Unlike its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia has until recently remained relatively unknown, partly down to two decades of isolation imposed after the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975. But slowly, confidence has been restored, and between the great relics of the Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh (more on that later), other luxury hotels have been appearing, making Cambodia a desirable destination for the slightly more intrepid five-star traveller.
Cambodia’s first luxury private island resort, Song Saa Private Island lies secluded in the magnificent Gulf of Thailand, as part of the Koh Rong archipelago. Just 35 minutes from Sihanoukville, a port 115 miles south west of Phnom Penh, Song Saa is made up of Koh Ouen, the resort, and Koh Bong which has been kept as virgin rainforest. Locally, the islands are known as ‘the sweethearts.’
At this 27-villa resort guests can indulge in as little or as much as they like, from nature-trekking, snorkelling and kayaking to conservation programmes and wellness in the Sanctuary spa. As the weather wasn’t great (we were travelling in rainy season), I have to admit our stay was rather focused on ‘dining experiences.’ Overseen by Executive Chef Neil Wager, (of North Island, Seychelles fame where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge spent their honeymoon), the food at Song Saa is spectacular.
Breakfast was taken in the sophisticated Vista Restaurant which sits on stilts above the ocean, (the Vista Bar has to be one of the best places in the world for cocktails), and thin and crispy pizzas are served for lunch at the Driftwood Bar. Each evening dinner magically appeared at different points around the island and eaten under the stars, at tables on the beach or boardwalk, lit by flaming torches. No two meals were the same, from spectacular seafood platters with fresh shellfish overflowing on a bed of ice, to a table heaving with traditional Khmer dishes (our favourite).
Guests enjoy uninterrupted sunrise or sunset views from over-water, ocean-view and jungle villas, all complete with private pools, and high-end creature comforts that Robinson Crusoe could only dream about. Song Saa runs on its own ‘island time’, one hour ahead of the mainland to maximise the daylight as Cambodia is so close to the equator. This was truly a private tropical island experience, where the bustling outside world is long forgotten.
Most of the surrounding islands remain undeveloped – deserted oases of virgin rainforests, tropical reefs and glistening white beaches. On one such island, while the delightfully sunnily dispositioned Song Saa staff set up camp: a parasol, beach mats, towels and a selection of drinks, children from the small fishing village (about 20 huts) came out to gawp and point at our London-hued skin.
The concept behind Song Saa was born out of Rory and Melita Hunter’s love for these islands and their remarkable tropical environment. They’ve broken new ground in Cambodia, becoming the first people to develop a private island and setting new standards for sustainability, community development and luxury accommodation. The creative mind behind the resort’s planning, Melita has drawn on her experience as an interior designer and artist, specialising in organic sculpture on evidence in the villas, seamlessly blending inside spaces with the outside’s panoramic natural beauty.
Their vision has ensured Cambodia has a presence in the luxury island resort market that will never compromise its environmental integrity. But it’s the inspiring team of local staff – now regarded as the Song Saa family – who make the place special and are likely to be the reason guests return. Song Saa is getting noticed and the awards are starting to pour in. And with private heli-transfers from the roof of the Sofitel in Phnom Penh now on offer, it’s going to be easier to get there than ever. (Our drive from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville took four hours.)
Not to be forgotten – especially after such seclusion – with a rich history, there’s so much to learn in Cambodia. So it’s best to be organised about visiting the tourist trail. With offices in both Phnom Pehn and Siem Reap, ABOUTAsia put together an excellent itinerary for the trip. Whether it’s watching the sun rise over Ankor Watt alone with your husband or standing beneath the giant banyon tree roots strangling the ancient stonework of Ta Prohm (the temple of Tomb Raider fame), ABOUTAsia are the best at thoughtfully making sure you’re able to see the very best of Cambodia past and present in the short time you have. Just as you’re starting to wilt, an air conditioned vehicle will appear, chilled water or even a gin and tonic at the ready, with the best route to avoid the crowds (with busloads of Chinese tourists arriving every minute, this is a very serious consideration at Ankor). Their guides are excellent, and surprisingly grateful: ‘thank you for taking the time to learn about the history of our country on your honeymoon.’
Another hotel that can’t go without mention is King Sihanouk’s former summer guesthouse, Amansara, found in Siem Reap. Guests are met from the airport in King Sihanouk’s former 1950’s stretch Mercedes – my new husband was flabbergasted: ‘This is SO cool.’ Just 10 minutes from the Ankor UNESCO World Heritage Site, Amansara is set in a garden compound and has the feel of a private home. Although not cheap, the Amansara experience includes a variety of temple tours and cultural walks which are unbeatable.
Ankor is, of course, a whole other story in itself. This epic labyrinth of Buddhist and Hindu temples was the seat of the Khmer Empire, a civilisation that thrived in South East Asia between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. At its height, Ankor was said to have been the biggest metropolis in the pre-industrial world. From the Victory gate of Angkor Thom, memorable for its colossal heads of gods and demons and the Bayon temple with 216 giant stone faces on 37 towers, a visit to Ankor is something everyone should try to do in their lifetime.
Our entry in and out of the country was via Phnom Penh, a fast-paced and vibrant city, which has the feel of Bangkok 20 years ago. Staying at the legendry Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh is like being stuck in a grand colonial time-warp – enchanting and luxurious. For over 80 years, the hotel has been the choice of royalty, dignitaries and celebrities, including former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and is the ideal base from which to venture out into this bustling city.
As the memory of the horrors endured by the Cambodian people under the Khmer Rouge regime will never be erased, visitors should take the time to visit Choeung Ek, one of the hundreds of Killing Fields, 15km outside the city, and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, set in Pol Pot’s notorious Prison 21. Jewels from the city include the National Museum which houses many of the original relics from Ankor Watt, and the Royal Palace building in 1866 by King Norodom with a rather out-of-place cast iron pavilion, a gift from Napoleon III.
Cambodia should be viewed by the world as a success story. The country’s recovery from the worst period in its history is remarkable. This is mainly due to the vibrant enthusiasm of the people, and their unshaking resolve to rebuild their once glorious nation and to celebrate the progress they have made, making Cambodia an inspiring place to begin married life.
ABOUTAsia Travel (www.aboutasiatravel.com) has an eight-night itinerary, combining two nights’ B&B in Raffles Le Royal in Phnom Penh, two nights’ B&B in Amansara Siem Reap and three nights’ all-inclusive board at Song Saa, costing from £3,064 per person (two sharing throughout). That includes all private transfers (speedboat, air, private car), breakfast and private guiding in Angkor. International flights extra.