Island in the Cambodian sun
What can US$15,000 (S$21,109) get you? An island, maybe?
Unless you're Rory Hunter, who got two for the price of one.
That sweetheart deal 10 years ago has made him what he is now: developer and operator of Cambodia's first island resort, the award-winning Song Saa Private Island, located 30km off the coast of Sihanoukville.
Over sushi and fresh fruit juice at Driftwood Bar on sunny Song Saa (Khmer for "the sweethearts"), the affable former advertising executive says that the turning point came when he and his then-girlfriend Melita were on a 12-month pit stop in Phnom Penh where he was to run an advertising agency before moving to New York.
"Coming to a brand new place, a conflict country was something very interesting for us," recalls the 40-year-old Sydneysider. "We never had any intention to do more."
But Cambodia captivated them, given its war-torn past and nascent economy. The couple had wanted to start a property business - Melita already had her own design studio that emphasised the use of organic, recycled materials - but didn't have the resources or experience to compete in a mature economy such as in Singapore or Australia.
"It would have been very tough, if not impossible, for a young couple. But Cambodia was coming from such a low base. Nobody was doing anything and the cost of entry was ridiculously low."
Who wants to buy an island?
Within eight months of arriving in Phnom Penh, Hunter quit his job, married Melita and started their company in January 2006. Their eye was on the expatriate market.
"If we could generate rent and the annual yield works out to 10 per cent, then it was worth it. So we bought individual apartments for US$5,000 to US$10,000 each, renovated them and worked out a legal framework for foreigners to buy them on a 99-year lease. No one had ever sold Cambodian property to foreign investors before. We sold these apartments to foreigners and leased them to expats."
That business helped the Hunters understand the complex landscape that is Cambodia, build up a team and scout for other opportunities.
One day, a friend told them about his father-in-law - a fisherman in the Koh Rong archipelago, a cluster of 15 islands surrounded by coral reefs, mangroves and sea grass beds in the Gulf of Thailand. He spoke of virgin rainforests, oceans teeming with fish and how beautiful it was.
Piqued, the couple rented a fishing boat and spent the next two weeks looking around. "The night we arrived, it was magical. We woke the next day and went swimming and were gobsmacked. Each day, we went to a different beach and some of them had no one. We couldn't believe it."
One afternoon, they stopped on Koh Oun to look for some lunch. The villagers there told them they wanted to sell the 3.5 hectare island and move back to the mainland. The asking price? US$15,000.
"Of course we said 'yes' and came back a week later with a brown paper bag of money. We got the local navy to witness the transaction, shared a bottle of champagne and decided we either lost US$15,000 or just made a great decision. We didn't know what we were going to do with it, it was just a chance encounter that changed the course of our lives."
Neither their lawyers nor the government knew how they could own an island, but they were asking the right questions at the right time as Cambodia was losing tourists who would go to Angkor Wat for two nights then leave for a Thai resort.
But here were a couple of "crazy Aussies" who wanted to develop a resort on the island. So they got themselves a 99-year lease on two islands because the other - the four-hectare Koh Bong, which remains a virgin rainforest island today - "was just sitting there".
And so, in 2008, the Hunters were owners of Song Saa.
A long and winding road
Following the Maldivian model of small, high-end island resorts, Melita designed the luxurious 27-villa resort with sustainability in mind. She used recycled materials, including driftwood that they sent a fishing boat out to collect from different islands for 18 months.
Old fishing boats were used for tables, chairs and artwork; tonnes of rock found while digging were used to make stone walls in the villas; the villas' flooring came from old recycled housing materials from Thailand and Cambodia; and all the work stations were made from 100-year-old Cambodian beds.
The resort ended up costing US$30 million to build. The Hunters managed to obtain financing from two German family funds and sold the villas to private investors. Song Saa Hotels and Resorts was established in 2011 with Hunter as its founder and chief executive officer. The resort was officially opened on March 15, 2012.
"The sheer force of will to get this project finished took so much energy. But the day your job finished as a developer was the day you start as operator. We had no experience then and couldn't find a general manager, so it was just Mel and me. It was really, really tough."
Still, they had visions of Song Saa being one of the best hotel brands in the world and knowing the nuts and bolts of hotel operation the "grassroots way" was worth it. "There are many moving parts that have to move in tandem," says Hunter. Plus, they had to build a brand distribution network across the globe.
Birth of a foundation
One of the best things that happened as a result of Song Saa's development was the simultaneous establishment of the non-profit Song Saa Foundation.
During construction, the Hunters saw the need to build a sustainable business by conserving both the ecology and community. They set up Cambodia's first marine reserve as well as the region's first solid waste management centre.
These were followed by other conservation, education, healthcare and community initiatives, all of which led to the launch of the Song Saa Foundation in 2013, after eight years' work in the area.
Today, the foundation works to promote sustainable development in the Koh Rong archipelago by targeting its sea, land and people.
Activities include collaborating with local fishery groups to promote the sustainable management of marine life; working with authorities, landowners and locals to protect and restore mangroves and tropical rainforests; and supporting local villagers in areas such as education, community health, waste management and livelihood activities to build a sustainable future.
This commitment extends to the Song Saa resort, where 80 per cent of the food supplies are local, including vegetables, poultry and seafood.
