CAMBODIA - I am dining by the water's edge on my first night at Song Saa private island when a waitress approaches me excitedly.
"Look," she says, pointing to something in the ocean. I follow her gaze and spy a few luminous blue-green specks, glittering like stars, dancing in the inky water.
It usually takes a combination of a moonless sky, calm seas and a boat tour at night to catch a glimpse of these bioluminescent plankton, and I am lucky to spot them so close to shore.
It is the first of many surprises during my five-day stay on Song Saa island, a luxury resort located off the coast of Cambodia. Song Saa means "the sweethearts" in the Khmer language.
Some surprises are orchestrated by the Guest Experiences team, which leaves rolled-up notes tied to my door each afternoon informing me where dinner that night will be hosted. Song Saa offers what it calls destination dining, which means dinner could be anywhere - on the beach, a rocky outcrop, or perched in a shallow section of the resort's infinity pool, where the cool water laps at my ankles as I sample an extensive menu of Khmer dishes.
Other surprises are sprung by mother nature, like the school of damselfish that swarms below the glass floor of my over-water villa while I am having breakfast, their skinny silver bodies shimmering in the morning light.
Yet other surprises come from exploring the resort's many nooks and crannies. I wander down various paths and find a cabana shrouded by trees, a beachfront deck with beanbags and a coffee table, and a restroom with a floor-to-ceiling view of the ocean.
These spaces, made and decorated with upcycled materials such as driftwood, old boat skeletons and dried jungle vines, are one way the resort embodies barefoot luxury.
The term, which has become a popular description for luxury resorts in the last five to 10 years, refers to elegance without excess - an aesthetic that fits into the natural environment and eco-friendly practices such as recycling, composting and building with sustainable, locally sourced material.
Song Saa takes it a step further. Since 2013, the company's non-profit arm, Song Saa Foundation, has brought clean water and education to the local community in nearby Koh Rong island, hired locals to clean up the island, and taught residents about recycling and waste management.
Guests are encouraged to take part in the process, either by joining monthly beach cleanups or a tour to Prek Svay village, one of five villages in the Koh Rong archipelago that the foundation supports.
Prek Svay is only a 10-minute speedboat ride from Song Saa, but they are worlds apart. Fishing is the main source of income for the 200 or so families in the village, who supplement it by farming, carpentry, or running small businesses such as provision stores. Some harvest cashews or coconuts, which grow well in sandy island soil; others craft bamboo straws. They sell these products to Song Saa island as well as buyers in Sihanoukville, a coastal city a 45-minute speedboat ride away.
I learn all this from Mr Ngoun Chhay, a marine officer from the Song Saa Foundation who grew up in the village and still lives there with his family.
His three children receive free education at the village school, where the foundation pays the salaries and accommodation of the teachers. Children in the village also get hands-on experience recycling, composting and growing plants and herbs at a community centre called Sala Song Saa.
"We want to create a net positive in the world, because so many people are already taking from it," says programme manager Ben Thorne.
THE ROMANTIC STORY BEHIND SONG SAA
Song Saa is made up of twin islands called Koh Ouen and Koh Bong, and founders Rory and Melita Hunter have a sweet story to go with the romantic name.
The Australian couple, who were living in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh in 2006, rented a fishing boat to travel the archipelago and fell in love with the islands' beauty.
They took up a village chief's offer to sell them a pair of islands for US$15,000 and spent the next six years turning Song Saa into a tiny corner of paradise. They recruited the islands' former residents to work in everything from driving boats to landscaping, and some of them still work for the resort today.
About 90 per cent of the resort's staff are Cambodian, with many learning English on the job.
Mr Chhay, 37, tells me that when he was hired to work in Song Saa's laundry team six years ago, the only English words he knew were "yes", "no" and "how are you".
But after six months of English classes from a colleague and practising on his own for the next year and a half, Mr Chhay picked up enough English to earn himself a three-month trial stint on the resort's water sports team.
Determined to prove himself, and wanting to pick up more vocabulary to converse with guests, Mr Chhay stayed up past midnight on most days watching English comedies on YouTube, listening and reading subtitles at the same time, and using Google Translate when he encountered unfamiliar words.
