On the remote, Koh Rong archipelago in southwest Cambodia, the boutique resort Song Saa Private Island is luxury that treads lightly in its environment and sensitively in the Cambodian island culture it occupies. Twenty seven large over-water, jungle and ocean-view villas, all with spacious open-plan designs, have been built with sustainable materials and designed to operate with eco-friendly energy and waste initiatives.
The Song Saa Foundation oversees a number of restoration projects on the island including a sea turtle program and a mangrove and rainforest restoration project. On an adjacent island, the foundation funds experts including nutritionists to work with locals on cultivating vegetables to improve diets.
Overwater villa bedroom
Australian owners, husband-and-wife team Melita and Rory Hunter were so seduced by the beauty of the region that Song Saa has become their dedicated life’s work, and sometimes home, for over a decade. Arriving in Cambodia in 2005, they were planning to stay only one year before moving to New York City with Rory’s role in advertising for Saatchi & Saatchi. In the first six months of their stay, the city of Phnom Penh changed rapidly and the Hunter’s sensed Cambodia was awakening after a long war – with 70 per cent of the population under the age of 30.
The pair began their own business in January 2006 after marrying; Melita looked after design and Rory managed the business side of their creative venture. By 2009, they heard of some islands off the coast of Cambodia from a Khmer friend which were extremely beautiful but very remote – taking five hours to reach by old fishing boat. Curious, Rory and Melita went down the coast, renting a fishing boat and spending two weeks circumnavigating the Koh Rong Archipelago.
Rory says the trip was life changing – being welcomed by locals warmly, most of whom had never seen a foreigner, and making the first footprints on white, deserted sands. On their last day, they met one fishing family who wanted to return to rice farming and casually asked Rory and Melita “Do you want to buy my island?” Reefs were eroding; there was 20 years of garbage just piled up and all kinds of mud and waste from the pigs and the chickens that had been living there. On a whim, they agreed and returned just a week later, making the transaction with cash in a brown paper bag.
Rory and Melita guaranteed that any villager who wanted to stay would have a job for life – eight families did. The Hunter’s faced the task of the clean-up and sorting out the issue of ‘ownership’ of the island, which took two and a half years from 2006 to 2008. The immediate priorities were to the local ecology and helping communities form sustainable livelihoods, consulting with village chiefs and local monks. Song Saa created Cambodia’s first marine reserve, which has become a hub for marine research.
“We looked to Cambodia’s neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam, both countries also with stunning islands, with large volumes of tourists, to learn from their successes as well as their mistakes,” said Rory. “We understood how too much tourism, too quickly, and not properly managed, has a negative and long lasting impact on the environment and the surrounding communities.”
They began setting up the Song Saa conservation and community program to implement projects that include: the creation and management of Cambodia’s first marine reserve around the island; the establishment of a solid waste management facility in the adjacent island village of Prek Svay; the creation of a dedicated sustainability centre and training program; and an intern research program, supporting pioneering research on Cambodia’s marine environment.
The recently established Song Saa Foundation oversees a number of restoration projects on the island including a sea turtle program and a mangrove and rainforest restoration project. On an adjacent island, the foundation funds experts including nutritionists to work with locals on cultivating vegetables to improve diets.
As CEO and co-founder, Rory’s work was recognised earlier this year when he was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. On a recent visit to his home-town of Sydney, Rory told Luxury Travel magazine he and Melita have plans to open two more Song Saa properties within the next couple of years.