Song Saa private island, Cambodia

When I was a child my holidays were rather different to how I travel today. Back then I didn’t have to share my shower with baby frogs, nor did I think that efficiently killing a cockroach would be something I would look for in a man – but I did have to share a caravan with my snoring dad.

No, growing up I did not visit far flung places – instead we spent most summers at holiday camps on the south coast of England where we would enter dancing and fancy dress competitions in the club room in the evenings and spend entire days at indoor swimming pools. It was brilliant. And the highlight of every night came in the form of a pack of bacon-flavoured Frazzles and a glass bottle of Orangina. Or, if we won the dancing competition, two packs of Frazzles.

As I got older and ventured further afield the highlight of my holidays soon became a 50p bottle of local beer and bowl of curry at a bustling night market in a tropical climate.

But then I found myself on a luxury private island. And everything changed.

Accompanied by my dear pal Tanya, we boarded a speed boat for Song Saa island off the south coast of Cambodia.

This was, I must add, all in the name of ‘work’. In my role as a travel consultant for a London-based company I am currently touring Cambodia and Vietnam in search of the best places to visit before launching holidays here. And so it was, for that morning’s commute, we boarded a speed boat and enjoyed a complimentary diet coke.

Tanya riding out to Song Saa... speed boat for two dah-ling

Tanya riding out to Song Saa… speed boat for two dah-ling

The island came into view. Dense tropical jungle, pure white sands and water so clear that even snorkels are redundant. We gasped a little bit and refrained from doing our We-Have-24-Hours-On-A-Private-Tropical-Island-Dance that would, it transpired, come out later.

Instead we took a tour around the island with Ruth, the resident manager, gushing how surely she had the most amazing job in the world.

We popped into the bar and restaurant that sit on stilts over the water, checked out the isolated and serene beach areas, passed the water sports centre and took a brief look at the gym with floor to ceiling windows boasting magnificent views of the ocean.

Song Saa bar area

But then we reached our home for the night and suddenly I realised how people could visit this stunning island and barely leave their villa.

Tucked into the jungle foliage of the island but looking over the Gulf of Thailand we stepped into our villa to be greeted with a living room of giant proportions, decked out in beautiful woods, that felt like an extension of the island’s natural beauty.

The huge driftwood flower box that stretched the length of the living room was full of tropical plants, the colourful mismatched tin lampshade was made from old oil tanks at sea and a collection of canvas photo-prints of seaweed and driftwood in water (taken by the owner himself) were hypnotic. Every little detail was beautiful.

Song saa 2 bedroom villa


But as I stared through the huge French doors that led out onto our private swimming pool and terrace area, the wall at the back of the living room was being pushed away to reveal a big shiny kitchen area. There was magic everywhere.

Song saa kitchen

On the side in our kitchen lay all the ingredients (and hand-written instructions) to help us make the perfect island mojitos (lemongrass infused vodka replaces rum here).

Mojito instructions at song saa

And on the other side sat glass bottles of gin, vodka, whiskey and wine. Meanwhile the ‘mini bar’, a full length fridge and freezer was full to the brim of soft drinks, white wine and sparkling wine. There was nothing mini about it.

gin vodka whisky

Muttering incomprehensible words about mojitos, gin and lemongrass, we walked into our separate bedrooms. (I think this was Tanya’s personal highlight after spending the last couple of weeks fabricating stories of me being a bad-duvet-snatching-bed-partner).

In perfect symmetry, our over-sized bedrooms both led off from the lounge on separate sides. Cue more gasps.

bedroom song saa

Bedroom at song saa

Get this: Underneath my huge four-poster double bed, draped with what I’m going to tell you was probably silk (why not?), I found fairy lights. They were not visible at all unless you got on your back and crawled under the bed, which is what all VIP guests do on a private island I am reliably informed, but once under there you could see fairy lights. The result for the rest of the guests that don’t crawl under their beds? A gorgeous soft glow emanating from the ground below the bed.

