TRAVEL DESTINATION: CAMBODIA. The name Cambodia evokes contrasting images: of the magnificent Angkor Wat temple, and of the misery the nation known as Kampuchea suffered under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.
But Cambodia has returned to stability and its tourism industry’s gradually growing beyond the popular Angkor pilgrimage, joining neighbouring Thailand in the north-west and Vietnam to the east in enticing Aussie travellers to its tropical climate, beautiful beaches, scenic countryside, exotic cuisine and smiling people. No less a contrast with the poverty still afflicting much of the land is a new luxury resort opening in February. Hopefully, an inflow of international tourism dollars will boost local living standards. The resort, Song Saa Private Island in the Koh Rong archipelago, claims to be “setting the benchmark for luxury that treads lightly” in Asia. An intimate retreat, it stands on a pair of twin islands known together locally as Song Saa – “The Sweethearts” in Khmer.
Scattered across the sapphire waters of the Gulf of Thailand, most of Cambodia’s islands remain undeveloped, boasting virgin rainforests, tropical reefs and pure white beaches. Guests at Song Saa, say hosts and former Sydneysiders Rory and Melita Hunter, will experience this untouched world, reminiscent of Thailand’s islands before the boom. The resort spans the two islands, Koh Ouen and Koh Bong, connected by a marine reserve safeguarding dugongs, seahorses and exotic fish. A group of 27 villas is being created on the first island in “rustic chic” design, inspired by fishing villages and featuring thatched roofs, rough-hewn natural timbers and driftwood furnishings. Each overwater, beach or jungle villa with private plunge pool offers a sanctuary where guests will shower looking out over the ocean, sip cocktails watching the sunset from a private deck, and have a chef prepare fresh seafood under the stars. A world-class restaurant and lounge spectacularly positioned over the ocean takes in dramatic sunsets, seascapes and starry nights. Spa and “wellness” and yoga and meditation centres occupy the adjacent island. Guest activities include kayaking freshwater estuaries, hiking rainforest, snorkelling with marine biologists, Khmer cooking lessons and visits to local villages. A two-bedroom Royal Villa offers even more exceptional luxury and privacy, for those in search of a discreet hideaway … honeymooners, perhaps?
Song Saa’s pricing policy is an all-inclusive tariff typical of the world’s top resorts. For one price per person per night guests indulge in everything on offer: from a foot massage and welcome drink on arrival to lazy in-villa breakfasts, romantic beach picnics, and fine dining in the world-class overwater restaurant presided over by executive uber-chef Neil Wager, formerly of the Seychelles’ acclaimed six-star North Island. The range of cuisines includes Khmer-French inspired dishes and surprises from the kitchen such as fresh-made tapas and a glass of crisp white wine as a sundowner. Guests enjoy 24-hours’ unlimited house wines, spirits, beers and other drinks, including mini-bars restocked daily. Also included is use of kayaks, sailboats, snorkelling gear, kite boards and windsurfers, plus speedboat transfers to/from the resort, high speed internet, satellite TV, international phone calls, unlimited laundry services and guided tours of protected marine and wild life around the twin islands. Rates from US$668 – let’s say around AUD668! Song Saa is open for bookings for stays from February 13 2012. See www.songsaa.com. Consult travel agents for a smooth connection: Asian carriers have daily flights to Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) and Phnom Penh from Bangkok, KL and Singapore hubs but check to arrange a seamless same-day arrival. Song Saa operates private plane transfers to the resort from Phnom Penh (45 minutes), US$200 pp one way, and from Siem Reap (75 minutes) for US$300 pp one way. Sihanoukville is a three-hour drive from Phnom Penh: private car transfers are US$150 each way. Song Saa is a 30-minute private speedboat ride from coastal Sihanoukville, US$90 pp per trip.