SIHANOUKVILLE: We step gingerly onto a very neat, very white and very small boat that’s moored rather conspicuously alongside the port’s big boys. The air is heavy and hazy – or perhaps that’s just my head. We’ve been in transit for around 24 hours but we’re still buoyant.
Our toy boat reflects rust back at its beastly neighbours and the loading of our suitcases has lured a crowd of fishermen. Our captain warns us that the 45 minute crossing could be choppy but the measured lull of the waves elicits no more than a few snores as we let sleep win.
Not quite sure whether we’re in the land of nod or not, we squint as a verdant green mound drifts towards us over the horizon. Angular wooden structures reveal themselves against the silhouetted forest behind, a wooden walkway connects them. The engine noise cuts out and we’re left with the sloshing silence of waves lapping the boat.
There’s movement on the shoreline and as we drift closer a wooden jetty appears, it’s lined with a linen-clad welcoming party, their waves sync with the swaying palms. The next hour or so has melted from my memory. At some point I surrender my shoes to someone and don’t see them again until we leave.
Song Saa stands alone in every sense. Yes there are pools that reach further into infinity than the rest, yes the sand is ivory white, yes the villas teeter over translucent waters, but it’s not that. It’s not any of those things that set the island apart from its camera-ready cohorts, though each is as addictive as the last. I could lazily lean on the staff at this point and park my praise there. It would be warranted. I wanted for nothing and had the offer of everything and yet, there was still an ease of company and an unfakeable camaraderie that proved infectious. If you can’t take the piss out of someone, you’re not really friends. To that end the relentless ribbing and banter was symbolic.
But still, that’s not it. The island is as renowned for its eco-credentials as it is for its plain-to-see allure. Faux-fighting plastic by ditching straws this is not; the Song Saa Foundation has been serious about sustainability since day one. The island existed long before it had a star rating and each and every element of the project has been designed to not just respect the local habitat and economy, but to boost it.
Prek Svay–the closest neighbouring community–is the beating heart of this cause. We cross a narrow stretch of water from Song Saa and spend the day there. Putting a visual to ‘help’ is an arduous task, sightseeing sustainability initiatives can often feel disingenuous, a highlights reel with missing footage.
This bout is the antithesis in that we’re given free rein to explore in any way we see fit. It’s the short stories we collect from the locals that inadvertently reveal the most. The Song Saa team are known by first names, nicknames and again with the ribbing. Nearly every aimless anecdote we hear skips casually over the school, the doctors or the jobs while barely missing a beat so as to better cue up the punchline or pay-off.
This seeming lassitude towards the foundation’s extensive work is testament to how organically and successfully it has embedded itself in the island’s sphere. There is no discernible ‘us and them’ narrative, instead just a village intent on growing in every sense.
Back on Song Saa I’m stockpiling memories. A standout, is a simple walk through the kitchen garden. A preposterous backdrop of pink clouds and chimerical floating huts keep pulling focus, forcing me to ask everyone to repeat themselves. Some would blame the gin and tonic in my hand but I’m sure the freshly picked garnish would see off any such side-effects. Another low-lit highlight was cutting a path through bioluminescent water beneath a full moon. The resident marine biologist pretended not to notice my atrocious swimming and focused on facts instead.
I have an aversion to the phrase ‘guilt-free travel’ as it places a pound sign next to a tick-box and decides then and there whether your experience was genuine enough, whether you luxuriated too much or too little and then, most smugly of all; whether your experience was selfish – which if we’re being clear, would be anything one does for oneself. That being said, if you do subscribe to that school of thought then there are few places better equipped to alleviate the burden of an epicurean escape. Thanks to the total transparency for where your room rate is being spent and the clear-cut positive impact that the Song Saa Foundation is delivering – you’ll sleep well in every sense.