There was a point, back in the 1960s, when the towns along the southern Cambodian coast were the height of fashion. The society crowd kept weekend villas in Kep, a tidy village near the Vietnamese border, and the likes of Jackie Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve holidayed in Sihanoukville, the area's largest resort town. But Sihanoukville was a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, and militia lingered here until early this century, hiding out in the pockmarked, burnt-out villas, and keeping most people well away.
Australian couple Rory and Melita Hunter, founders of the new Song Saa Private Island Resort - a 20-minute speedboat ride from Sihanoukville - were not deterred by the archipelago's chequered history.
"We had heard about pristine islands with azure-coloured water, white sands and hornbills," says Melita, recalling nights when her husband, Rory, would pore over Google Maps trying to work out what was out there along Cambodia's isolated coastline.
Song Saa, Cambodia's first five-star island resort, opened in February. The name means "the sweethearts" in Khmer, and the resort comprises two small forested islands connected by a footbridge over a marine park. On the smaller island of Koh Ouen, a series of over-water villas fan out from a small beach overlooking the harbour, and low-rise wooden huts are tucked in the tropical jungle. On the adjoining Koh Bong sit the spa and wellness centre, private meditation areas and arrival jetty.
The resort has an air of unassuming simplicity, a stylish but unpretentious barefoot luxury that incorporates thatch, recycled timbers, bamboo and driftwood into its design. Ninety per cent of the timber used is either recycled from old factories and fishing boats or collected from nearby islands, a design strategy that fits the couple's minimal-footprint philosophy nicely, but was also born of necessity: getting building supplies (and day-to-day sundries now that the resort is open) to an island 30km off the coast in an already remote area of Cambodia proved excruciatingly difficult.
I have visited these islands before, but knowing both the area's history and the acute challenges faced by the couple in realising their particular dream makes the sight of the completed resort all the more remarkable.
The Hunters originally moved to Cambodia from Sydney in 2005. Rory had taken a job with Bates, an advertising agency, in the capital, Phnom Penh. But he resigned to start up Brocon, a small company that tarted up old French and art deco villas for foreign expatriates. Although still terribly poor, Cambodia at this time was crackling with enthusiasm and change. The annual growth rate of the country's GDP was surging at more than 10 per cent and foreign investment was pouring into Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the city closest to the 12th-century ruins of Angkor Wat. But the rest of Cambodia remained well off the radar, including its luscious but largely undiscovered 443km coastline peppered with more than 60 islands, most of them deserted.
In early 2006, the couple hired an old fishing boat and spent a fortnight exploring the islands, diving for crab in shallow coves and sleeping under the stars on remote, uninhabited beaches. They went to visit a parcel of land for sale on Koh Rong near Prek Svay. Landing on Koh Ouen, one half of Song Saa, they learned that these little forested specks bridged by a coral reef were also up for sale.
By morning the Hunters had agreed to buy local ownership - essentially squatting rights - for $15,000. As foreigners they couldn't own the land outright, so they had to negotiate an agreement with the government. Two years and several nuisances later, they procured an official 99-year lease for Song Saa. Part of the contract was to develop it for tourism.
When the couple purchased Song Saa, they had no hospitality or hotel experience, but developed the idea to transform "the sweethearts", seven hectares in size all told, into a $40 million, 25-room resort designed by Bangkok-based Bill Bensley (the architect behind Four Seasons' Golden Triangle tented camp and Koh Samui resort in Thailand) and managed by a big name such as Per Aquum, Aman or Six Senses. The plan was to take their design cues from Cambodian villages, the region's elephants and the conical-shaped bamboo sun hats worn by farmers, and build a series of elaborate thatched huts, some with elephant "trunks" protruding from their roofs. At the time, I couldn't work out whether the couple was extremely brave or just plain mad.
I first came to Cambodia in 1999. The Khmer Rouge was still active in the provinces and Phnom Penh was a rough, edgy backwater filled with beggars whose limbs had been mutilated by landmines. Countless Cambodian civilians died during the Khmer Rouge's regime (estimates range from 1.7 million to 2.5 million, between 21 and 33 per cent of the country's population), most of them murdered, and the chaos of war was entrenched. Boys had guns and yaba - a cheap and dirty methamphetamine. The police had set up blockades on every other street, but come evening, even they were afraid to linger. The highway between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville was controlled by militiamen who would step out from the bushes to stop cars already slowed by potholes and herds of cows, and demand money. Only the bold ventured that far.
Yet despite the raw war wounds and the heart-wrenching despair, Cambodia's people remained resilient. It's partly because of this, the Cambodians' sheer determination to put the past behind them, and partly because of the country's incredible architecture - ancient, colonial and art deco - that tourists started coming, and in the 2000s Cambodia's tourism industry became one of the fastest-growing in South East Asia. Visitor numbers to the World Heritage-listed Angkor Archaeological Park were rising by about 30 per cent annually and luxury hotel brands such as Aman, Sofitel and Orient-Express all arrived in Siem Reap.
