Whilst travelling on a year-long hiatus in 2005, Melita Hunter and her husband Rory happened upon 2 quiet islands in Cambodia.
A year later, they bought the islands and decided to turn them into a luxury private resort with a difference. Here, Melita tells us the story of how Song Saa came to be...
What was that conversation like when you were debating whether to purchase not 1, but 2, Cambodian islands?
We were travelling around the Koh Rong archipelago in Cambodia when the opportunity presented itself. We had rented an old wooden fishing boat and were exploring the islands, meeting people from local communities and sleeping under the stars. On the last day of our trip, we stopped at a little fishing village on a tiny island and got chatting to the family who lived there. We had a meal with them and before the meal finished, they had asked us if we wanted to buy the islands! We said yes straight away—we knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
You have incredible vision to be able to see how these islands could become such a beautiful, sustainable resort – where did that inspiration come from?
The archipelago is a beautiful place, but it had been damaged by years of neglect, overfishing and poor environmental practises. We didn’t have a grand plan to begin with – we just started picking up litter. We knew we had a responsibility to the islands and the communities to do something special, something that would protect the archipelago and empower the community. It took three years of dreaming up plans and raising funds before we were ready to begin.
Did you have any experience in building a hotel business?
None at all! Rory worked in advertising and I worked in design. In the end, that allowed Rory to take over the business side whilst I took creative control of the resort’s design. It’s been a learning experience! Particularly in the beginning, there was a lot of trial and error; we made mistakes and encountered a lot of unexpected obstacles. As anyone who’s started a business—or pursed any big goal—knows, there were times when we were exhausted and wondered if it would all come together. But there were also times of pure exhilaration and joy. We’ve learned and grown so much, met wonderful people and received help when we least expected it. When we step back and look at the islands and the resort today, all the adventures—and misadventures!— have been worth it.
How did you work out how to make a luxury resort sustainable?
We knew we wanted to make the hotel as sustainable as possible, so we started by building with reclaimed materials – sinks made from recycled oil drums and floor boards made from old fishing boats, still revealing flashes of turquoise paint. At the same time, we knew that everything had to be truly beautiful, so we worked with artisans and master craftsmen from throughout Cambodia and the surrounding area to create interiors which are at once rustic, eco-friendly and utterly luxurious. Of course, a lot of research went into developing sustainability behind-the-scenes, too—water filtration, food sourcing, etc.
How does Song Saa get involved with the local community?
Alongside the resort, we created the Song Saa Foundation. This began with the creation of Cambodia’s first marine reserve, which we’ve since vastly expanded. Today, we provide education in farming and sustainable practices, we monitor and protect the marine environment and our Boat of Hope project provides medical outreach to remote communities throughout the archipelago.
You designed the interiors of the hotel yourself. What inspired your choices and style?
I think design should tell a story, and I wanted to imbue Song Saa Private Island with a strong sense of place – to root it in the Koh Rong archipelago. I knew that the interiors had to reflect the lush jungle, the turquoise waters, the fishing communities and the peaceful Buddhist spirit. But style was only half of it—aesthetics have to be done with integrity. Through recycling local materials, we were able to reflect the surroundings in a sustainable way, whilst working with local artisans allowed us to create beautiful objects whilst supporting the community. This sense of community symbiosis was key to the design process.
You are about to launch your own collection – can you give us any sneak peeks into what is to come?
Lots of gorgeous hand-woven textiles created in collaboration with local artisans. The collection will bring together the culture and heritage of Cambodia—the craftsmanship, natural materials and intricate designs—with a very modern style. Also, these local artisans are primarily women, which is amazing. It’s incredibly important to empower women in these communities and I love that I get to collaborate with creative minds from other cultures.
What do you think the future holds for Song Saa?
We have recently rebranded as the Song Saa Collective, which allows us to integrate every aspect of what we do—from Song Saa Private Island to the Foundation to exciting new solar projects and more—under one umbrella. The ethical fashion collection is in progress, and we’re already working on the next big addition to the Song Saa family: a 200-hectare+ bio-reserve outside Siem Reap which will include a Song Saa resort, ecological and cultural conservation initiatives and a solar project to power local communities.