I immediately wanted to drink mojitos under my bed.

Huge floor-to-ceiling old wooden doors led onto our bathrooms, which were perhaps my most favourite rooms in our new island mansion. One entire half of the bathroom was just glass looking out to the jungle and ocean beyond – with a huge sunken bath and three showers (one outside) to indulge in. Three showers each.

bathroom song saa

bathroom song saa cambodia

bathroom song saa

That means we had six showers between us and two huge bath tubs. I quickly worked out that we would need to be showering and bathing every few hours to use them all. And what a waste to not use them all.

My brain went: “Shower. Mojito. Bath. Pool. Mojito. Sit under bed. Shower. Mojito.”

Back in the kitchen, a beautiful leather bound menu sat on the work surface and my mouth started watering within seconds of flicking through it.

“Oh God, when am I going to have time to eat?,” I groaned to myself. My plan would need a re-think.

As if reading my thoughts, Ruth (with the amazing job) confirmed that all food and drinks, except the wines and spirits on their reserve list, were included.


My eyes flicked to the gin, the lemongrass-infused vodka, the sparkling wine, the menu, the private pool, the bed… And I felt my anxiety levels raise. There was so much to do. So we did the only thing that made sense. And ran into our pool (with glasses of wine.)

(Not before posing on all the furniture)

(Not before posing on all the furniture)

But Song Saa is not all about indulgence, it also does some fab work on Koh Rong, its neighbouring island where it works with some of the communities there. This corner of the world has huge issues with litter and the Song Saa Foundation have done incredible work in educating people about how to dispose of rubbish and keep their beautiful island clean. They support the local school there and even have a little nursery where people can get chilli plants and other start-up plants and flowers for their garden.

We spent a couple of fascinating hours over there before racing back over to Song Saa for some sundowners. Sparkling mojitos offset the sinking Asian sun perfectly as we chatted away to Ruth in over-sized bean bags on the edge of the ocean.

sunset at song saa cambodia

Dinner, breakfast and lunch were so good that they are each worthy of their own blog posts. Although if I did that I don’t think I’d have any friends left – so for now I’ll just say the red snapper was one of the juiciest I’ve ever sampled.

That night Tanya and I hosted a party in the villa. With different sound systems in each room, Tanya opted for 1970s rock and I went for a more eclectic electric vibe. We danced between the rooms, danced in our plunge pool and then danced in one of our huge oversized baths, which we decided could comfortably fit four people in.

We danced like we were children again. We danced like no one was watching. No one was. There were no Frazzles or Orangina in sight – but the sparkling wine and turn-down treat of cookies did just fine. It was magical.


Travel Tips

Song Saa is about a half an hour speedboat from Sihanoukville on the south coast of Cambodia.

To enquire about booking a trip to Song Saa or about tailor-made holidays in Cambodia contact me at Fleewinter.

Disclaimer: I visited this resort as part of my research as a travel consultant. My views remain my own – and this blog remains my personal account of my travels – but every now and then I will tell you about some of my the very special places that I visit as part of my work.

Battambang, Cambodia: The Bamboo Train

I must confess to being a bit of a train geek. I find everything about them rather fascinating; from the excitable atmosphere of busy stations, to the big clocks hanging from high ceilinged railway halls that make for strangely intimate meeting spots across the world – and the people, oh the people watching on trains is a favourite past-time.

My favourite train is the Eurostar, and so it felt like an appropriate way to begin our overland adventure to Vietnam six months ago. There’s something rather Parisian about the whole affair; champagne and air kissing under the huge arched ceiling of St Pancras – and when you cross through to departures you can’t help but feel like you’ve discovered a whole new side of the train station that is invisible to commuters.

It’s nothing short of marvellous. And don’t even get me started on the fact that really it’s like a giant submarine that’s hurtling along the ocean. If only they’d put a few windows in the tunnel for a spot of marine watching.

No train, I thought, could surely be better than the Eurostar. For no other train is taking you to the fairytale land of Croissants, bloody steaks and fine Bordeaux.

