How an expat mum transformed a remote Cambodian island into an award-winning eco-resort

 

Hong Kong expat Melita Hunter who bought an island and founded an eco-resort

It’s a steaming-hot day when I arrive at Wong Chuk Hang’s trendy Loft café, which is perhaps quite apt given I’m here for an interview about a tropical resort.

I’m meeting Melita Hunter, a freelance organic stylist from Sydney who, along with her advertising designer husband Rory, ended up in possession of Song Saa, a couple of dreamy desert islands in the Gulf of Thailand, which is today a thriving, luxury eco-resort. Their story is one of chance and of grabbing every opportunity that came their way.

Back in the early 2000s, Hunter was enjoying a successful career in Sydney, styling her way around prominent Sydney catwalk shows, exhibitions and fashion shoots, and loving every minute of it. Struck by the “incredible stuff” coming out of New Zealand – this was the era of blockbusters Narnia and Lord of the Rings, all shot on location there – she decided that working on film sets in the Land of the Long White Cloud would be a great experience for a couple of years. And so it was that she met her future husband and fellow-Australian Rory, who was working in NZ for Saatchi and Saatchi.

And then, just as they were settling into Auckland life, Rory was invited to transfer to New York. “I just thought ‘wow’, what an opportunity,” says Hunter, who figured she could use the move to formalise her design training with some study, while soaking up the creativity that life in the Big Apple had to offer.  

And then, completely out of the blue, just as they were packing up for the big move, Rory received an offer from a design agency in Phnom Penh.

“It was so random,” laughs Hunter. “We were like, Cambodia? No way, we’re off to New York!”

Intrigued, the couple had a look online. “And there was nothing. It was 2005 so the internet wasn’t quite what it is today, but even so, apart from the war and the Khmer Rouge, there was absolutely no information about Cambodia whatsoever. Nothing remotely helpful.”

Wouldn’t it have been easier to take the more straightforward route offered to them and just jump on a flight bound for JFK? I ask. But Hunter admits the lack of information made them determined to conquer this mysterious South East Asian country. And so Rory accepted the job. “We packed our bags and thought hey, we’ll give it a go for a year,” she says.

But on arrival it was love at first sight. “It was so raw. It was like stepping back several decades – there were no ATMs, no traffic lights, no paved roads in fact. We bought an old army jeep and a couple of dirt bikes and had an amazing time.”

But times were changing, and Hunter admits that within six months of their arrival the motorbikes were looking a bit newer and cars had started appearing. “The transformation was amazing to see,” she says. “Because of the war, 70% of the population was under 30. So you had this incredible youth that just wanted to catch up with the rest of Asia. The energy was palpable – people wanted to study, they wanted the country to move on. When we arrived, unmarried girls weren’t allowed out on their own, but within a couple of years, you’d see them perched happily on the back of guys’ mopeds. It all changed so fast.”

By the end of the first year, the couple decided they loved the place so much they wanted to stay. Hunter was busy with a number of landscape-gardening contracts and Rory was consumed with the design agency, but one evening they got chatting with a friend and his fisherman father who had just got back from a trip from some islands off the coast.

“He regaled us with tales of untouched beaches, virgin rainforest and coral reefs. We were like, ‘Seriously?’ We’d done a bit of diving and surfaced pretty much in tears each time, such was the destructive effect of years of dynamite fishing. There was nothing to see down there. The islands didn’t seem to be marked on any maps either, and with tourist-heavy Vietnam and Thailand on either side, it seemed unlikely they had been missed. So we were a bit sceptical, but decided to check them out. We hired a boat driver – who thought we were nuts – and putt-putted for about five hours until we finally came across the Koh Rong Archipelago.

Song Saa eco-resort today

“It was such an adventure. We slept on beaches, went fishing and met the five little communities living out there. But behind the picturesque scenes, life wasn’t quite as rosy.

“Everyone was new to the islands, because during the war the Khmer Rouge had driven the villagers out and over to the mainland. This meant that sustainable fishing practices hadn’t been passed down to the next generation. Overfishing meant it was becoming harder and harder for the fishermen to feed their families, which in turn meant the rainforests were being cleared to create land for crops and animal grazing. And the coral was clogged from the 50-odd fishing boats that used to park all day and empty their bilge tanks. Consequently, the eco-system was a mess, many locals wanted to move back to the mainland – and we were offered the opportunity to buy Song Saa.”

