Swimwear is for Sissies: Champa Lodge, Kampot, Cambodia

As I waded into the crystal clear river fully dressed, towards Kanika, I thought to myself, “I don’t think normal travel consultants behave like this”.

I hadn’t even attempted to take off my clothes and change into swim wear. As I arrived at the Champa Lodge, a gorgeous little retreat near Kampot in Cambodia, I was immediately drawn towards the river.

The lodge is perched on the bend of a gorgeous river and there is even a small beach that leads into the clear shallow waters. That’s when I notice Kanika floating around in a lifejacket.

She waved me over enthusiastically and told me to join her.

“But I’m wearing my clothes,” I said motioning towards my silky skirt that I picked up in Hanoi for about £3 about three months ago and have worn ever since.

“Me too,” she said, now standing in the shallow water that only came up to her knees, revealing her t-shirt and denim shorts under the life-jacket.

My argument had been shot to pieces. It was so hot. The water was so inviting.

“Ok,” I said, throwing down my backpack and wading in. My skirt billowed around me, with huge water pockets floating to the surface and sticking to my legs at the same time. It was so cool and so refreshing.


Swim Wear is for Sissies

Here we are making a ‘heart’ with our fingers, which I have seen the cool kids do on Facebook. Unfortunately I am not quite achieving the desired look with my eyes closed.

It was around that time that Yan, who runs and owns the lodge with her Belgian husband Stephane, wandered over with my ‘welcome drink’, looking slightly bemused by my sudden river antics.

But, as I was about to find out, that’s The Champa Lodge for you. Anything goes.

The lodge has three gorgeous traditional Khmer houses on stilts – Yan and Stephane purchased them from other villages before dismantling and lovingly rebuilding them on their rather spectacular plot of land, which is surrounded by mountains, mangroves and rice paddies. While everything about their structure and design is original, the couple have kitted them out with plenty of little luxuries like piping hot power showers, funky square ceramic basins and even made-to-measure wooden furniture and big beds. Finishing touches include Khmer silk scarves strewn across the beds and fabulous photographs taken by friends of the family.

Inside one of the lovely Khmer houses

Inside one of the lovely Khmer houses

One of the 'posh plastered' rooms under one of the stilt houses

One of the ‘posh plastered’ rooms under one of the stilt houses

I was staying in the Sugar Palm Lodge, which has one big bedroom and en-suite upstairs with a huge comfy terrace overlooking the rice paddies, and a chill out zone equipped with hammocks under the stilts. Aptly named the Sugar Palm Lodge thanks to the towering trees to one side which a man climbs twice a day to collect sugar palm.

With plenty of work to catch up on I eyed up the daybeds on my terrace, which made for the perfect ‘office’. But with only 24 hours to experience this hidden gem of Cambodia, there was no time for such thoughts.

The office.

The office.

Instead, Stephane fixed a brand new engine to his local-style wooden boat, packed a cooler-bag of waters and beers, and together with his adorable five year-old daughter in tow we headed upstream. The river must be one of the cleanest I’ve ever seen, it feels more like a massive spring. As the sun lowered we passed the fishing boats heading down to spend the night at sea, and saw the shiny gold steeple of a pagoda emerge from the deep mass of mangroves.

It was about this point that Stephane’s ‘steering stick’ (I’m sure there’s a more technical name for this but you’re not going to find it here) floated downstream.

“Oh did you need that?” I asked naively. He nodded gravely. After scooping up a few bits of insufficient sticks of floating bamboo, there was only one thing for it. This time it was Stephane’s turn to jump in the river. There’s a theme here I thought as I held onto the mangroves trying to pull the boat round into the right direction.

In safe hands...

In safe hands…

That was just the beginning. Within a few hours we had dried off and were drinking ice cold Belgian beers and eating Stephane’s mother-in-law’s special Khmer Curry (which very much had a if-I-told-you-the-recipe-we’d-have-to-chain-you-to-our-kitchen-forever feeling). My favourite kind of curry.

By the time we had moved on to the 10% Belgian beverages, Stephane and Yan had convinced me that it would be a great idea to go caving and rock climbing the next day.

“Yeah, I’m going to conquer all my fears,” I slurred, clinking my bottle enthusiastically.

