The islands off the coast of Cambodia are no more than a murmur on the mainland consciousness. Lying 25km east of Sihanoukville in the Gulf of Thailand, there’s little to see in the Koh Rong archipelago – not in the category of tourist attractions anyway. No crumbling antiquities to equal those 300km north at Siem Reap; nothing but the shifting sea and the occasional dot of sand and jungle. Of course, this feeling of singularity, of distance physical and psychological, is an attraction all its own. Not to mention the untrammelled white beaches and warm, gemstone-coloured water that distinguish these castaway isles, and which draw gathering numbers of backpackers and hotel developers to the archipelago (though for entirely opposing motivations).
Koh Rong itself is the largest of the islands, with a landmass roughly the size of Hong Kong, and it certainly looks a lot like paradise. Steep, wooded hills rise behind empty coves, where the soft sand, thick with pine needles, squeaks underfoot. In the northeast, tucked along the palm- and mangrove-fringed shoreline, the small fishing community of Prek Svay is a village of corrugated-tin huts and shacks balanced over a narrow, malachite-green estuary. Along the shaded paths, children chase chickens and puppies – both in large supply – and a tiny novice monk, no more than nine years old, collects alms, hefting his heavy bowls with an expression of inviolable solemnity.
Life in Prek Svay is tide-measured. Days begin before sunrise with the sound of motors chugging through the dark bay – fishing vessels heading out to sea, on the hunt for squid, lobster, tuna and snowfish. The dawn is just a flicker at the horizon; the only light comes from the boat lamps, spilling over the waves. Jet-lagged and wide awake, I watch them go from the terrace of my villa on Song Saa Private Island, facing Prek Svay across the water.
But beauty can be distorting. The fishing here is subsistence, and barely that; the marine life is as threatened as the men who fish it. As Rory Hunter, Song Saa’s energetic owner, tells me later, “You might not think it, but malnutrition is a major problem in the archipelago, at a figure of 75 per cent compared to the mainland average of 45 per cent. There are few, if any, health resources. And fishing is a dying industry here. There’s a lack of education: if a man catches 10 fish he’ll sell 10 fish, rather than keep one to eat.”
Hunter and his dynamic wife, Melita, never meant to be hoteliers, least of all to open an exceptional private island resort in this remote corner of Cambodia – a move that inspired the recent launch of a highly ambitious philanthropic foundation. Australian natives – Rory had previously worked in advertising, while Melita was an interior designer and stylist specialising in art installations, set design and events – the couple moved to Phnom Penh in 2005. They discovered Song Saa while exploring the coastline in a fishing boat that same year and, on a whim, bought it. Planted with thick jungle and reef-trimmed, Song Saa – which means “the sweethearts” in Khmer – is in fact two islands, Koh Ouen and Koh Bong, which are tethered to each other by a footbridge.
It is a gorgeous spot, where hornbills swoop low at dusk, sea eagles nest in the rainforest canopy of Koh Bong, and tiny silver fish skid over the surface of the water. But establishing a hotel here was a Sisyphean undertaking. “We were totally naive,” says Melita. “Probably just as well.” While the couple waited for government permits (a three-year process), they began to clear the islands of mountains of rubbish, employing village women to help in the clean-up. “We didn’t come here as do-gooders, we never imposed ourselves,” says Melita. “But we quickly became part of the community. Our relationship with Prek Svay grew from there.”
“It was never, ‘OK, we’ve built a hotel, we’d better get on with a conservation policy’,” says Rory. “We had a conservation team from day one.” In 2006, the couple established Cambodia’s first marine reserve, a 200m no-fishing zone around their islands. Dr Wayne McCallum, a New Zealander with 16 years’ development experience in Cambodia, was employed as the resort’s director of sustainability before there was even a resort for him to direct. Yet the Hunters were almost forced to abandon the project when the financing deals they were progressing with fell through due to the Lehman Brothers’ crash, and, simultaneously, Melita was diagnosed with cancer. All plans were shelved for a year; but after Melita’s recovery, they were back and building on their own terms. “It was a blessing in disguise,” she says. “I would never have taken on the design process myself otherwise.” Out of nothing – no power, no running water, no internet connection – the Hunters created a castaway escape of winding pathways, over-water restaurant, beach bar, infinity pool, spa, exquisite villas and every mod con you could wish for, while achieving the trickiest balance of all: luxury with heart.
A sense of context extends to everything here. This is categorically not a European-style Maldivian resort; if you want combed sand and not a hair out of place, Song Saa is not for you. Instead, the resort defines itself by its holistic approach, by its location and ethics-first attitude, proposing a new, low-impact, high-comfort concept for a country where tourism – especially luxury tourism – is still in its nascent stages. It all speaks of the Hunters’ sense of responsibility to their surroundings, from the resort’s barefoot aesthetic – the driftwood recycled into table tops, timber from old warehouses repurposed as floorboards – to ecology practices, such as its energy conservation and sewage treatment. “We wanted to lead by example,” says Rory, “by showing that property development, conservation and community engagement are not mutually exclusive concepts.”