But, the other day I caught a train in Cambodia that forced me to re-evaluate.

Well I say ‘caught a train’ as if it was taking me somewhere but it wasn’t, not really. See there are no passenger trains in Cambodia. The streets are heaving with tuk-tuks and motorbikes but there is not a train in sight.

What do you mean this doesn't look like a train?!

What do you mean this doesn’t look like a train?!

Well, apart from the Bamboo Train that is. Hidden off the main tourist trail is a charming little town in the northwest called Battambang (not to be confused with the cake). No Battambang is far more delicious than Battenberg.

And rather randomly, its claim to fame is the bamboo train. The bamboo train is basically a bamboo raft with a lawn mower engine stuck to the back of it that hurtles down wonky train tracks that are kind of parallel.

You pile onto the ‘carriage’ and then sit back and let the ‘train driver’ do the work.


And I can honestly say it was one of the most fun things we’ve done on the trip so far. I am actually a little lost for words – it’s just hard to sum up being ‘rafted’ across what looks like a disused railway at 50 mph.

Every now and then when the rails looked particularly rusty we would be jolted forwards and clutch the little piece of wicker carpet laid under us a little harder.

But then in the horizon we saw oncoming traffic. Hurtling towards us on the same narrow track was another little bamboo raft carrying some bemused tourists.

Oncoming traffic on Bambu Train battambang

Slowly we all ground to a hault and stared at each other slightly bewildered.

This was a bit different to the country lanes near my parents’ house where a hardball stare is enough to send the other car reversing 100 yards back to the nearest ditch. Just as I was about to give my best ‘back up, love’ look our ‘train driver’ motioned for us to get off.

Within seconds our carriage (which rides the rails on a pair of dumb-bells in case you were wondering) was dismantled piece by piece and lying on the side of the railway.

Bambu train battambang dismantled

STEP ONE: Remove the carriage from the tracks, piece by piece.

Bambu train battambang dismantled

STEP TWO: Let the traffic pass and then get bemused tourist to try and put the carriage on backwards.


STEP THREE: Haul carriage back onto track…

STEP FOUR.... And relax.

STEP FOUR…. And relax.

We were off again. Off where exactly I’m not sure. The tracks were laid in the 1930s in French colonial times but all the trains were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s, which led local people to construct the bamboo trains using traditional methods to help get them into town easier. While the trains are still used by some locals today, they have been largely replaced by the growing number of vehicles on the road.

But for us it was definitely all about the journey rather than the destination, as we ended up an hour later where we had begun. But as far as train rides go I think this may just have been the most memorable.

A ride with a view.

A ride with a view.


Fusion Maia, Da Nang, Vietnam: A Spa-tacular Breakfast

“Excuse me would you like some ice cream,” I hear over the sounds of crashing waves, interrupting daydreams of taking a bath in melted chocolate. I absentmindedly lift my hand to wave him off before suddenly remembering where I am.

For I am not on the local beach in Hoi An, Central Vietnam where women stroll the shores selling their wares, I am on a private beach at a luxury resort. There are no hawkers here.

Like that moment in a film when the dreamy music screeches to a dramatic hault, I open my eyes to find a smiling man offering me a little pot of creamy goodness.

“Cookies and cream,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. I thumped Kate (my old Uni buddy, new colleague and current travel partner) awake.

“Free cookies and cream ice cream,” I hissed. Two seconds later she was upright, spoon in mouth as the man made his way to the next lucky couple further down the beach.

“Bloody fabulous, I could get used to this,” I managed between mouthfuls of the deliciously cool cream as it melted in my mouth.

Welcome to Fusion Maia, Da Nang. And it’s not just the ice cream that’s free… So are the spa treatments. Yes, you heard me correctly – I am staying at an all inclusive spa resort.

I have learnt three things about myself as a direct result of this indulgence:

1) I have ticklish calves. I mean seriously, it is acceptable for feet to be ticklish but legs – really?! It felt nothing short of inappropriate to giggle my way through the leg part of my all-over body massage.