By morning, I cowardly traded in this experience for a 1.5 hour kayak trough the mangroves with a lovely Swedish family.

As we paddled through the tranquil waters, as if carving our way through a shiny mirror, we watched a group of women appeared from nowhere and wade through the river before disappearing into a mass of mangroves. They were, of course, fully dressed.

And I smiled to myself. Happiness is wading into a river with your clothes on and just not caring, I decided. And Champa Lodge is the perfect place to do it.

Travel Tips

If you would like to stay at Champa Lodge, or combine it as part of a holiday to Cambodia contact me at delia@fleewinter.com or click here to read more.

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.

Villa Romonea: Kep, Cambodia

Villa Romonea stands tall and proud on a beautiful spot besides the ocean on the southwest coast of Cambodia. Gleaming white, its modernist curves and angles reflect the strong rays of the early afternoon sun, making me reach for my sunglasses as I marvel at its smooth lines.


“It’s designed like a dragon,” explains Stephane, pointing towards one side of the property which protrudes out at the top. I squint to try and envisage the dragon a little bit better. “It’s all about Feng Shui,” he explains as we walked into the impressive hallway. The dragon is a sign of prosperity and good luck in Khmer culture, he continued, so the master bedroom is located in the dragon’s head.

As I listen my eyes try to take in the huge hallway, which is impossible without turning my head a full 180 degrees. A curvaceous sweeping staircase dominates the handsome, light and airy space, with a bannister weaving its way up the stairs and wiggling across the landing. Meanwhile on the ground floor, looking straight ahead through the large ceiling-to-floor glass doors, lies the infinity pool in spacious gardens with the ocean beyond.



This is an image of Cambodia in its heyday, a time not all that long ago – but before the country was ravaged with civil war and genocide. When Villa Romonea was built in 1968-69, Kep was the ultimate seaside retreat for the Khmer and French elite. More than 1,000 luxurious villas were positioned along the coast – each finer and grander than the last. Villa Romonea, designed by Lu Ban Hap, was one of the last ones to be built, so also one of the finest, Stephane adds with a sense of pride in his voice.

Today Stephane is the manager of this striking 6-bed hotel, which blends curves, angular lines and zig-zags seamlessly. When I met Stephane after a party of holidaymakers had just checked out, the doors and windows were all open allowing the air to circulate through the buildings and into the freshly cleaned bedrooms. There was some banging from the huge modernist kitchen to the right as the last of the plates were put away in preparation for the next guests.


“The kitchen is free for everyone to use,” he explained. It serves as the cooking space, the eating space, the ‘just hanging out’ space if you wish – in that way that only a truly fabulous, big kitchen can pull off. But if cooking on holiday is not your thing, then fret not – Stephane works with eight great seafood restaurants in the area that will deliver their freshest dishes piping hot.

But the villa has not always gleamed and shined in this way. If walls could talk, these walls would tell a rather more somber and tragic tale. Originally owned and built by a local woman who lived nearby, she only lived in the building a few years before the Khmer Rouge invaded. Along with most locals, who had a degree of wealth or education at the time and did not manage to flee, she was executed by the brutal soldiers who claimed to be ‘liberating’ the country under Polpot’s crazed regime.

Over the course of just four years, from 1975 – 1979, the Khmer Rouge wiped out almost two million people – almost a quarter of Cambodia’s population. The troops rolled into Phnom Penh ordering the city to be evacuated, claiming ‘American bombing’ was imminent. Families packed small bags and made their way out to the country by whatever means they could – those that were lucky enough to have vehicles only got as far as petrol would allow before they joined their fellow evacuees on foot.

After walking for days, even weeks, thousands of citizens found themselves completely displaced, families torn apart, children lost. Those with the wrong accents or skin a shade lighter than the rest would fare the worst. The victims who were not bludgeoned or shot to death died from disease, starvation or sheer exhaustion in labour camps in the years to come.

But Villa Romonea stood her ground. Her owner was executed, and her children are said to have fleed successfully but she stayed put. Her white paint lost its shine, the walls soon bore the wounds of artillery fire and instead of a home of peace, she became a military base for the team of Khmer and Vietnamese soldiers who would eventually emerge triumphant over the Khmer Rouge.

