ES­CAPE Luxury and gen­eros­ity com­bine in Cam­bo­dia.

A pri­vate-is­land re­sort in Cam­bo­dia bal­ances luxury with gen­eros­ity.

Elle (Canada) - - News - By Christina Reynolds

leave it to a for­mer “or­ganic stylist”—who once cre­ated ex­otic nat­u­ral back­drops for fash­ion photo shoots—to trans­form a run­down and over­grown fish­er­men’s out­post into a rustic-luxe pri­vate re­sort with its own char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion and Cam­bo­dia’s first marine re­serve.

Yet nine years ago, even the idea wasn’t in the Hun­ters’—Melita, the stylist, and Rory, a for­mer ad­ver­tis­ing exec­utive— wildest dreams. At the time, the Aus­tralian-ex­pat cou­ple had been living in Cam­bo­dia for sev­eral years. While they were ren­o­vat­ing and rent­ing out French Colo­nial houses, they heard a ru­mour about an area off the coast of Si­hanoukville, the coun­try’s main port town, that sup­pos­edly had in­cred­i­ble white beaches—and not many for­eign­ers or tourists. Determined to see it for them­selves, they hired a fish­ing boat and set out on a two-week ex­cur­sion to check out Koh Rong, Cam­bo­dia’s sec­ond-largest is­land—with few in­hab­i­tants and just four mod­est vil­lages—as well as some sur­round­ing islets.

On their first day out, the Hun­ters landed at a set of small islets that were be­ing used as a fish­ing out­post. “It wasn’t beau­ti­ful by any means,” says Melita. But the mo­ment they stepped onto the h

foot­print- free pow­dery- white- sand beach, “it was a feel­ing of eu­pho­ria,” she says. That same day, a man named Vut, who was the head of the 65-per­son fish­ing vil­lage, came over to talk and asked, “Would you like to buy my is­lands?”

The cou­ple was a bit taken aback by the of­fer, “but we said yes im­me­di­ately,” says Melita, and they made a deal to buy the islets from the vil­lagers. The Hun­ters moved to the big­ger of the two is­lands to camp out and begin clean­ing up decades worth of fish­ing nets—with the dream of one day open­ing a re­sort. They hired the for­mer vil­lagers as well as lo­cals from Prek Svay on Koh Rong, just a five-minute boat ride away. Fast-for­ward through six years of plan­ning, build­ing and per­sonal set­backs—dur­ing this time, Melita was di­ag­nosed with (and over­came) can­cer—and the twin-is­land re­sort, now called Song Saa, which is Kh­mer for “the sweet­hearts,” fi­nally opened in 2012.

Just 27 im­mac­u­late rustic-mod­ern vil­las, each with its own plunge pool, are care­fully tucked into the lush veg­e­ta­tion on the main is­land, so it never feels crowded. Din­ners are kept pri­vate at care­fully spaced lo­ca­tions—one might be in­vited to a can­dlelit Kam­pot-pep­per­in­fused seafood spread on the beach or a ta­ble set up in the shal­low end of the main pool—where lo­cal Kh­mer dishes are served while you soak your feet. Pri­vate guided ac­tiv­i­ties are also popular, such as kayak trips up a man­grov­e­lined river on Koh Rong and snorkelling ex­cur­sions around man-made reefs that were added to re­store and pro­tect the marine life. The Hun­ters worked to have the ar­chi­pel­ago area de­clared the coun­try’s first marine re­serve. The re­sort’s non-profit Song Saa Foun­da­tion is now work­ing to have it up­graded to a marine-pro­tected area. The Hun­ters have taken spe­cial care to not only pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment but also help its lo­cal peo­ple, who are still fac­ing many chal­lenges fol­low­ing decades of war. Close to 20 per­cent of the re­sort’s staff are from Prek Svay, and the foun­da­tion is work­ing closely with lo­cal lead­ers to pro­vide a va­ri­ety of sup­port to the com­mu­nity. “We opened this re­sort with a be­lief and hope that Cam­bo­dia would sort it­self out,” says Rory. “We want peo­ple to see that there is more to this coun­try than the Kh­mer Rouge and Angkor Wat.” h

GOOD NEIGH­BOURS Song Saa Pri­vate Is­land (top) works with the nearby fish­ing vil­lage of Prek Svay (above) through its non-profit Song Saa Foun­da­tion. “We talk to lo­cals and ask ‘What do you need?’” says Ben Thorne, the foun­da­tion’s project direc­tor. So far, vil­lagers have re­ceived help set­ting up a waste-recla­ma­tion sys­tem; as­sis­tance ac­cess­ing much-needed med­i­cal care through In­ter­na­tional Med­i­cal Re­lief, which in­cludes a vi­ta­min dis­tri­bu­tion pro­gram; as well as ed­u­ca­tional guid­ance, seeds and sup­plies to plant dozens of veg­etable gar­dens in an ef­fort to im­prove nu­tri­tion and di­ver­sify an econ­omy where 80 per­cent of res­i­dents rely on fish­ing to get by.

BEAU­TI­FUL RE­CY­CLING The deck at Song Saa’s spa (top) is crafted from the re­claimed wood of old fish­ing boats. The Hun­ters went to lo­cal fish­ing vil­lages

and paid the com­mu­ni­ties for the right to re­move their old, rot­ting boats—which not only helped clean up the shore­lines

but also pro­vided easy ac­cess to (al­ready won­der­fully coloured) build­ing

ma­te­ri­als in a re­mote re­gion.

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