March 5, 2011
Cambodia's coast ... the Song Saa islands. Photo: Leisa Tyler
Leisa Tyler explores the long stretch of beaches and islands south of Sihanoukville - unspoilt and ripe for development.
When Sydney couple Rory and Melita Hunter discovered Cambodia's tropical coastline, it was love at first sight.
Living in Phnom Penh at the time, they hired an old wooden boat from the port town of Sihanoukville for a fortnight to explore the nation's little-known islands.
They fished from the deck, lounged on deserted beaches and slept under the stars. ''We just absolutely fell in love,'' Melita says, over a bottle of wine on the deck of their Robinson Crusoe-style house on Koh Ouen, one of two islands known together as Song Saa, or the Sweetheart Islands, which the Hunters now own.
Advertisement: Story continues below It is January 2008 and we have just returned from an afternoon of swimming at neighbouring Koh Rong's six-kilometre Techo Beach, a stretch of white sand renowned for its length and seclusion. The sun is setting over the estuary before us, and behind wafts the smoke from char-grilled lobster and prawns bought from a local fisherman.
The process of securing the rights to lease the Sweetheart Islands was fraught with complications and included an agreement that the Hunters would develop the islands for tourism. But the future looked exciting - investors were interested and plans were being drawn for a $40 million Per Aquum resort by hotel architect Bill Bensley.
Cambodia's 443-kilometre coast, peppered with quaint villages flanking perfect white-sand coves, is a reminder of how south-east Asian beaches used to be before mass tourism. In Cambodia's halcyon days in the 1960s, this coastline was the place to be seen, attracting glamour cats such as Jacqueline Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve, who holidayed here. Then came the Khmer Rouge, the brutal militia that had a particular dislike for the languid coastal towns and their voluptuary lifestyles, and all but razed them. The inhabitants fled - villagers to hidden coves on neighbouring islands, the bourgeois to safe countries abroad - and the jungle reclaimed the towns.
But by the summer of 2008, Cambodia's south coast had been rediscovered. The country's property market was booming and the coastline was being touted as ''The last undiscovered paradise! The next Asian Riviera!'' Companies from Malaysia, China, Russia and France were competing for leaseholds on the nation's 60-plus islands and carving off tracts of beachfront on the mainland. Hundreds of residents were evicted and plans for everything from racecourses and billion-dollar casinos to multiple-resort complexes were declared.
''We want to build a tourism corridor from Thailand right through to Vietnam,'' tourism minister Dr Thong Khon told me in 2008.
Then came the global financial crisis, promptly bringing the majority of projects - and rumours - to a halt.
''The crisis was the best thing that could have happened to Cambodia's south coast,'' the French owner of guest houses in Phnom Penh and a long-term Cambodian resident, Alexis de Suremain, says in retrospect. ''It delayed the development.''
As a result of the financial crisis, the Hunters decided to eschew well-known designers and branded hotel companies and to develop Song Saa Private Island themselves. It is scheduled to open at the end of this year.
Elsewhere, on Sihanoukville's Snake Island, a Russian-owned project, including a casino, restaurant, hotel, sanatorium - and a 900-metre, $US450 million ($442 million) suspension bridge connecting it to the mainland - has been put on hold. Work on a $US2-3 billion resort and casino project on Koh Ta Kiev has stopped.
But the crisis did little to thwart dreams. The sizeable 7826-hectare island of Koh Rong has been acquired by Khmer businessman Kith Meng, who grew up in Australia. The island has waterfalls, rainforest and 28 sandy beaches, including gorgeous Techo Beach. Meng and his Royal Group have plans for 35 resorts and 16 villa communities, as well as golf courses, schools, hospitals, a marina and an international airport capable of handling Airbus A320s.
''It is similar to [Koh] Samui and Phuket 20 years ago … one of the last undiscovered paradises in south-east Asia,'' says David Simister, in a press release. He represents CB Richard Ellis, which is the advisor and property agent for the project. The Royal Group aims to create Asia's ''first environmentally planned resort island''.
In Sihanoukville, the petrochemical company Sokimex's hotel arm, Sokha, has extended the Sokha Beach Resort with upmarket overwater chalets with hardwood floors, balconies and rain-showers. When finished, the resort, with its own private strip of sand, will have 402 guest rooms.