She saw it all. And like all Cambodians that survived these atrocities she emerged battered and bruised.

Looking at pictures of the villa, taken just seven years ago before renovation work took place, it’s hard to believe I was sitting in the very same place. The pictures reminded me of a skeleton. Her now pristine white walls were stained black with dark holes for windows, like sockets without eyes. Some parts of the walls were incomplete, although Stephane said largely the structure remained unscathed. To me the pictures showed a building that looked more suitable for demolition than resurrection.

But I suppose that’s Cambodia in a nutshell today. Coming from Vietnam, the poverty in Cambodia is immediately apparent, and while I cannot profess to be an expert in the slightest, I am sure that having the majority of your professional population stripped by genocide and using any wealth on arms, must play a role in its economy still today.

But just as Villa Romonea has been lovingly stitched back together to resemble that fiery dragon once more, so has Cambodia. The scars can still be seen, even if the wounds are healing, but it is a country on the mend. And it’s mending with a smile.

Travel Tips

Villa Romonea can be booked per room or for the entire villa – for more details about renting out Villa Romonea in Kep, Cambodia – or making it part of a tailor-made holiday in Cambodia email me at delia@fleewinter.com

PS None of these fabulous pictures have been taken by myself (I was too busy gawping and asking questions) they have all been ‘borrowed’ from Villa Romonea’s mighty fine website.

Con Dao Islands, Vietnam: A prisoner’s paradise. Or not.

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed the alarming number of prisons in Paradise-like locations? Robben Island, Port Arthur in Tasmania… and now I have another one for you – the Con Dao islands off the south coast of Vietnam.

Just imagine. John Smith of Barber Street in Birmingham steals a handkerchief from his local market on a windy October Sunday morning – he’s caught a terrible cold, you see, but is on his way to meet his new love. He obviously can’t be sneezing and snotting all over her but alas, as he goes to purchase said handkerchief, he realises he’s not a ha’penny on him. So he does what any good gentleman of the time would do and slips it in his pocket, making a mental note to stop by first thing in the morning to reimburse the jolly market chap with wind-bruised cheeks. But before he can cry “I’ve not a ha’penny on me,” he finds himself stripped of his clothes, shackled, and on a somewhat precarious boat to Tasmania. Oh the irony, he thinks, as his nose dribbles and runs for two weeks on end at sea but he’s no free hand to reach for his handkerchief.

I’m sure the story went something along these lines when I visited the Tasmanian prison, which is located on the rugged Tasman Peninsula, surrounded by the ocean and forests, making for a pretty picture perfect location. But that was eight years ago so I’ve allowed myself some artistic license.

But this time it was the Con Dao islands off Vietnam where I was heading. Just a 45 minute flight from Saigon (on a tiny propeller-armed plane that dipped and dived through the wind and lands on the tiniest runway I’ve ever seen, surrounded by water), the Con Dao islands are as easy to get to as anywhere else in ‘Nam. But for some reason no one goes. Maybe they heard about the flight.

As we made our descent I looked at the ripples of water below, watching the waves crash into each other creating streams of small white lines across the blue mass, and closed my eyes tightly. This is it, I thought. We got closer and closer to the water’s surface until I started to wonder if the plane was a bit like that yellow duck bus in London that turns into a boat when it hits the Thames – maybe it would grow some rudders and we’d all be ok, I silently hoped.

But then, just as some girls started screaming in the back and I was mentally selling my story to the Sun about how we ‘skimmed the water’ before the plane finally sank (I was going to live to tell the tale obviously), I heard that familiar sound of fast spinning wheels on tarmac and realised we were on land after all. What seemed like a few seconds later, we had reached the end of the runway. No probs there, the plane just did a bit of a three-point turn, came back on itself and pulled up in what can be best described as a car park.

We all piled off a little confused, not sure where to go or what to do next but audibly muttering our thank you’s to the pilot under our breath. So we did the only thing that made sense and stood around taking pictures of our funny little plane in a funny little car park on this funny little runway. The security smiled and nodded, he’d seen it all before.

con dao airport

We had made it to Paradise alive. And I was pretty pleased about that.