2) Even more horrifying – apparently I have a ticklish forehead. There I am surrounded by incredible smells enjoying a luxurious facial and the poor man goes to touch my forehead and the giggling starts up again.

3) My feet aren’t ticklish – I was so pleased about this that I did not just have one foot massage but two, as if to prove just how hardy my stumps are. Yes, they did very well. I was proud of them.

But Fusion Maia is so much more than just having your body parts tickled (all day every day), as wonderful as that is.

As we walked down the long driveway covered in greenery and bamboo shrubbery, we instantly felt a little bit calmer. As we stepped inside the airy reception area, we instantly felt welcomed (by a very charming man who we kind of wanted to invite for dinner), and as we entered our private pool villa, we instantly knew we never wanted to leave.

Fusion Maia pool villa


Fusion Maia pool villa


fusion maia vietnam


fusion maia bathroom

Every villa here has a private pool, perfect for late night plunges after a gin or three.

Fusion Maia private pool

Meanwhile the main pool offers the stunning backdrop of Da Nang beach.


And it was all rather wonderful. Kate and I were still working (which means running around inspecting other handsome hotels) but somehow coming back to all of this made it feel a little less like work and well, a little more like paradise.

But then we had breakfast and suddenly I was not just in Paradise. I was floating in the clouds on a golden, pastry encrusted throne wearing a crown of tropical fruit. It was magical.

The gorgeous lantern-adorned dining room was transformed with a huge buffet area in centre stage where chefs performed their magic on eggs and waffles and what-not, and where guests shuffled around in trance-like food comas.

I walked over slowly, thinking carefully about what I might want to eat. But then as I made my approach my mind started blurring – I saw chocolate croissants on top of yoghurts, sitting in roasted ham boats floating in rivers of cucumber juice. Yes cucumber juice. My mind, my mouth, my eyes didn’t know what to do. My hands started reaching out for things, trying to grab at pretty little pieces of food. I realised I had been holding my breath and I felt a little light headed.

There was only one thing to do. I forced myself to step away, breath deeply and sternly reminded myself I had a full hour for breakfast. There was no rush. I could have 10 courses if I wanted.

And so I did. I started with a fruit jelly. The tiny triangle of jelly (a perfect mouthful) broke away to reveal little chunks of fresh fruit that oozed in their juices. It sort of exploded in your mouth like one of those Fruit Burst sweets, albeit a posh one.


Then came the sweet, stewed muesli and passionfruit compote-topped yoghurt that tasted every bit as good as it looked. And dim sum. And passion fruit, which I will have you know made a surprisingly good combination.

Ribbet collage2

And then came the eggs benedict, a proud display of perfectly runny eggs on a thick chunk of smoked ham, alongside Kate’s spinach soufflé with salmon.



We were only about 40 minutes in at this point. Despite the breakfast buffet only having 20 minutes of life left in it, the long tables were still full to the brim of fresh fruit, jugs of smoothies, mini glass jars of homemade baked beans and the smoothest, creamiest peanut butter I’ve ever sampled.

Ribbet collage3

Try as we might, and try we did, the tables just never emptied. It was like the scene from the Lost Boys’ imaginary feast in Peter Pan. But amazingly, the tables stayed immaculate. After accidentally sloshing juice all over the juice bar, I returned 20 seconds later to find the stainless steel surface sparkling and shimmering once more.

All too soon it was time for the last round of the great feast. It was a tough choice to call.

With a whole section of homemade cakes and pastries and an already bulging belly I opted for a deliciously moist chocolate croissant and a macchiato to wash it down with.


But if you’re mentally racking up all the calories in my ‘best hotel breakfast ever’ (yes Fusion Maia wins the title), fret not. Because I was booked into the ‘super slimmer’ hip and stomach massage to ‘tone up’ before lunch. See, there’s really nothing they haven’t thought of. Apart from chocolate baths that is – I’m still on the look for one of those.

