Let me establish a time line for you. I visited Koh Rong in June of 2015 and more recently, Koh Rong Samloem in August 2016. You might expect my memories of the latter to be bias or at least less hazy than those of 2015 but trust me, both have been forever engraved in my mind for very different reasons.
We start the story in Sihanoukville. To visit either island, this is the port of departure. Some would call it a destination on its own. I would call it something more like a pit of acid-tripping backpackers but that’s just me. Only established in 1958, Sihanoukville has everything it needs to be an absolute beauty; stunning sandy beaches and lush winding hills on the drive in. This became common knowledge to those adventurous souls who visited Cambodia in it’s more tumultuous days and more recently their evolved counterparts; the common thrifty backpacker. Khmer aren’t silly, they know an entrepreneurial opportunity when they see one. Thus row after row of cheap hostels, tour companies and bars opened up. I try to like Sihanoukville, and it’s people are really hospitable however like in any part of the world the tourism has created a window for drugs to be sold by your tuk tuk driver and bracelets to be sold on the beach by 10 year olds skipping school. Culture ebbs away and bad taste settles in. It’s sad but it’s true and I try my best to navigate around it.
My first time round to Sihanoukville an overnight stay was necessary before heading off to Koh Rong. It rained non-stop which actually made the beach quite enjoyable; deserted but for a couple of idiotic Aussies in not-at-all-waterproof raincoats. Later the rain became horizontal, and we took refuge in one of the aforementioned cheap bars. 50c beers and drinking games comforted us until the whole town was plunged into a black out, therein 25c warm beers and games by candlelight entertained us. Our hostel staff were lovely and though I hardly slept a wink due to loud neighbours I could never fault that famous Khmer hospitality. Flash forward to this year where we simply rushed through some lunch on the beach whilst dodging the sales pitches of kids with bracelets and ladies with mobile spa treatments who wanted to wax my armpits.
On the beach.
While I was eating lunch.
Needless to say they didn’t make a customer out of me. At the port we enjoyed the company of a pair of blind drunk New Zealander tourists who were ready to ‘just go cliff jumpin and hit up a full moon party maaaan’. Lucky for us they also walked around with a portable speaker so we could enjoy some loud house music for free. What a treat!
Enough about Sihanoukville. If you want to go there my advice would be to assess it for yourself but also check out Ochres beach a few kilometres down the road for a more respectful and relaxed crowd of tourists. Maybe when I visited I got the unlucky jackpot…twice. Maybe I’m jaded. Anyway. The ferry from Sihanoukville stops first at Koh Rong Samloem then at Koh Rong. It costs about $20US return for either island. In 2015 we picked Koh Rong, the larger and more popular of the two. It had been recommended by a well-travelled couple I was lucky enough to work with briefly in Phnom Penh. We were warned of the loud tourist driven party beach, but were told a short hike or boat ride would lead us to a beautiful untouched beach on the other side of the island. Excitement set in, but so did the rain. It never ended. We waded through rain to check into our bungalows and waded through rain two days later when we checked out.
We pottered down the beach as far as we could and enjoyed the serenity at the beautiful restaurant at Paradise Bungalows further down, but the rain made it impossible to really explore the island or hike to the secluded beach. Especially since most of us were sporting some very worn down Havaianas and 50c ponchos. Lightning began to strike the island relentlessly, making for some awesome light shows but also causing frequent black outs. We waited these out at Paradise, eating food cooked over gas and playing round after round of card games.
At night we wandered down to the noisy backpacker end of the beach to pick up a pizza from the main party/pizza bar. There we encountered backpacker staff who were either on something or had been struck by lightening themselves, spacing out when we asked questions about the island and strangely aloof when we placed an order for some pizzas. At a pizza bar. One space cadet was quite nice and told us how to find luminescent plankton, even inviting us to a moonlight party beginning at midnight. We politely declined, choosing the aloof-ly served pizza and some warm beers picked up from a mini mart. A pack of friendly dogs and cats followed us back to our bungalow and we proceeded to laugh our misfortune away over some warm beers while the rain persisted on our thatched roof.
Late to the party were an over excited bat and frazzled rat who took turns entering the bungalow through a hole in the roof, zooming around the rafters in a frantic lap until our screams made them leave. These bat/rat laps continued into the night and we joked about scenarios where the bat would nosedive or the rat would fall onto one of the mosquito nets. Unlucky for one of us, the latter did actually happen, its victim waking to a dangling rat above his head. Our party of seven were split across three bungalows, and my crew stayed in a luxurious shelter complete with free used band aids and one soggy bikini still hanging in the bathroom despite it just being cleaned. We laughed it off again and just thanked our luck that our room came with a broom to usher out the cats and one dog who managed to sneak in. I’m really selling this place aren’t I?