"We give the locals tools and the expertise to create mini-agricultural set-ups to grow vegetables, fruit and fish and they run it. It's not a handout," emphasises Hunter, adding that well over 90 per cent of Song Saa's staff are Cambodian.
Indeed, guests who want to see for themselves what simple island life is like, should hop onto a speedboat for a short ride to the village of Prek Svay on nearby Koh Rong island - visible from Song Saa and where many of its employees come from.
There are no roads. Locals live in mostly wooden homes they built themselves and small children run happily around naked. Small provision stores sell daily necessities and women play card games to while away the time as their men go out to fish.
Among other things, the foundation runs the Song Saa Sustainability Centre in the village, where English and art classes are held, as well as workshops on organic agriculture and soil husbandry to teach local children the skills to improve their diet and family well-being.
Recently, Prince Albert II of Monaco partnered the foundation to help with the expansion of the Koh Rong Marine Reserve to 400 sq km, while Hunter's accomplishments, commitment and leadership were acknowledged early this year by the World Economic Forum, which selected him to join the Forum of Young Global Leaders.
More sustainable luxury on the cards
Since the Hunters and their adopted Cambodian son, Naryth, moved to Hong Kong to set up Song Saa's head office, they've been busy with plans for a second and complementary resort in Siem Reap.
In the long run, the aim is to have two to four properties in each country that Song Saa Hotels and Resorts operates, with the next likely destination being Indonesia, followed by other Asian nations such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
"Our new site in Siem Reap is 300 hectares in size, with an 80-hectare lake and will be run on 100 per cent renewable energy," says Hunter. "It's wetlands and all kinds of birdlife. You can have a greater and broader ecological impact there."
It certainly is a long way from NYC to which the couple was originally headed. Which goes to show, you never know where your next impulse purchase can take you.
Song Saa Private Island is a 30-minute private speedboat ride from the coastal city of Sihanoukville in south-west Cambodia. To get there, take one of the daily direct flights from Singapore to the main Cambodian airports of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Sihanoukville is a 50-minute flight from Siem Reap or a three-hour drive from Phnom Penh, and private car transfers can be arranged for US$150 each way. P
Private helicopter transfers from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are also available. Song Saa's 'Always Included' pricing policy charges one price, per villa, per night that includes - among others - all meals, unlimited access to house wines and spirits and high-speed Internet access.
A little gem of a private getaway
Temples, colonial buildings and beaches. If it's a case of "been there, done that" for you in Cambodia, then it's time to chill out at a private island instead.
Song Saa Private Island in the Koh Rong archipelago has the distinction of being the country's first private island getaway and bears the hallmarks of luxurious Maldivian island resorts that it is modelled after.
Located 30km off the coast of Sihanoukville in the south-west of the country, its 27 luxury villas comprise a mix of one- and two-bedroom Overwater, Ocean and Jungle villas plus a two-bedroom Royal Villa with its own private jetty.
Each villa is beautifully decorated by the resort's co-founder, interior designer Melita Hunter, whose rustic chic style sees the generous use of organic and repurposed materials.
The result is an interesting, multi-textured interior with a rich, natural feel that is both luxe and earthy.
Despite being a modestly-sized resort, Song Saa does a great job food-wise. Whether it is a barbecue dinner or Thai-themed spread at the beachside Driftwood Bar, we always ended up savouring every dish.
For good food with a great view - especially at breakfast - the resort's other eatery, Vista Bar & Restaurant, is close to perfect, being set in the sea just off the island's shoreline.
In-villa dining is another option and allowed us to enjoy our villa a little more. The best part is, Song Saa's "Always Included" rates means you don't have to think about how much your delicious meals and drinks are costing you.
The pricing policy also includes free phone calls, high-speed Internet, laundry and use of the resort's kayaks, sailing boats and snorkelling gear.
What we find most attractive, however, are the guided snorkelling tours of Song Saa's coral garden and surrounding marine environment; and tailored land tours of twin island Koh Bong's virgin rainforest and nearby islands such as Koh Rong.
There is much to learn about the area's marine and forest ecosystems and it's such a treat to do so from one of Song Saa's very knowledgeable and genuinely passionate conservation team members.
Another must-do - and one of the few services for which you are separately charged - is getting a spa treatment. The resort's jungle villa spa has a surprisingly comprehensive menu and busy schedule, so be sure to make your booking early.
If you need to hit the gym, you'll find Song Saa's version to be an interesting little setup by the edge of the sea from where you will see crabs scurrying over rocks while you pound the treadmill. Access requires a short stroll on a boardwalk through the edge of a jungle - quite a unique experience in itself.
For all its charms, however, getting to and from Song Saa can involve a fair amount of waiting. Maybe it's due to the bad weather, but in our case, the end of the three-hour drive from Phnom Penh to the port city of Sihanoukville saw us doing pretty much nothing for a couple of hours. We hung around in the public areas of a mini casino-hotel, before finally catching our 30-minute speedboat ride to Song Saa.
Given the long drive-time and need to make allowances for delays, you will also need to start the three-hour drive on your return leg early. But again, this can mean a long wait at the airport before you board your plane.
So it's a fine art of arriving and leaving neither too early nor too late, but if you're prepared to bear with that, a little gem with earnest service, elegant villas and yummy cuisine awaits.
The writer was a guest of Song Saa
This article was first published on August 15, 2015.
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