Resort fever quickly swept along the country's south coast, and the Cambodian government, hoping to diversify tourism (at this stage still mainly restricted to Angkor Wat), was offering leaseholds on many of its islands as well as on large tracts of beach near Sihanoukville. "The Thailand of 30 years ago!", "The Indochine Riviera!", crooned PR spiels. It was like a gold rush and speculation was rife. I saw plans for casino complexes, shopping malls and even a racecourse on one of the islands. Rumours circulated that the hotel groups Six Senses, Como and Four Seasons were looking for opportunities. "We're going to make another Phuket," one developer told me.
But political squabbles over landing rights meant there were still no flights into the new Sihanoukville airport - it finally opened in late 2011 - and the southern coast remained without the services or personnel to build these mooted luxury hotels, let alone an ambitious resort on an island without any facilities.
The 2009 GFC brought most of these grand plans to a screeching halt, including those of the Hunters. To further complicate matters, Melita was diagnosed with cancer, forcing the couple back to Australia for her treatment.
"We were bound to a hospital room and we thought 'What can we do?'. We have two dogs and an island in Cambodia. Let's build a guest house, a small resort, something, anything," says Melita.
Later that year, with Melita given the all-clear, the Hunters returned to Cambodia. They halved the original resort budget and put all the villas up for sale to raise funds. Melita took charge of the design, and together the Hunters oversaw the construction. To date, it's the first and only south coast development project completed. "It's amazing how your darkest hour ends up being the brightest," says Rory.
Rory Hunter, sporting shorts, T-shirt and bare feet - the unofficial uniform for staff and guests of the island - is proudly showing me around. In tow is his curly-haired three-year-old son Naryth, a Cambodian boy the Hunters adopted as a baby.
The island's 27 guest villas are rustic but functional. The Hunters estimate they collected close to 1000 tonnes of driftwood alone to turn into furniture and pillars. The day-beds are quirky and fun, shaded by spindly grey sticks that spill over the roof like the fringe of a shaggy dog. Bedside tables are rounds of gnarled driftwood. Timber salvaged from an old fishing boat has been used as artwork for the walls. The four-poster beds are replicas of an antique bed from Sulawesi, but built using plantation timbers. And old Khmer beds (animist Khmer built beds from 10-inch-thick pieces of wood, believing spirits would otherwise pass through the floorboards to attack them while they slept) are transformed into desks.
"We started from zero," says Seth Hoeger, a former logistics manager from transport company UPS who was brought in as Song Saa's director of operations to set up the supply chain. "We had no water and no electricity. We even had to build a fuel boat."
Stark works by acclaimed Thai photographer Supachai Ketkaroonkul feature throughout the resort. The Hunters commissioned Ketkaroonkul, whom they met at Chatuchak Market in Bangkok, to compose a series of photographs of the area: the spindly roots of mangrove trees, the vibrant colours of local fishing boats, the surface of trees, sand and shells, for example.
"We really wanted the resort to belong here," says Melita. "Many resorts could be anywhere in the world; we wanted to make sure guests knew they were on these islands in Cambodia."
But Song Saa is more than just a resort. The Hunters employ a conservation and community team (including two marine biologists and a naturalist) and have established a 100-hectare marine park around the islands to rehabilitate damaged corals. On Koh Bong, Koh Ouen's lover, they've built nesting boxes for hornbills. They're also working with community welfare experts to set up Sala Song Saa, a community centre in the village of Prek Svay where locals can learn about conservation and guests can learn about the local culture. Up and running is a community vegetable patch that provides income to villagers and produce for the resort. The Hunters say they wanted to set an example for tourism developments on the south coast.
In the resort's breezy over-water restaurant, UK-born executive chef Neil Wager is sourcing 85 per cent of ingredients from Cambodia and Vietnam, including all fruits, vegetables, fish, duck and pork, which he butchers on site.
Wager spent several years working at North Island in the Seychelles, where he served Christmas dinners to royals and Hollywood starlets; here he wants to "create a modern restaurant using locally sourced ingredients". This is deconstructed Cambodian: light, fresh flavours but without the curry or the kick. The menu is loaded with tropical South East Asian ingredients such as tamarind, banana leaf, kaffir lime and longan. Wager's version of beef loc lac, teaming Tasmanian Cape Grim beef with a piquant chilli sauce, is excellent, and the locally caught snow fish dunked in sweet tamarind with miso and a sesame panna cotta is a little sweet but mingles textures nicely.
On my final day at Song Saa, Victor Blanco Gonzalez, the resident naturalist, and I take an hour-long hike through Koh Rong to Five Mile Beach. We arrive to find a picnic has been set up under two over-sized parasols. I kick my shoes off and take a quick dip in the ocean, so clear here that I can see my toes. The coconut palm-fringed sands stretch as far as I can see. A waiter dressed in a crisp white tunic and baggy blue pants is busy unpacking our tiffin boxes - a salad of micro-greens, local flowers and radish; a fresh baguette stuffed with marinated chicken and garlic mayonnaise; an assortment of cakes and freshly cut fruit - and he offers me a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. I pinch myself: can this really be Cambodia?