I am here to celebrate the launch of the Song Saa Foundation, a philanthropic non-profit established to support the environment and people of the Koh Rong archipelago. In conversation it becomes clear that for all the cosseting luxury of the resort, the focus on service and quality and beautiful interiors, the Hunters are on a mission – philanthropists first, hoteliers second.
The resort has already had an impressive impact on Prek Svay, where a waste-management programme is in full swing when I visit – a team of giggling village women are collecting scraps of litter in the shade of palm trees. McCallum, now executive director of the foundation, and Saran Prak, its Khmer deputy programme manager, explain the way Song Saa has created a new focus on sustainability here. “It’s an integrated approach,” says McCallum, as he shows me a garden planted with neat rows of water-spinach, cucumber and lemongrass, vegetables that the garden’s owner – an old woman in a colourful sarong, crouching beside her handsome green beans – can eat as well as sell. The seeds come courtesy of Song Saa; the horticultural know-how, too, taught at the village’s new sustainability centre, a lively meeting place for children and adults to learn about the local marine life, conservation, nutrition and gardening. Last year, a youth club – The Sea Turtles – built rafts out of recycled waste materials. A Song Saa investor (the resort’s villas were sold to fund the build) has revamped the local school and ensured that there are teachers in residence, while one of the resort’s guests has supplied the school with solar panels.
Last year, Song Saa hosted the biggest medical- outreach project ever undertaken in the region. Using the resort as their base, volunteer doctors with the US charity International Medical Relief set up clinics in five villages in the archipelago, treating infections, carrying out emergency dentistry and distributing thousands of pounds’ worth of medical supplies. “In terms of brain and physical development, the effects of malnutrition are very disturbing,” says Rory, “but it doesn’t require a huge amount of money to fix. These communities might only be five minutes away from Song Saa by boat, but they’re totally isolated in terms of being on the radar of mainland health providers. The visit by International Medical Relief galvanised us to get out there and keep the supplies going.”
To this end, the foundation has a secret weapon: the Boat of Hope. This will be an adapted sailboat operating as a floating laboratory, hosting marine researchers, doctors, environmentalists, artists and filmmakers, who might spend a week or a month delivering supplies to, and interacting with, the remotest villages in the archipelago. (For now, it is a very sleek speedboat.) The Boat of Hope will play a pivotal role in the small-group philanthropy tours, or Journeys of Change, that Song Saa will launch this year for travellers who want to experience first-hand the foundation’s work – and the direct consequences of their investment. Projects will include surveys and research of coral reefs, and monitoring Cambodia’s largest-remaining island rainforests. The concept Song Saa is seeking to realise is volunteer tourism without sacrificing a shred of comfort.
On the morning of the Boat of Hope’s maiden voyage, the seas are calm and the sun is bright – an auspicious start. Rory and Melita have brought along their young son, Naryth, whom the couple adopted in Cambodia, and all three are bubbling with excitement. “This is the first step on a journey that we’ve dreamt about for such a long time,” says Rory. We follow Koh Rong’s shoreline for 20 minutes, passing impenetrable jungle so green it appears to glow. Our first stop is the village of Sok San, a collection of huts next to a long white beach, where, in a dimly lit meeting sala, Rory and McCallum hand out multivitamins to a queue of curious young mothers, each with a baby balanced on her hip. As we walk around the village, the difference between Sok San and Prek Svay is immediately apparent: plastic bottles, wrappers, polystyrene and scraps of old fishing nets litter the sand.
In the south of the island, the sands of Koh Tuch are, instead, despoiled by backpackers, who lounge in chairs drinking cocktails. Here, among the beach bars and bungalows, the team distributes medicines to a group of impressive young women working for the charity Friends of Koh Rong. The enterprise supports conservation and education projects, while also dealing with the pressures brought upon this community by its growing reputation as a traveller drop zone. (Such efforts include trying to discourage local businesses from bringing stronger intoxicants across from the mainland to serve this new market.) The girls tell me how the island is under lease to a conglomerate – there are long-term plans for development, hotels and golf courses. At present it’s small-scale, but no less egregious, with rumours of logging in the hills and talk of a zip wire being built for tourists.
At Sangkat village, our final stop-off point to deliver medicine, a group of American volunteers give us a tour of the places where they work and live. From the schoolyard, I look down onto the bay shining below, the tin-roofed huts on stilts, the rickety wooden walkways stretching out into the bright water. We pass a Buddhist temple, a water pump where children, clothed in soap bubbles and slippery as seals, dart and squeal. As much as these journeys are an education in the difficulties that befall these islands and their people, they are also, on a visceral, visual level, a lesson in the utter beauty and magic of the place.
Back in the boat and nearing the resort, Rory cuts the engine and brings out the champagne (happily, there’s nothing to say that bubbles and charitable deeds should be mutually exclusive) and we bob gently in the warm seas, toasting the maiden voyage. “An Alila Villas resort is being developed in Koh Russey,” says Rory, “but it’s a while off completion. It’s just so remote here.” Remote, but as today’s voyage demonstrates, not disconnected. Song Saa has an important role to play in the wellbeing of these islands. And why shouldn’t a luxury resort be a force for good? Why can’t conscience come with a high thread count? After all, no man or woman is an island – even if they built it.