Travel Tips

Fusion Maia is on the beach in Da Nang and is just 30 minutes away from the centre of Hoi An (the resort runs shuttle buses to and from town throughout the day).

The resort has one, two and three bed villas, which radiate a chic minimalist, calming ambience. All villas have pools and prices start from about $390 per night in the off-season. To enquire about booking a trip to Fusion Maia or tailor-made holidays contact me at Fleewinter.

Disclaimer: I visited this resort as part of my research as a travel consultant. My views remain my own – and this blog remains my personal account of my travels – but every now and then I will tell you about some of my the very special places that I visit as part of my work.

Sunset Snaps: Ninh Binh, Vietnam

Some journeys have the ability to make you question everything you are doing. I was in a good mood, actually a great mood – it was Sunday and I had started my morning with 50 laps in the swimming pool followed by a breakfast of mammoth proportions (I swim to eat).

But then it was time to travel again. So I followed my almost daily ritual of squeezing all my belongings back into my groaning rucksack, did the “sweep” to ensure nothing was left behind (after losing 50% of my clothes to date in various dormitories across central asia) and swung it over my shoulder before buckling the beast up around my waist. Time to hit the road again.

This time I was travelling from Halong Bay to Ninh Binh in Vietnam. It is, it would appear, a route less travelled and so after being surrounded by Australian accents ever since I stepped off the train in Hanoi, I suddenly found myself the only English speaking gal on the bus.

It was refreshing. I practised my Vietnamese numbers as I paid for my ticket and decided that on the whole, I would actually be very proud of myself if I got to Ninh Binh – because this really was my first travelling solo experience. Since the boys headed down south to let me focus on work, I’ve kept myself busy with luxury cruises and being pampered in Hanoi.

But now it was just me and there was no one to ask where the bus was. The First Big Trip Without Matty and the Mongoose. A man nodded at me in the corner and stood up. I obviously did what any sensible lone female traveller would do and followed him. And sure enough he led me to a bus that said “Ninh Binh” and voila, I was aboard.

It was actually quite nice, spacious and had air conditioning.

“Things have improved in seven years,” I muttered to myself, recalling the cramped, sweaty buses Carly and I had taken when I was last here. I smartly opted for a single chair so I would not be forced to sit next to someone who would spend the next five hours inching their way onto my seat and settled down to do a spot of work as we pulled out of the bus station.

But I thought too soon and the bus started filling up. Men, women and children of all sizes kept streaming onto the little mini-bus and unlike in England when the bus has reached its maximum capacity, the drivers here do not just drive past wannabe passengers holding up their hands and shrugging their shoulders. No, no, in Vietnam no bus is too small and no passengers too many.

So they piled on and they piled on. Every little square meter of floor was soon filled with men and women, chattering away and sharing their stories. A women to the right of me settled back, put her head against my legs, nestled her hair right into my lap and got ready to have a snooze. Meanwhile, the man to her left nodded appreciatively at my day bag, which was squashed against my legs, before putting his entire body weight on it by using it as an arm rest. I am trying to get better at sharing after my experience in Hanoi, so I just smiled and told myself that my legs were improving the quality of the journey for them. And after all, I had a seat.

But then the air conditioning started dripping all over me. Dripping is not the right word. It started with a drip here, a drop there, and then it turned more into a tap that was unfortunately placed over my lap. I tried to turn it off but that didn’t best please the use-my-bag-as-an-arm-rest-why-don’t-you-man, so it was turned on again.

And so it was some four hours later that I emerged off the bus somewhat dishevelled, looking like I had had a bit of an accident after being deprived of toilet stops. But the journey was not over yet. I had to take about an hour’s motorbike journey to Cuc Phuong National Park where I was staying for the night.

There was Truong, smiling and waiting for me with a motorbike helmet. Within seconds he had shoved my beast of a rucksack between his legs at the front of the bike and I hopped on behind him. The wind was in my hair and slowly the urban sprawl of Ninh Binh dissipated away, replaced by fields of rice paddies and looming karsts on the horizon.