He worked for two years in the water sports team before finding his passion in conservation work, and now leads tours to Prek Svay village while learning about environmental issues such as climate change and ocean acidification.
His is the kind of success story the Hunters hope to recreate with their next project, the Song Saa Reserve.
The integrated resort, which is currently open to investors, will include multiple hotels, resorts and residential properties committed to sustainable practices such as hiring and training local staff and restoring native flora and fauna. It will be located near the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap, with the first luxury and wellness resort set to open in 2021.
Mr Hunter says: "This project allows Cambodia to show the world how tourism, when done right, is a powerful means for lifting people out of poverty and protecting the environment."
ON ISLAND TIME
Life on Song Saa is languid, with clocks set to island time. This is an hour later than the rest of Cambodia to allow for longer days - the sun rises at a comfortable 7.30am and sunset is just after 7pm.
There are lots to do, if you are the sort that likes to be kept busy. Yoga classes on the infinity pool deck feel extra invigorating because of the sea breeze and expansive view; the golden hour just before sunset is the perfect time to rent a kayak or stand-up paddle board and paddle around the island as it is bathed in brilliant hues.
A curved boardwalk connects Koh Ouen, where the resort's 24 villas are located, to Koh Bong, where the rainforest remains untouched, save for three dirt paths leading to an observation deck, a large banyan tree and a meditation rock.
It takes me about an hour and a half to explore all three paths, while community engagement officer Long Thy points out rattan plants used to make string and furniture, palm leaves that locals use to wrap food, and flying foxes roosting in the trees.
On the boardwalk back to Koh Ouen, Mr Thy tells me that barracuda, rabbitfish and grouper are common in these waters. I know these names from the dining table, but in the 200m marine reserve that rings the islands, many species thrive because they are friends, not food.
Resident marine scientist Kristy Potgieter says that on a clear day, when visibility is about 10m to 15m underwater, she has even seen marbled stingrays, colourful wrasse and venomous lionfish around nearby coral reefs.
But when you are staying in a villa that comes with a private infinity pool and a view of the ocean, there is no need to do anything but lounge on your daybed and graze on snacks from an all-day dining menu.
These include a banana blossom salad, which is made with the banana flower, and amok, a traditional Cambodian dish of thick curry with ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal and turmeric.
Many of these ingredients are grown in the chef's garden, where executive chef Jeremy Simeon also harvests basil, mint, water lily stems and lotus shoots, using them to add garnish and flavour to contemporary Cambodian dishes such as scallop ceviche and snapper with coconut green curry.
Even the coconuts used in the curry are harvested either from Song Saa or its surrounding islands. Every part of the coconut is used, from oil in spa treatments to milk and cream in desserts.
And on my last night, when I return to my villa, there is one last surprise waiting for me - half a coconut husk on my already-made bed, containing a small "wishing stone" and a tiny scroll. The note urges me to think of the things in my life than bring me joy, and to hold these thoughts as I drop my stone into the water.
I make my way to the water's edge outside my villa, where across the bay, the lights of Prek Svay village sparkle. Then I make a wish for the people there and return my stone to the ocean.
This trip was sponsored by Song Saa Private Island. Villa rates start at US$890 (S$1,205) per night, with an additional US$552 for food, drinks and selected alcoholic beverages. For more information, go to www.songsaa.com
I flew on AirAsia to Sihaknoukville, with a layover in Kuala Lumpur. From Sihanoukville International Airport, it is a 25-minute drive to the port, followed by a 45-minute speedboat ride to Song Saa island.
- The boat ride to Song Saa island can be choppy, so those prone to seasickness may want to take a motion sickness pill about half an hour before setting out.
- Footwear is optional on Koh Ouen, but shoes are recommended for exploring Koh Bong's dirt trails, which may be slippery when wet.
- If you would like to make an in-kind donation, non-profit organisation Pack for a Purpose lists some useful items such as first aid and stationery supplies. Go to www.packforapurpose.org/destinations/southeast-asia/cambodia/song-saa-pr... for a full list.
- You're going back to nature, so be prepared for bugs - especially in Koh Bong's lush vegetation. The resort supplies a natural insect repellent made with essential oils.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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