Alila Villas Koh Russey review: the other Cambodia, away from frantic Angkor Wat
In a steamy corner of Indochina, away from the well-trodden temples and tangled vines of Angkor Wat, there lies another Cambodia
If you’re looking for serenity, forget the idylls of Thailand and Vietnam and decamp instead to the far-flung Koh Rong archipelago just off the west coast of Cambodia.
The gateway to this paradise is the town of Sihanoukville, which emerged in 1955 during French colonial times. A 10-minute wind-in-your-hair boat ride from the Sihanoukville mainland will take you to the remote Koh Russey, a private island close to the forest-flanked mountains of Bokor National Park. Once a navy outpost, this unspoilt emerald atoll in the heart of the Cambodian Riviera is now a secret escape for those in the know.
On the island is the newly opened Alila Villas Koh Russey, the latest five-star ecological escape from Singaporean architect Chioh-Hui Goh. Thanks to Alila’s strong conservationist philosophy, the resort’s gunmetal grey minimalist structures rise discreetly from some 60-acres of jungle and are virtually invisible from the sea.
Alila’s commitment to a light environmental footprint includes a 200m fishing exclusion zone around the property to preserve marine life and an on-site nursery protecting more than 20 species of indigenous trees. Australia-based tourism advisory group EarthCheck recently awarded the property their highest level of certification - a first for a Cambodian hotel.
The 50-pavilion, 13-villa boutique hideaway is distinctively Khmer in design, from the Angkor Wat-shaped terraced pools to the flat-roofed geometric buildings and open-air latticed reception.
Inside the villas and pavilions, hardwood floors meet floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows offering a calming, luminous ambience. The Zen-like simplicity extends to the sleekly curated decor - think woven silks, colourful Cambodian Ikat cushions, volcanic stone, expansive rainforest showers and deep freestanding bathtubs. This is a soigné jungle experience with conservation and style at heart.
There are two restaurants - Horizon, which is on the elegant end of the spectrum, and the Beach Shack, which offers more laidback, sandy floored vibes.
Keen to support Cambodian enterprise and reduce food miles, chef Christophe Pentzlin works with local suppliers and ingredients plucked straight from their own organic garden.
Horizon’s menu is predominantly French fusion with an a la carte breakfast offering. The Beach Shack offers all-day dining with more of a traditional Khmer focus, as well as whatever fish and seafood was caught that day. Cooked to perfection on the open grill, naturellment.
The jewel-in-the-crown is Alila’s private 1.2 km stretch of copper-sand beach, shaded by native coconut and iron wood trees.
The island is also blanketed in a thick forest of bamboo, and jungle walks are easily arranged. It’s easy to sink into a blissfully horizontal way of life here, alternating between the infinity pool, sandy-floored beach bar and sun-loungers dotted among slender palms. However, if you’re looking for adventure, head out early one morning in one of the kayaks helpfully moored up on the beach and live out your castaway fantasies.
If you’re seeking immersive Cambodian experiences, there are a host of must-visit destinations easily reachable from the island. Find peace (and great views), at the local pagoda in Ream, where traditional Buddhist singing and sweet smouldering incense fill the air. We kneeled before saffron-robed monks as they chanted blessings and fastened red strings around our wrists to ward off evil spirits.
After, soak up the rich spiritual history and wander round the statues sculpted by locals from mountain stone.
The sleepy town of Kampot is a two hour drive from Sianoukville and home to La Plantation, an organic pepper farm run by Frenchwoman Nathalie Chaboche and her Belgian husband, Guy Porre.
Hallowed ground for pepper growing since the 13th century (most of Europe was obsessed with Kampot pepper), the Khmer Rouge uprooted most of the vines in the 1970s in favour of proletarian rice.
La Plantation is restoring Cambodian pepper to its former glory - pungent plants entwine 22,000 posts on a 20-hectare rolling landscape dotted with lazing water buffalos, who can transport you by cart around the local villages.
Similar to growing wine, the terroir of the land is a big factor - each harvest is influenced by the soil, climate, seed and farmer. We sipped fresh coconut water while an animated Guy told us of Kampot’s “premier cru” status.
We learnt that the unique flavour is in part due to the rich quartz content in the soil of the foothills of the Elephant Mountains and the ocean minerals that drift in on the breezes from the Gulf of Thailand. A social and sustainable agritourism project, the farm has also funded a nearby school for 95 children as well as building roads and developing local infrastructure.
If you buy one thing from this feel-good enterprise, make it the hand-harvested salted Kampot pepper - fermented green peppercorns laced with Fleur de Sel.
Forty-one years on from the end of the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, Cambodia is undergoing a huge resurgence. Driven in part by the energy and optimism of its predominately young population (65% are under 30), today the country is outward-looking and focussed on its future.
For the past decade, the country has largely been a stopover for travellers on their way to Ankor Wat, leaving the coastal islands and jungle mountains in the south and west largely ignored. For the moment, they remain under-developed, offering the perfect Edenic escape.
Holing up here on Koh Russey, far away from monolithic resorts and mass tourism is the biggest luxury - the five-star flourish is a bonus.
Rates from £239 based on two sharing a Garden Pavilion on a B&B basis. Price includes return island transfers.
To book, visit alilahotels.com/kohrussey.
Flights with Thai Airways from London to Cambodia start from £574 per person. To book, go to thaiairways.com.