Sokha is laying the foundations of a 600-room property on the far end of Ochheuteal Beach, south of Sihanoukville, and has taken out a lease on Bokor Hill Station, an hour's drive along the coast from Sihanoukville. Established in the 1920s as a resort for French colonists escaping the summer heat, Bokor Hill Station was where the Vietnamese army fought with the Khmer Rouge. The crumbling remains of Bokor's glory days include a casino, church, a clutch of villas and a hotel. Sokha is reconstructing the road up to the plateau on which the station's ruins are located and plans to sink $US1 billion into the site, building two casinos and three hotels with more than 700 rooms.
Sokha Beach Resort's Singaporean-born general manager, Michael Lim, offers to take me to the top of the 1000-metre mountain plateau but by the time we reach the turn-off a storm has rolled in, shrouding Bokor in mist.
Instead, we take a tour of Sihanoukville, a scruffy town scattered across a hill and several beaches. To get there we drive past the airport, which reopened a year ago after a $US30 million upgrade following the 2008 property boom, but it has yet to receive a scheduled flight. Billboards announcing villa and resort projects line every beach. A few have footings, one even looks half built, but there are no workers, no tourists and the town seems strangely abandoned.
But Cambodia's southern coastline has fantastic getaways that have escaped the attention of developers, for now. Kep, a sleepy seaside village on the far side of Bokor Hill Station, was once the private getaway for Phnom Penh's elite, who built their mansions and palaces along the town's rocky shores. Many of the buildings are still here, their burnt-out shells and crumbling facades a reminder of the Khmer Rouge. Other villas, such as Knai Bang Chatt, have been converted recently into low-key mini hotels and eco-resorts. The hotel comprises 11 guest rooms and a pool spread over three 1970s Miami-style houses built by a student of Le Corbusier.
Nearby, the former governor's mansion is being turned into a chic bed-and-breakfast called La Villa de Monsieur Thomas. On the hill above Kep, Veranda Natural Resort has 19 eco-villas and incredible views from a breezy restaurant.
North-west of Sihanoukville, hugging the border with Thailand, the remote Cardamom Mountains have become a hot spot for eco-tourism. The mountains are a 4.42 million-hectare swathe of rivers and rainforest that support elephants and leopards, which are increasingly threatened by mining and illegal logging.
The US-based non-government organisation Wildlife Alliance has established homestays, hiking, boating and birdwatching tours in the villages of Chi Phet and Trapeang Rung under the banner of Community Based Ecotourism. The villages have only basic facilities but the experience is genuine.
More upmarket is the slightly kitsch but comfortable 4Rivers Floating Lodge. Made from canvas and recycled plastic decking, guest rooms float in a sheltered corner of the Tatai River. Visitors can paddle the river in kayaks, visit the sublimely beautiful Tatai waterfall that cascades through misty rainforest or relax on their private deck.
Only a few years ago the road from Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville to Koh Kong, the town closest to the Cardamom Mountains, had no bridges and was so potholed it could take all day to traverse. It was paved in 2008 and the journey now takes three hours.
On the bus to Koh Kong, I chat with a British man who has been living in Sihanoukville for 10 years. ''[Cambodia's southern coastline] has undergone massive improvements in the last few years,'' he says. ''But most of the big projects are just pure speculation. You saw Sihanoukville - it's empty apart from a handful of backpackers drinking cheap beer.
''It will be another five to 10 years before tourism even begins to take off. I say enjoy it while you can.''
Singapore Airlines flies to Phnom Penh for about $1100, to Singapore (8hr), then Phnom Penh (2hr). Thai Airways has a fare for about $1422, to Bangkok (9hr), then Phnom Penh (75min). Fares are low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. Australians obtain a $US20 visa on arrival for stays of up to 30 days. Sihanoukville is about three hours' drive from Phnom Penh.
Sokha Beach Resort has 402 guest rooms, three restaurants, two spas, a gym and a private beach. Rooms from $US200, see sokhahotels.com.
Knai Bang Chatt has 11 rustic rooms in three 1970s houses overlooking the ocean in Kep. There is a swimming pool, a breezy restaurant and a sailing club next door. Rooms from $US150, see knaibangchatt.com.
4Rivers Floating Lodge has 12 floating tents in Tatai River, in the Cardamom Mountains. The environmental footprint is light and the setting serene. No airconditioning. Rooms from $US118, see ecolodges.asia.
Wildlife Alliance's Community Based Ecotourism offers jungle treks and village stays in the Cardamom Mountains, see ecoadventurecambodia.com.