Across the Gulf of Thailand from the affable, established holiday staples of Koh Samui and Ko Pha Hgan, exists a soulful sanctuary in the Koh Rong archipelago off Cambodia's west coast.
Song Saa Private Island is firstly a celebration of nature, where you can walk among old-growth rainforest, watch dazzling reef fish swim under your villa or see rare hornbills land on your balcony. It's also a place where luxury is assured but not excessive, thanks to an inspired human touch, and where locals are integral to the experience and creating a bright future for themselves.
Jason Brighton, Senior Travel Consultant from Ackerfeld & Goldberg Travel Associates, explains how Song Saa's philosophy of "luxury that treads lightly" has been taken to heart and shares his experience at Cambodia's first eco-luxe private island resort.
Travel Associates: What time of year you travelled to Song Saa Private Island and how long did you stay? Is there a particular time of year you would recommend clients visit and why? What would be the ideal length of stay given the location and activities on offer?
Jason Brighton: I travelled in April 2015 for 4 nights. I would recommend going in the dry season, October to April, as this gives guests more opportunity to enjoy the outdoor activities and island features, as well as the other attractions in Cambodia's various cities. Ideally, 4-5 nights will give guests the opportunity to experience the resort and its activities, including a visit to the local village to see how the local Cambodians live.
Can you describe the route and travel time to get to Song Saa, and any advice on getting there?
There are two ways to get to Song Saa Private Island. You can fly from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, or drive 4 hours from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. From the Sihanoukville pier, it is only 45 minutes by Song Saa's private boat (with champagne in hand), to the private island. I would recommend guests fly from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, and either fly back to Siem Reap to head home if flight connections permit. Otherwise Song Saa can comfortably transfer guests in a luxury vehicle to Phnom Penh.
Many luxury resorts 'talk-the-talk' about how protecting the natural environment and supporting local communities are central to their operation. What were some of the resort's design features or socially responsibile practices you witnessed first-hand?
Song Saa has a foundation which supports the local village, especially the schooling of children. The island employs a significant number of locals from the surrounding villages, and those employed from outside of the villages are housed at Song Saa at its own staff village. The marine life around the island is wholly protected, resulting in a great concentration of various fish close to the island, perfect for snorkelling excursions. The island makes use of glass bottles and flasks for items such as water, so I did not see one plastic bottle during my entire stay.
There are 27 intimate villas on the island, ranging from Jungle Villas to the exclusive Royal Villa. Which type did you stay in, and what were the most unique features about the design?
I stayed in the Jungle villa, which I must say was my favourite of the rooms, all of which are located on a moderately sized hill. I found the tropical entrance delivered a feeling of serenity, and the views from my villa (number 4) were absolutely magnificent. While having quite a bit of privacy thanks to the surrounding plants, I was still able to look down upon the overwater villas and out into the ocean for dramatic views and phenomenal sunsets. The jungle rooms are quite private given they are surrounded by trees, and they are very quiet given their perfect distance from the waterfront.
The overwater villas give guests uninterrupted ocean views and direct access to the ocean. The Ocean front rooms boast larger plunge pools than the jungle rooms and have a magnificent private dining table overlooking the ocean's edge. These rooms are very quiet as they have no passing boats, and experience the island's sunrise.
Given the exclusive nature of this private island resort, guests should expect world-class service. What was your experience like with the staff at Song Saa?
Cambodians, the staff at the island, are unique. They don't just want to give you the best service possible; it's as if they are your new friends, albeit for the short time you are there. They want you to be entirely happy. Nothing was too much trouble. Any meals requests for special dishes were happily accommodated. Bars had no closing hours (the guests decided when it was time to close) and everyone is available until their smiling service is no longer required.
As a genuine 'all-inclusive' experience, what was the dining experience like at the Vista Bar & Restaurant and Driftwood Bar? Did you and your travelling companions have a particularly memorable meal or drink? What can you tell us about the cuisine and beverages on offer?
Prior to arriving, the island asked us about preferred meals. We love curry. Throughout our stay we were treated to an incredible array of Thai and Cambodian curries, including a special curry night where we sample 6 curries prepared by the restaurant team. The pizzas in the Driftwood bar were amazing. Wood-fired with a near paper thin base, they are incredibly crispy and no day went by without having at least a couple. Children can even work with the restaurant staff to make their own!
Continuing on the dining tip, we're told the Destination Dining option in a secluded hideaway is not to be missed. Did you experience this and if so what can you tell us?
Each evening the island would suggest and arrange various destinations for us to have dinner. These included the beach, pool, Vista restaurant and of course the Driftwood bar. Each gave a unique and different experience.
Did you experience any of the 'added experiences' including Koh Rong beach picnic, scuba diving, speed boat hire or the kayak mangrove tour? What is the one "must do" experience in the area and why was this the highlight of your trip?
I urge guests to visit the local village and school to see the local way of life. It is very different to the Cambodian big cities and reminds you, just how lucky we are in Australia. The Song Saa staff will take you through the village and transport you back, all of which is complimentary.
Finally, how would you describe Song Saa in a sentence to your friends?
Song Saa Private Island is where the staff are your friends and where you get to decide what you want, where and when.