them English lessons. (One young man called Saroeun Sin took them up on it and joined the hotel’s conservation team). Since then they have teamed up with a Cambodian non-governmental organisation to set up a farm, owned and run by villagers on Koh Rong, to provide vegetables for the hotel and its staff compound; six local families have been persuaded to rear tilapia for the restaurant; and the hotel is fringed by a marine reserve, the first in Cambodia. Song Saa’s staff of 150 includes a full-time marine biologist and an environmental sociologist from New Zealand who spent five years working in Cambodia’s Cardamom Rainforest.

You might, just conceivably, doubt the purity of the Hunters’ commitment to Cambodia if they were not so deeply implicated in it. On their return to Phnom Penh after Melita’s illness they adopted a Cambodian baby, Naryth. “It’s not like we have done this before,” Rory told me one day, as if to excuse the breadth and the optimism of Song Saa’s operations. “It’s not like we even knew what to do. We just said ‘How do we think we should do it?’ ”

One has to hope that the Hunters’ instincts pay off. Partly because they have built a fine hotel and partly out of fear for the alternative. Cambodia is dynamic these days but that dynamism could lead in any direction. During the same five years the Hunters have been building Song Saa, virtually every other island off Cambodia, as well as great stretches of its sandy coastline, have also been bought up, mostly by international financiers and property developers with intentions that remain opaque or undecided.

For that reason, Song Saa has an extraordinary visibility in Cambodia. From the man at my hotel reception in Phnom Penh, to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, to the taxi driver who picked me up from the airport, everyone I spoke to had heard of it and wanted to know if the Hunters’ blend of altruism and luxury could possibly succeed.

Nowhere is that question more relevant than on the resort’s neighbouring, much larger island of Koh Rong – the huge jewel of more than 30 beaches and untracked jungle – which is owned by Kith Meng, Cambodia’s most powerful businessman. On my last night at Song Saa we ate dinner for the first time by the hotel’s long, curving pool. As the waves rolled in under a starlit sky I struck up conversation with the hotel’s chief engineer, who has overseen every element of its complex construction, and he nodded his head in the dark direction of Koh Rong and the rest of Cambodia’s unbuilt coast. “They are watching us,” he said.

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Details

Sam Knight was a guest of Original Travel (www.originaltravel.co.uk), which offers stays at Song Saa (www.songsaa.com) from £635 per person per night, full board and with transfers and activities. A week’s package costs from £4,395 with flights from London

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