And there is no denying it – the Con Dao Islands might just be Paradise on earth. When I say islands, there is a cluster of 15 islands and islets that are ringed with stunning beaches and impressive coral, but most people visit Con Son the largest of the lot which is where I was to spend the next three days.

My reason for going? To check out a lush five-star resort on a beautiful corner of the island. My reason for going for three days? Because I decided this was a better ‘office’ than Saigon:

Con Dao island

Con Dao

I visited during the island’s ‘winter months’ – temperatures are still up to 30 degrees but the sea is rough and it’s quite windy. During the spring and summer months, it all looks a bit more like this.

Photo courtesy of... the internet (taken by somebody who went at a better time of year than me).

Photo courtesy of… the internet (taken by somebody who went at a better time of year than me).

But either way I was impressed – isolated white sandy beaches and coves are waiting to be explored all over the island with gorgeous lush jungle and national parks inland. For a country where it is increasingly difficult to get off the ‘beaten track’ , the Con Dao Islands are a hidden gem.

Less so for the prisoners who arrived there in their throngs during the French Colonial years and during the Vietnam Revolution. Not so much John Smith stealing a handkerchief, more like Nguyen raising an eyebrow over the leadership of the country at the time.

Today the island is littered with ruinous prisons and many Vietnamese treat it like a place of pilgrimage – some go to remember the activists who perished on the island, who are now seen as national heroes.

I headed to the largest – Phu Hai Prison – but it was not quite what I expected. I wasn’t really expecting to find a building quite so beautiful. Typical of traditional architecture in the 1800s, the red tiled roof on the buildings over-hanged the warm yellow chipped and peeling walls. Set in a U-shape around a pretty courtyard with a crumbling yellow church in the centre, there were no real indications of the horrors of its past.




Until I walked into the first ‘cell’ on the left, that is. Perhaps I was expecting the beauty of the exterior to be matched on the inside – I don’t really think so – but as I walked into the first cell it caught me completely unaware and I gasped.

My nostrils filled with the scent of burning incense and as my eyes struggled to adjust to the dim light I just saw rows of bodies. It took me a moment to realise that these were not, of course, the corpses of prisoners but in fact just statues shackled together in a bid to capture how it might have been. The result? Effective.


The room felt so big and empty, exacerbated by the high-beamed ceilings that exposed the red tiles of the roof. It was silent. The only thing that was moving was the slow burning light at the tips of the incense sticks. I tip-toed across the room, as if not to disturbed the shackled statues and breathed in the incense.

Phu Hai prison Con Dao

I was the only person in the entire complex except a couple of conical hat adorned ladies hosing the flowers in the courtyard. It was just me, confined in these four walls that had seen so many horrors. I dreaded to think how many had perished on the spot I was standing.


I wanted to soak up the eerie atmosphere and run away all at the same time. In the end I took my camera out and tried to balance it on a candlestick holder besides the incense to serve as a tripod.

I put it on self timer as to not move the camera when I pressed the shutter button. Suddenly, eight seconds into the count down and two seconds before the photo was about to be taken, the camera fell – only by about four inches to the table – but creating an almighty noise that echoed around the big empty room. It left a blurred ghost-like image of figures on my camera.

Somewhat unnerved, I headed back into the sunlight, surprised by my own racing heart. I wandered into the church building that today houses photos from the past, giving you an idea of how it might have been for prisoners at the time. Skeletal thin, you saw dozens shackled together in close confinements.


Sadly, Con Dao attracted worldwide attention in the 1970s because of its use of  ‘tiger cages’, which were underground, knee-high barbed contraptions with barely enough room to crawl. Thousands of prisoners were said to have been held in them since the 1940s – some were made of barbed wire and were just left in the scorching sun, where prisoners would crouch with no shade for days on end. It is said the prisoners on Con Dao had just enough food to survive but were skeletal – and about 20,000 prisoners are thought to have died on the island.


As I stared at the grainy black and white images the chill of the late afternoon tingled down my spine, and I turned back towards my beachside hut to watch the sun make its final descent over the hills behind.

Yes, Con Dao is beautiful and may just be the ‘next big’ destination in Vietnam. It is likened to Paradise on travel sites across the web, but as I sat there watching the sun set I couldn’t help but think how the power of inhumanity can make even the prettiest places in the world Hell on Earth.


