09 Jul 2012
Aki Ra was a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge. After the war, he learnt how to clear landmines, working first with the UN and then on his own. Nearly 20 years later, he’s still clearing mines and runs the Cambodia Landmine Museum just outside Siem Reap, as well as a residential school for at-risk children.
Sovann Koth was a child soldier in the Cambodian army, often going without food or water. He was told that if the Khmer Rouge caught him, they would eat him. Koth is now a tour guide and hopes to open a hotel one day.
I went to Cambodia to see the temples, but as I watched the sun rise at Angkor Wat on my last morning, it was Aki Ra, Sovann Koth and the many like them who occupied my thoughts. Yes, the temples are beautiful and awe-inspiring, but I found the descendants of those who built them over 800 years ago more so.
Like many, I suspect, my recollections of what happened in Cambodia in the Seventies and Eighties were pretty vague. And the more I read about the genocide, the civil war, the disease and destruction, the less certain I felt about going. Would its grisly past insinuate itself into its present?
Well, how could it not – though my introduction to Cambodia was gentle enough. Song Saa is a new 27-villa resort spread over two tiny islands in the Gulf of Thailand. It offers the type of barefoot luxury that is common in the Indian Ocean but which, for now at least, is unique in Cambodia. Building it has been a labour of love for its Australian owners, Melita and Rory Hunter. They have a long association with the country and were determined to provide luxury that trod lightly on the environment, was in harmony with nature and benefited the local community. The result is a special resort – barely visible from the sea – with great food (the chef used to work on North Island in the Seychelles where the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge spent their honeymoon), fabulous villas designed by Melita, a beautiful beach, a holistic spa and unfailingly charming staff.