A quick trip back to the mainland ensued so lawyers could draw up the paperwork, and with a paper bag full of cash, the Hunters took possession of the pair of islands.

What they have achieved since then is nothing short of miraculous.

“We knew we had to change things, but we also wanted to be good neighbours,” says Hunter. “We started by picking up rubbish and invited the villagers to join us. At that stage we weren’t planning on building a resort; we just wanted a nicer island. We put out a call to the wider island community and offered to pay people to help, which meant we had around 60 locals a day turning up. All the trash was bagged up and sent to the mainland.

Not afraid of yet another challenge, it was at this point that the couple offered to install a marine protection zone to give the fish a chance to reproduce properly. The couple were now dashing down the country every weekend, overland from Phonh Penh to the coast and then the boat-ride out to Song Saa.  “I know,” laughs Hunter. “From our regular day jobs during the week suddenly we were marine advisors and environmentalists on the weekend,” laughs Hunter. “It was a steep learning curve.”

The islanders were overwhelmingly in favour of the zone and amazingly, within just 18 months, fish stocks were back.

“We were ecstatic,” says Hunter. “It had worked and in such a short space of time. We brought in a research photographer to conduct an underwater survey and set up a database. This was the beginning of what turned out to be one of the biggest marine parks in South East Asia.”

Slowly, the island was blooming again. Trees were blossoming, the birds were back and the white sand had returned. A solid waste system was installed and Song Saa became one of the cleanest communities in Cambodia.

In 2005, the Hunters decided to create the Song Saa Foundation. Until this point, they had been privately funding the clean-up. The government agreed to re-write the land law so they could be granted a 99-year lease over the two islands in order to introduce some tourism.

“This was probably the most stressful period of our lives,” says Hunter. “But we pioneered that land law and decided we wanted to go for a high-end, low-room-count resort.”

Hunter designed everything, from the buildings to the rugs on the floor. The couple also reached out to conservation experts at James Cook University in Australia to advise on construction without harming the marine life.  

It might be eco-conscious, but the resort is also high-spec. All 24 one- and two-bedroom villas have an indoor and outdoor bathroom and private infinity pool. They are stunningly perched in the jungle, by the ocean or over the water. Top chefs and hoteliers have been brought in from around the world and the kitchens are supplied by the organic garden (most meals are included in the price of your stay). The resort has recently appointed executive chef Jeremy Simeon, who brings with him 25 years of professional experience plus a wealth of expertise in macrobiotic cooking. He is planning an infusion of Asian-inspired dishes incorporating the island’s local produce.

The island’s Driftwood beach bar

I love foraging for edible plants and furthering my understanding of Khmer herbs and plants that are beneficial to our health,” he explains. “I plan to use as many plants as I can find from the island and its surroundings.”

And if you fancy moving from your pool, there are hiking and nature trails, kayak expeditions, snorkelling tours, inter-island excursions and ocean nature safaris, which are all complimentary. Children are welcomed.

“Along with the resort construction, we also accelerated the conservation side,” says Hunter. “We brought in marine biologists, set up an education programme teaching the local children to snorkel and to love the water, and introduced an annual mission with doctors from the US coming over to treat the villagers. And our Boat of Hope runs a clinic to the local islands every month.”

The couple has since relocated to Hong Kong for family reasons, but are still very much hands-on at Song Saa. They are immensely – and justifiably – proud of what they have achieved.

“It’s been a labour of love with huge amounts of heartache along the way,” admits Hunter. “But we are so incredibly determined to make it work.”

songsaa.com

 

Eco credits…

So far, the resort has…

Completed 214 survey dives

Counted 15,771 fish

Designated 200sq.m. as marine reserve

Launched 58 Boat of Hope missions helping 1,800 children

Distributed 6,000 school stationery packs

Installed 192 water filters

Protected 10,000 hectares of mangrove forest

Planted 1,700 mangroves