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.

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.