It was finally time to hit the beaches and islands of Cambodia! We had an overnight stay in Otres before our boat trip to two islands off the coast of the south; Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. Otres, just outside of Sihanoukville is a bohemian area full of wonderful eco bungalows to accommodate the throng of tourists coming and going to the islands. There is a long stretch of beach which we spent a couple of hours on when we first arrived as a warm up for the islands, but it wasn’t anywhere near the standard that we would come to expect over the next week.
Our first stop was Koh Rong, Cambodia’s second largest island, and the livelier of the two we visited. We caught a fast boat for the 25km journey through the choppy Gulf of Thailand from Sihanoukville’s coast to get there. There are four small villages on the island and dozens of guesthouses, bungalows and hostels to choose from. There was one main strip of restaurants and guesthouses immediately after our departure from the jetty, and our accommodation was conveniently a 30 second walk down the beach.
You don’t get a whole lot for your money on the islands, considering you’re essentially living in a beach shack with no air conditioning, a mosquito net because the four walls aren’t sealed, and no ceiling, but it’s all you need when there’s paradise waiting on your doorstep as you don’t tend to spend any time in your room other than sleeping! All of the guesthouses have a really chilled out and rustic vibe, which makes them all the more appealing. The verandas are draped in colourful hammocks, decorated with drift wood furniture, seashell trinkets and scattered with adorable snoozing dogs.
It wasn’t long after arriving that Naomi realised she had inadvertently smuggled a petrified toad onto the island. The poor creature somehow made its way into her bag, cosied himself down and was rudely awakened as Naomi unpacked. We set the little fella free into the corridor and wished him well.
Since 2012, Koh Rong has seen a rapid increase in tourists visiting and a boom in accommodation being built. However as we arrived during the low season the island still felt peaceful and near deserted. But there was still enough going on in the evenings to generate a mellow but lively atmosphere while we sipped on chilled beers, our toes buried beneath the white sand. There was a pretty good choice of restaurants and bars that we took advantage of, as we knew Koh Rong Samloem would be more limited. We feasted on a huge fish BBQ on our final evening with garlic bread and grilled potatoes.
With a total of seven bays on the 78 square kilometer island, we set about exploring one of these on our penultimate day. The route to Long Beach was described as a 40-minute trek through the jungle to reach the opposite side of the island. Here we would be rewarded with a deserted beach and calm turquoise waters. It quickly became clear that we weren’t dressed appropriately for the walk in our flip-flops. We saw many tourists flocking up and down the pathway in their swimwear so assumed it wouldn’t be too strenuous. But panic set in (for Lawrence at least) when we spotted the ‘beware of snakes’ sign. It was only then that Naomi became fully aware of Lawrence’s fear of snakes as his face dropped into an expression of horrified alarm. Perhaps watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets the night before didn’t help to calm the nerves. The muggy air made the walk more challenging as we dripped with sweat from exhaustion as well as fear. The pathways weren’t very well signposted, so we waded through grass and knee high reeds, and the final stretch involved some low-level rock climbing. There are no photos as proof unfortunately, as we were too preoccupied with avoiding breaking our necks on the slippery boulders. Lawrence breathed a sigh of relief as the thick canopy of jungle opened up onto Long Beach. There were only a handful of other tourists who braved the trek that we shared the glorious beach with that day. It became apparent upon returning to our room that mosquitoes and sandflies at the beach had attacked Naomi. There were 30 bites on her massacred left leg at one stage, but she soldiered on on bravely.
After a couple of days on Koh Rong, we were ready to move on to Koh Rong Samloem. KRS could be described as Koh Rong’s more peaceful, tamer older sibling just 4km south by boat and 24 square kilometers in total. ‘Sanloem’ does translate to ‘drowsiness’ after all, and that was exactly its appeal to us beach bums. We stayed in a charming little shack called ‘The Drift’, nestled in the middle of M’Pay Bay’s main strip of accommodation and limited restaurants. There are no roads, ATMs or Wi-Fi on the island and it was bliss to unwind and unplug from the rest of the world for four days.
90% of our time was spent sunbathing, swimming in the beautifully clear water to cool off and repeating this on a continuous cycle. We also enjoyed some beautiful sunsets on the beach and found a great viewing spot at Dragonfly bar.
