It all began in 2005, when we arrived in Cambodia for a year-long hiatus. We had come from Australia with plans to continue on to New York after a year, where Rory would resume his role as an ad exec. But fate, as they say, had other plans, and our stint in Phnom Penh ended up being the start of a lifelong adventure.
The catalyst for our dramatic change of heart was a sailing trip around Koh Rong Archipelago in early 2006. We had rented an old wooden fishing boat and were exploring the archipelago’s islands, meeting its inhabitants and sleeping under its stars. We spent two weeks visiting various islands and beaches, and it seemed we had the entire archipelago to ourselves.
On the last day of our trip, we stopped in at a little fishing village on a tiny island. We got chatting to the family who lived there – we were the first foreigners they’d ever met. We decided to have a meal with them, and by the time our plates were empty, they’d asked us if we wanted to buy the island! It was going for a steal at USD15,000, as they were keen to return to the mainland. To say we were surprised is an understatement. But after some soul-searching we decided to take a chance – this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, after all. So, a week later we were back, carrying a little brown paper bag full of money. We got the local Navy to witness the sale — which also included the adjacent twin island — and the Song Saa adventure began!
Little did we know of the challenges that lay ahead. Not only were the islands and the surrounding reefs in a state of disrepair, we were looking at three years of dealings with all levels of the Cambodian government before we were granted a 99-year lease (only the second company to do so). Perhaps most importantly, we had to answer a fundamental question: what on earth do you do with two islands in Cambodia?
As the first company to own islands in Cambodia, we felt a deep sense of responsibility to protect the environment and local communities and set a benchmark for the local tourism industry. As we were negotiating the lease, we were simultaneously cleaning the islands up – both the land and the reefs. Through this experience, we learned first-hand the challenges the ecosystem faced through over-fishing. We saw the hardships of the local villagers, who had no source of livelihood and no way to break out of the poverty cycle.
We saw the opportunity for us to bring something to the community and to do something that would protect the Koh Rong Archipelago. Thus, Song Saa was conceptualised.
Unfortunately, you can’t build a resort on passion and good intentions alone. There was not much money left after buying the twin islands, so to bring our resort to life we needed capital. We spent three years raising funds, putting together a project team and completing the resort designs.
Just as we were about to begin construction, we got some terrible news: Melita was diagnosed with cancer. She would need major surgery and 12 months of treatments. With just one phone call our dreams and our hearts were shattered and we were on the next plane back to Australia to fight another battle. If that wasn’t enough, later that month, Lehman Brothers crashed, the financial crisis began and our major investors pulled out.
What could’ve been the end of the story was just a plot twist. Against all odds, Mel’s treatment was a success. Three months after returning to Australia, we were told she’d “live to be a little old lady”. Not only did we have our life back, we were able to dream again!
Against all recommendations from friends and family, we decided to go back to Cambodia. We had each other and our two little islands (and not much else) and decided to go back and give it another try, this time doing it all ourselves. Mel would design the entire resort and we would set up our own hotel management company (Song Saa Resorts Limited) to run it. What did we have to lose?
From her hospital bed, Mel started sketching while Rory started to cobble together a business plan. We headed back to Cambodia in February 2009 and 12 months later we had new investment partners on board, and our hotel completely designed and under construction. The hotel you see today opened 18 months later.
None of it was easy. We lived with our hearts in our mouths for so many years, but we always had each other for support and somehow our dreams came true.
As we embark on the next chapter of our Song Saa adventure, we’d love to keep sharing our journey with you. Follow us on social media to stay up to date with all our projects. Our latest venture – the Song Saa Reserve – is situated at Banteay Srey in the Siem Reap region; a 400-hectare eco-tourism project! Or better still, come stay with us at Song Saa Private Island or volunteer with the Song Saa Foundation, and let the Koh Rong Archipelago touch your heart as it did ours.
Mel & Rory