Travel Tips

These days daily flights run from Saigon to Con Dao Islands (Vietnam Airlines/VASCO) and there is also a ferry, which takes about 12 hours and is said to be quite unreliable. When it comes to accommodation – it’s a bit all or nothing. The incredible 5* Six Senses does what it says on the tin… it sits on a beautiful 1.6km long stretch of beach (probably one of the prettiest bays in the island) and looks like this:

six senses con dao

But if you’ve not got a spare $1,000 for a night’s accommodation then there are a handful of hotels that are more aimed at the asian audience (smoke scented rooms, gold curtains, dated furniture etc). I opted for a place called Con Dao Camping, which has cute little triangular huts on the beach (about $25 per night) – they are actually pretty fancy huts with en-suites and air con etc, not to mention an almost unbeatable view.

Dear Delia: Phu Quoc is Paradise. Fact.

The best thing about having a blog that has not ‘made it’ is that I can tell you all about the finest undiscovered secrets of the planet without worrying that I am spilling the beans to the world and his dog. This is not a cry for sympathy – I am quite happy with this site largely being a diary for the future me who cannot even remember what she had for breakfast let alone some far flung trip in south-east Asia 40 years ago.

And so, here we go.

Dear 70+ year-old Delia,

I hope you’re still around and sporting some kind of hideous short blue-rinsed perm number (this is the time to do everything you were too vain to do before, remember?).  I always had the feeling you would get weirder and wackier as you got older – you know, smoking cigars while lying in a hammock that you’ve tied up at junction 12 on the A1 – that sort of thing.

Well anyway, I’m here to take you back to the past. That’s right, pour yourself a stiff gin and read on.

A long, long time ago in 2013 you discovered Paradise, It was an island off the south-east coast of Vietnam called Phu Quoc but I fear it would be a very different picture today.

You were with your wonderful friend Tanya (yes, the posh one who you now go to Tweed Anonymous suppers with). Back then Tanya’s silver mane was thick and glossy, in a rich brown shade. Those were the days.

There were the usual mishaps at the airport in Saigon – Tanya packed and unpacked her bag in the departure hall about three times before finally checking it in and you were accused by customs of smuggling fish sauce out of the country; but somehow you made it there  alright.

The flight to Phu Quoc from Saigon took just under an hour, the air hostesses wore cute little red t-shirts and tweed culottes that amused the pair of you – and you even managed to fit in a tub of steaming super noodles in the 10 minutes when seat belts were allowed off and the food trolley whizzed through the aisle.

During the 10-minute taxi journey from the airport to the beach you marvelled at how undeveloped the island felt, full of luscious jungle-like foliage and hardly a building in sight.

And then finally the car turned down a little un-made path that led you to the beach. And wow, what a beach. The wide strip of rich, yellow sand met the clearest, calm water that you had ever seen. The water was crystal clear, there was not a wave in sight and you wanted to throw a big stone in the water to just check it was all real. Meanwhile, slightly wild and ravaged palm trees lined the coast, adding to the Bounty-advert feeling.


Phu Quoc island

Phu Quoc


It was beautiful. Cute bungalows and low-rise cottages lined the beach with makeshift restaurants (aka tables and chairs) out the front, where you would sit for hours munching on the freshest seafood and strongest gins with your bare feet in the sand. In the evenings lanterns softly illuminated the ‘restaurants’, making it all the more perfect.

Phu Quoc beach at night


A short stroll north of the main beach (Long Beach) would take you to the middle of nowhere, the edge of the ocean, somebody’s back garden and you watched naked children play in Paradise so blissfully unaware that the rest of the world does not look like this.

But then one day you headed south and Tanya got to swim with mermaids and dolphins. It was the moment she had been waiting for. It was beautiful.

Phu Quoc mermaids phu quoc

So if you are sitting there now looking at your blotchy white, wrinkly old skin and have access to the internet (or whatever its called these days), get yourself a one-way ticked to Phu Quoc, perve at the young backpackers and stay at a little place called Phuong Binh.

Love Delia x

PS Buy a couple of tweed bikinis and take Tanya too. She’s missing the Mermaids.