There wasn’t a huge choice of restaurants in M’Pay Bay but we still ate very well. We had a Turkish treat at Babbaganush, a seafood buffet (the highlight) and some bargain lunches/breakfasts/smoothies at Erin’s Kitchen. We became regular faces at Erin’s as she was only two doors down from The Drift. We also ate a ‘family meal’ at The Drift one evening and nibbled on their infamous ‘brownies’ that the whole island came flocking to purchase. The island has such a relaxed and friendly atmosphere; it’s clear everyone knows everyone and they all look out for one another, whether you’re Cambodian, a tourist or a Western employee on the island. Everyone lives in harmony, seemingly glad for the tourists that bring money to the little local economy.
Our neighbours happened to be hosting a 1 year olds birthday party one evening, involving lots of questionable Cambodian music. The whole town was invited and it seemed like a big excuse to get everyone hammered. Apparently only birthdays of 1 – 3 year olds are celebrated, as the infant mortality rate is so high. If you make it past 3 years old on the island then you’re all set for a long and fulfilled life apparently. The music went on until midnight, which felt ridiculously late when the island wakes and sleeps with sunrise and sun set. Maybe the locals were getting their own back on rowdy partygoer tourists.
We decided to take a boat trip one afternoon as a slightly more energetic activity in comparison to lazing on the beach. Our group of ten departed at 2pm and we were ferried round the islands, jumping out at various snorkel spots. Lawrence was the envy of the whole boat with his swanky state of the art snorkel mask. There were genuine gasps of wonder as he whipped it out of the bag. The visibility in the water wasn’t the best (probably due to a couple of rain showers recently, stirring up the sea) but we saw lots of coral, even more sea urchins, and vicious jellyfish. As the sun began to set, we tried our hand at line fishing with hand reels. With squid as our bate we waited patiently and were rewarded with a handful of us catching modest sized fish. But the real hero was our captain who reeled them in by the dozen, making sure we were well fed for our BBQ that evening.
We had glorious weather all week; you’d never know it was the rainy season. We had one morning of torrential rain but it was actually a relief to have the storm cool the temperature down. The island was some of the hottest weather we’d experienced and we were concerned about getting burnt, especially after our disaster in Mui Ne. We were religious with applying sun cream and miraculously avoided any sunburn. Now we’re just beautifully golden brown and our hair has lightened a few shades.
After the terrifying experienced faced on the Long Beach trek, we boldly went on to tackle the Clearwater Bay trek on KRS. This walk turned out to be much tamer and the reward at the other end was greater. The water, as its name suggests, was gloriously clear and the beaches were beautiful. We even had some stray dogs keep us company while we sizzled on the white sandy bay.
Our final evening was spent much like the others, munching on some seafood on the beach, sipping on some beers, and then disappearing into the darkness in search of the glow in the dark plankton. The bioluminescent plankton can be spotted only at night when there’s no light pollution. As we waded into the water, the plankton were stirred by our movements and shimmered intensely. It felt like magic and hard to believe they were living organisms generating such a fluorescent light. It was similar having a stream of stars following your feet as you walked. The more the water was stirred by us, the brighter the plankton burnt.
It was disheartening catching the boat back to mainland and reality after such a blissful week on the islands. But part of us was ready for some Wi-Fi and to live a life that didn’t involve sandy bed sheets. Koh Rong seems a slightly messy party destination in comparison to KRS. Rapid development hasn’t done it many favours and we fear Koh Rong Sanloem will fall to the same vices. But we were glad we could enjoy it in its prime before it becomes more popular.
It was particularly bizarre for Naomi, as she had actually visited Koh Rong Sanloem back in 2014 for a voluntary programme. She stayed for a week undertaking some marine conservation with Frontier. But back then the island was completely deserted aside from local people and the Frontier shack (bucket showers, no electricity and minimal food deliveries to the island). Koh Rong was taking visitors by this point, but Naomi was the only one on the boat to KRS back in the day. As we approached the bay she recognised it immediately and everything came flooding back, with a few of the original buildings remaining. But it’s incredible how far it’s come in just a few years, and how much more development will no doubt take place in the coming years.
We had a final night in Otres before our next leg of the trip: Chi Phat.