After my recent trip around Cambodia taking in rural village life, buzzy towns and the temples of Angkor (you can read about that bit of my trip here), I was in need of some time to unwind before heading back to the UK. A few years ago, if you wanted to tag on some time at the beach after a trip around Cambodia - in accommodation anywhere half decent (and by that I mean not favoured by the backpacking fraternity) and that didn't require a long day's drive to get there - you would have had to fly to Thailand. Now however, new internal flights and improved roads have brought with them some rather nice beach accommodation.
My first stop was Song Saa, an idyllic island retreat about 40 minutes by speedboat from the mainland. This is a very special place which I just fell in love with the moment I stepped off the speedboat and was greeted by smiling faces and a heartfelt "Welcome to Song Saa". Two islands sit side by side (connected by a rickety wooden bridge) - one houses the resort and the other is still covered in forest where you can enjoy some peaceful yoga or maybe a romantic dinner.
The villas (a mere 27) are all the same in design and it's just the location that varies - some are hidden in the forest, others edge the sea with a private beach or are on stilts over the clear turquoise waters. I'm not usually moved to tears when I see a hotel room but, on entering my over water bungalow I welled up and danced around like a child on Christmas day - that's how beautiful it was. Looking through past the enormous bed and down to the sitting area my eyes were drawn to the huge windows that slid back to reveal my private infinity pool and stunning ocean views. Then I spied a hug leather trunk which was actually my mini bar (a contradiction in terms) stocked with all my favourite drinks (both of an alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety) - I'd been sent a pre-arrival form requesting my preferences. The bathroom was as sumptuous as the room and I mentally blocked out when I would use each of the three showers (one indoor and two out) and the huge sunken bath with views over the ocean.
The resort is big on protecting the natural environment and supporting local - the island is ringed by Cambodia’s first marine protected area and a community programme for the local village on the neighbouring island has been set up to provide education on sustainable living and waste management. Even much of the design elements at the resort make use of recycled materials such as driftwood washed up at the village and hulls of fishing boats that have sailed their last voyage - all in the best possible taste!
The thing that really got me about Song Saa was that you resolutely knew you were in Cambodia. Some high end island resorts could be anywhere in the world as there is nothing around to say otherwise. But looking out from your infinity pool you see fishing boats going about their daily business, you can easily take a boat over to the neighbouring island (to see for yourself the community programme of the village) and over 90% of the staff are Cambodian. This all adds to the laid back vibe and warm friendliness of the place where the staff are familiar but don't faun over you - it's my favourite type of place to stay, understated luxury with no pretension.
Now this sort of private retreat doesn't come cheap. But, the resort operates an excellent 'Always Included' policy so that (barring spa treatments, diving and a few motorised activities) everything is included in the price whether it's a picnic on the beach, fine dining in the overwater restaurant (or anywhere else you'd like a private candlelit dinner to be set up), movie night in your villa, snorkelling, kayaking, all your washing (for me it was the whole contents of my suitcase), drinks (including daily restocking of that huge leather trunk) and your return speed boat transfers. Plus you can bask in the feel-good factor, knowing part of your room rate is helping the local community and environment.
Arriving back on the mainland I travelled south by road to the seaside town of Kep - once favoured by the French élite (and fondly referred to as Kep-Sur-Mer) the town came under ferocious fighting during the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge and fell into disrepair. Having lost its way, Kep is now being spruced up and the once stunning colonial villas are slowly being brought back to life - enter stage right, Knai Bang Chatt. Set in lush gardens, this is a visually stunning resort with five 1960s villas that have been remodelled and impeccably restored - they house the light and airy rooms that are simply and elegantly furnished with antiques and local artefacts.
The whole place has the perfect blend of privacy and serenity. It’s just the ideal spot to while away a few days not doing an awful lot except lolling around the gorgeous infinity pool, swaying in a hammock at the palm fringed shoreline (there's to beach to speak of I'm afraid), or sipping sunset cocktails at the next door sailing club: a former fisherman’s cottage with a lovely rustic, seaside vibe.
However, if you feel the need to do something more active, you can grab some bikes and head off into the countryside or take a trip to nearby Rabbit Island to find your own stretch of deserted beach. A must is taking a stroll to the fascinating crab market to sample the local delicacy; amazingly fresh crab deep fried with green peppercorns from nearby Kampot.
Cambodia is a beautiful country containing a wealth of natural riches (mountains, jungles, lakes, and beaches) and awe-inspiring antiquities way beyond its diminutive size; in my view, it's South East Asia at its most charming and you will be seduced by both the country and the genuine warmth of its people - and now that there are some stunning beach resorts Cambodia has more than enough to fill a two week holiday (or even longer).
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If you’d like some help with where to go on your next holiday or need help arranging the trip you have in your mind but don’t know where to start, please email me (email@example.com) or call me (07734 540914). I can provide you with lots of ideas and put together an amazing itinerary.
[Images - Me and the hotels]