All misfortunes aside the trip was still enjoyable and I’ll never let shabby accommodation and a little rain discourage me, but it was just a bit of a let down. The backpacker staff and the air of ‘our accommodation and hospitality can be in any shape we like because you’re stuck on an island and you will pay for it’ is just a bit disheartening when you know how lovely and well respected Khmer owned and run businesses are. I don’t regret my short visit and the memories I made with my rat crew will last a life time.
This year is a completely different story that could read from a totally separate book! Koh Rong Samloem; Koh Rong’s little sister is a slice of paradise. It’s one of those places that leaves you torn between leaving its beauty a secret for as long as possible, or declaring to the world that everyone MUST visit it. Ya feel? Being the low season, we were free to wander up and down the beach before choosing a humble abode to stay in. The bungalows range from bamboo shack to 5 star air-conditioned hut with infinity pool. The island was pleasantly quiet, so we decided to bungalow hop, sampling a different stretch of the 360 degrees of beauty each night. We were told that in high season the prices would double, but we enjoyed a range of comfortable bungalows for $20 – $30 a night with breakfast. Oh, and this view:
After dumping our bags we headed out sans footwear in aim of reaching the other side of Saracen Bay, with only twinkling lights in the distance guiding us. Along the way we were met with happy beach hens, charming dogs and pools of water left behind by the tide and warmed by the setting sun. We had stepped into a new world where the tides told the time and the power only came on at night to cook simple meals and play mellow music. We walked past a few high-end places with beautiful eco huts and exotic menus, but decided on a traditional feed of amok and spring rolls at a restaurant hanging over the beach complete with croaking geckos in the rafters. At night we pulled our mosquito net around the bed and rested easy without the distractions of wifi or any phone reception at all.
In the morning we dined amongst the resident German Shepherds on floor mats at Paradise Bungalows, just as enjoyable and lovely as its sister restaurant on Koh Rong. I spoke to the Khmer and German couple who owned both, agreeing that Koh Rong Samloem had a sense of peace not yet interrupted like it’s counterpart. Their family lives on Samloem with their dogs and visits Koh Rong from time to time. Outside was a stack of stand up paddleboards and kayaks. It had been so long since I’d ridden my poor old SUP packed away back in Aus, so we rented one for the hour and paddled over crystal clear waters with not a wave insight. That is until the ferry dropped off its morning passengers with a wake in tow that landed Mitch on his arse in 2 feet of water.
The day proceeded as follows: read a book, swim, nap, swim, nap in hammock, swim, sun bathe, swim, read a book, swim. Eventually our stomachs told us the time and we headed off for lunch. After seeing the effort of the tiny boats that zoomed onto the beach every few hours loaded with produce and exotic meats on giant iceblocks, I stuck to the local food that could mostly be grown on the island. A victory for both the local community and the O zone layer. Our lunch fuelled us for a hike to Lazy Beach, a privately owned area with only one group of bungalows and restaurant. The walk was beautiful; sand under foot and signs on the trees heeding us not to feed the wild monkeys in the treetops above. Our sweaty walk paid off as the jungle parted to spoil us with views of another bay hugged by green hilltops. It felt like we’d stepped into yet another new land, this side of the island facing the open sea and leaving us vulnerable to merciless wind and waves. It was still stunning, and we took advantage of a completely deserted beach with the bonus work out of keeping our heads above the relentless waves.
Our rucksacks had come along with us in hopes of spending a night on the other side of the island, but the wind proved to be too much and the calm serene of the other side too tempting, so we meandered back and stayed at the opposite end of Saracen Bay. We continued our pressing itinerary of sleeping, swimming, reading and eating, contemplating a 2-hour hike to a lighthouse but opting for more beach time. At one point whilst floating in 2 feet of water, a monstrous grey cloud appeared out of nowhere and dumped the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced. We were plunged into complete grey, the warm water line blending in with the cool rain as our vision was limited to 2 feet in any direction. It passed as quickly as it arrived and we shared dumbfound expressions with nearby tourists, having just experienced one of the coolest and weirdest sensations.
Luckily that was the only rain we witnessed the whole time, and as we soaked up the few hours of power used to cook our dinner that night I couldn’t help but think I’d struck gold this time around after the soggy rat infested mess of 2015. We departed the next afternoon, our skin a little darker and our souls a little lighter having experienced the simple island life of Samloem. A few seasick passengers later I was snapped back into reality, ready to face the port of Sihanoukville and the cozy van ride home. Yet returning with my newfound secret of Cambodia’s most beautiful little gem, I was as happy as a little island rat indeed.
See you on the road.