Healing sessions of spa treatments: rejuvenating salt scrubs, cocoon-like, mineral-rich mud masks, scalp and full body massages using an array of oils and elixirs. Overlooking the serene, cerulean waters of the Gulf of Siam from your private pool villa. Day beds. Jasmine petals strewn around the room. Sounds pretty idyllic.
If that’s not enough zen for you, how about seven or 14-day detoxification diets, feasting on “slow food” and “raw” meals sourced entirely from the resorts’ organic farm. A rigorous, pre-departure consultation with staff on whether you’re there to lose weight, get rid of wrinkles or to de-stress. A qualified nurse on hand to supervise nano-technology skin rejuvenation, light therapy and oxygen facials. A meditation cave. Venerable meditation gurus guiding intensive classes.
The latest craze of “wellness” tourism, which has seen travelers descend, and max out credit cards, on trendy Balinese-type boutique sanctuaries has now hit Cambodia, in the shape of a new, private island retreat which promises such “lifestyle itineraries”as those listed above on Koh Krabaey, just a 20-minute speed boat ride from Sihanoukville. Named the Akaryn Koh Krabeay Retreat & Spa, the place is set to open in 2015, the resort’s management announced last week.
“You’ll literally get away from the world and come out 10 years younger in the mind and the body,” the resort’s Thai-born manager, Anchalika Kijkanakorn, said from her Bangkok home.
As the founder and owner of opulent, boutique hotel chain, Akaryn Hospitality Management Services (AHMS), which includes four resorts in private nooks of Phuket, Koh Samui and Paknampran Bay, Kijkanakorn is perhaps in the prime position to identify the penchants of the travelling elite– she was recently elected as chair of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the first female and the first from Asia.
Although designs and blueprints were still being finalised, rooms will be not be spared the lavish treatment: she said she’ll incorporate the aesthetics of her Thai resorts – in-room libraries, iPod docks, private plunge pools.
A “very famous, Parisian designer” had been secured for the resorts’ interior design and staff uniforms, Kijkanakorn said, remaining elusive but confiding that he had recently travelled to Cambodia “to get a feel for it”.
“I think the world is very, very small now, our clients will be from around the globe…not defined by a location,” she said.
Ageing baby boomers – of which she, in her forties, counts herself one – are a target.
“I don’t think this idea of smaller, boutique travel becoming popular is something new..that idea of wanting the authentic, something different to day to day life.…personally I’ve always searched for that...it’s just that in this age, with the internet, the playing field has been levelled between smaller, luxury hotels and the big luxury hotel chains, like the Four Seasons and the Sofitel. People are constantly travelling for business now and when they go on holidays don’t want to walk into the Hilton and know the layout of the furniture or where a light switch is.”
On the other hand, she said she expected a new generation of Cambodian tourists to travel to Koh Krabeay .“There is a growing, growing middle to upper class [in Cambodia], as you see in Thailand. Thailand has some leading cosmetic hospitals and wellness centres and retreats that, actually, are seeing a lot of wealthier Cambodians, Vietnamese and Burmese. I think that particular Khmer demographic will be interested in Koh Krabeau,” she said.
It would be fair to say Kijkanakorn has her finger on the pulse. Raised in Bangkok until she was 13, she returned home to Thailand in 2003 after decades of study abroad and a relentless career working in acquisitions and audits for GE, the financial services arm of industrial giant General Electric. Spurred on by what she called “an early mid-life crisis”, Kijkanakorn then transformed her Paknampran Bay family holiday home, two hours drive from Bangkok, into the chic Hua Hin Pranburi resort.
It was voted as one of the world’s best resorts by Conde Naste Traveler in its first year. Further resorts in Phuket and Koh Samui have swept up a swag of industry awards: the latter voted best new luxury hotel last year at the World Luxury Hotel awards, the former winning best small hotel at the International Hotel Awards.
Kijkanakorn said AHMS would not own the Koh Krabeay resort – she was approached by an expatriate business man and his partners “who wished to remain anonymous, who had bought the island from the government” and who “wanted to create something extraordinary.”
“The location is ideal, close to Sihanoukville yet untouched, a secret beach. The trees are really dense, we won’t cut any down…it’s a very spiritual place…the first time I saw it I felt I’d arrived at a paradise island…[but] sustainability and environmental preservation are our watchwords…If we’re smart about it we should be able to benefit from nature for a long time.”
She said Koh Krabeay was small –there were no local villages on the islands – and that she envisaged the 40-odd pool villas on the private island to be weaved into the foliage and landscape – a design Cambodia’s only private island resort, Song Saa, has employed.
Kijkanakorn said marine conservation would be “very present” in the development’s environmental and sustainability efforts. A recent diving trip in Myanmar, around the islands sprinkled just north of Ranong, revealed the bitter impact of illegal dynamite fishing.
“There were just millions of dead fish lining the ocean floor. Devastating. You have to fight it where it starts; you can’t come in as a foreigner or developer and just say “stop”. You need to work with the local community…show them alternative fishing techniques or jobs.”
In Phuket, she has a research centre working on endangered marine life. Another of her projects has used a vegetable garden incentive and are working with locals to farm fish.
“Luxury treading lightly” is the Song Saa’s catchphrase; “barefoot luxury’ is Akaryn Koh Krabeay’s. How likely is it that this new addition will do more good than harm?
According to Paul Ferber, director and founder of Marine Conservation Cambodia, one of the country’s oldest marine conservation groups which has conducted surveys around the swathes of Sihaoukville’s coastline and the nearby islands, the ocean around Koh Krabeay had been “absolutely trashed.”
“Coral is almost non-existent, what there is left is incredibly damaged by dynamite fishing… there is a very large amount of degradation, the diversity and abundance of fish is very low and high levels of sedimentation which has smothered most of the corals.”
He said if resorts with the catchphrase of “high end, low impact” developed in the right way, it could be a blessing for Cambodia’s marine life.
“If these groups come in and do conservation this is definitely a benefit – because nobody is doing it around Koh Krabeay and Ream national park. If they come in and deter illegal trawling, and get the support of the fisheries department, they will be a very welcome addition,” he said.
However Berry Mulligan, the project manager for Flora and Fauna’s coastal and marine conservation project – who were working on the establishment of the country’s first Marine Fisheries Management Area (MFMA) around the islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloan- said looking at construction impacts and waste management was necessary for the new resort, particularly as it is near a National Park.
“Poorly planned coastal development poses a significant threat to the marine environment in Cambodia, but if well designed, tourism projects such as this have the potential to protect natural resources and benefit local communities. Some resorts are seeking to protect the marine environment - the 5.5ha marine reserve set up around Song Saa Private Island is an example.”
For Rory Hunter, Song Saa’s Chairman, an injection of similar style resorts “could only be a good thing – but they have to be sold right if they are to be a success.
“There’s a huge destination job [required] from a marketing perspective…it’ll mean more dollars spent on marketing Cambodian islands, educating the world on what this coastline has to offer.”