“Relax, let go of the bike, and take some pictures,” Truong suggested.

I unpeeled one hand from the bar at the back of the bike that I had been furiously clenching and attempted to remove the second. But it didn’t quite feel natural. So I put my free hand on my left hip and tried to look a bit cooler.

As the sun began to set, roadworks diverted us off the main road and through the backstreets of rural life where local villagers were frantically harvesting the rice, as if they might wake up tomorrow and find it all gone.

“The typhoon is coming,” Truong warned. “They must harvest their rice before the rain ruins it all.”

And it was a site to behold. Without even realising I had done it, both hands left the comfort of the bike, my day pack came swiftly off, the camera was promptly removed and the lens cap was shoved down my bra.


Ninh Binh Rice Harvesting

Rice Harvest Ninh Binh Vietnam

Harvesting Rice Vietnam

With no other tourist in sight, it was all mine to gawp at. And I did. I gawped and I snapped as we watched the sun sink behind the huge towering karsts and iluminate everything in its path.

Sunset Ninh Binh

Sunset Ninh Binh

Sunset Ninh Binh boat

To be honest I don’t know how Truong managed to keep his eyes on the road. But whenever I started squealing and snapping he would stop so I could hop off and take pictures of buffalos walking out of the water and other such delights. And then he would sit on his bike and soak it all up too.

mtorbike ninh binh

buffalo ninh binh vietnam


And then we were off again, for the final act of the Great Sun and his Sinking Ways.

Sunset Ninh Binh

Sunset Ninh Binh

And in the sun’s final minutes of the day a smokey haze filled the horizon as villagers burned the leftover rice straw.

Burning rice straw ninh binh vietnam

Burning rice straw ninh binh vietnam

And then finally we reached my destination but suddenly I was not quite so ready to be there.

“We’re here already?” I whined like a five year-old who had just been told she wouldn’t have another birthday for 364 days.

“I’ll be back for you tomorrow at 8.30am,” said Truong as he hauled my bag off the bike and carried it into the hotel reception for me.

And I grinned like a 30 year-old who had just been told her journey’s not over yet.

Travel Tips

The lovely Truong offers motorbike tours all around beautiful Ninh Binh and its surrounding areas. To book him email: I promise to update you on the next chapter!

World in Pictures: Halong Bay, Vietnam

The other day I stayed in a hotel that was plastered in photographs of Halong Bay. This was not particularly unusual in itself. The hotel was in Halong Bay after all. But the thing that confused me, and stopped me in my tracks, was the fact that every single photo was in black and white.

“But, what…?” I sort of spluttered to myself (this is what happens now I’m travelling solo – I have simply replaced my audience of Matty and The Mongoose with… myself).

“How can they turn these beautiful photos into black and white images, stripped of their colours,” I continued ranting to myself.

For the water in Halong Blay is not blue, or turquoise or any other standard water-colour. Oh no. It is green, emerald green. The water is coloured by the huge limestone karsts that tower out of it, which are also decorated in greenery as luscious shrubbery and trees sprout from the rock face.

It is a green beauty. And surely green beauties cannot be stripped of their colour I argued (to myself).

But then I couldn’t stop staring at the photos, each one captured another side of the bay – its alluring and mysterious side, the side that only looks more dramatic and impressive in thunder storms and fierce rain, and the side that intimidates me with its sheer size.

And suddenly it seemed so right that, that side of Halong Bay was being depicted that I walked straight back into my room and stripped all the colours from my pictures too.

“Why didn’t I think of this before,” I muttered to myself.

Halong Bay Vietnam

Halong Bay Vietnam


Halong Bay Vietnam

Treasure Junk in Halong Bay Vietnam




Halong Bay Vietnam



Floating village in Halong Bay Vietnam

Woman on bamboo boat in Halong Bay Vietnam


If you’re not convinced and are feeling a little colour-robbed then check out the originals on my Flickr stream here.