Koh Rong Samloem
Yo Koh, Yoh Koh
A pirate's life for me
Many of the traveler friends we've met abroad have echoed the same thing: visit Koh Rong. You've never seen beaches like this, the water is so clear, it hasn't been hit by tourism yet. We plan to be in SE Asia for a couple of months are are sure to get our fill of islands which, while lovely, can all start to take on a similar routine. Plus, we only had one week to spend in Cambodia and there are so many other places we could go. For these reasons I came into the country thinking we weren't going near the islands but the barrage of Koh Rong recommendations proved to be too much for us. Dain got me excited to go, so we started the long bus ride to Sihanoukville and quick ferry to the islands.
The Cambodian coast off of Sihanoukville is home to many small islands, most rocky and uninhabited. Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, which both have long stretches of white sand beaches and natural sources of fresh water, have gained in popularity in recent years yet still remain relatively unknown to tourists. People usually breeze through Siem Reap while in the region and disregard much of the still largely undeveloped countryside. When we decided to stop by, we had to decide which island to visit. Koh Rong, the larger and much more developed of the two, is where most of our friends stayed and worked in party hostels. All we knew of Koh Rong Samloem was that it was much more laid back and only home to a handful of hostels. We decided on the latter on the off chance that it might be less touristy and just as pretty.
Thankfully, we got lucky. Really lucky.
We disembark off the rickety pier and find the "Harmony Bungalow" sign off the cluttered wooden sign in the sand. M'Pai Bay, a large crescent beach near the northeast side of the island, seems like a place where people get sucked in and stay a while. It was more common for people to stay on the island for a few weeks or longer than it was to stay three days like us. M"Pai Bay probably had just a few hundred people living there, including guesthouse staff and locals, and remains largely undeveloped. Only a few places have spotty wifi, there are no ATMs or banks, no air conditioning, and no roads. This may sound pretty rough, but this is always how I imagined island life should be. The one place you can't get upset if there's sand everywhere is the beach, and that's where we remained pretty much the entire time.
The beaches here are pristine, the water warm and clear as it fades out into a fluorescent turquoise. It was like looking out into an edited photo because I've never seen such perfect water in real life. You feel kind of like a pirate touching down on a fantastic find in the middle of the sea because as deeply gorgeous as this place is, no one is there. You could be the only one in the water at any given time or one of ten sunbathers on the sand. It's mindblowing to me that in the age of oversharing that this place hasn't been overrun with travelers or over-commercialized. It still has a rustic, friendly, hippie feel that's irresistible. The burning sun, the rolling waves, and the placid atmosphere intoxicates you into a state of ultimate relaxation. Time doesn't exist on Koh Rong, there's nothing to do and no hurry except when you're trying to make it out to Sunset Point to watch the night begin.
We passed our days with long breakfasts, knocking through a few books in a sunny little treehouse, spending hours swimming around and talking about life in the water, and grabbing a Klang beer in the evening. Even though I did little during the day, I was exhausted by 9pm each night! One day we took a boat out to the small nearby island of Koh Kong, known by the locals as the place they take dangerous snakes when they find them on their island. Did not go ashore! We visited two coral reefs on opposite sides of the island to snorkel. The visibility was amazing and we could see the almost completely untouched reefs in their technicolor glory. Most of the animals I'd seen before diving in Vietnam and Thailand but it was so lovely to see the reefs in such good shape, and Dain did manage to spot a cool floating sea slug swimming around. With a very low-tech hand reel, Dain also caught us a fish which we grilled up later and ate with grilled veggies and rice. It may have been spotted and horned but it actually tasted alright!
One other activity we did was a sort of beach clean-up sponsored by one of the local bars. For every bag of trash you collect off the beach, they'd give you a free beer. This attitude is pretty unusual across all of Asia- everyone throws their trash into the street without any regard for the environmental impact or even seem to care that they're constantly walking around in their own filth. It's hard to change these deep-seeded roots but the influx of Westerners making their home on the island has definitely had a positive impact in this area. It didn't take long for Dain and I to fill three big cement bags with bottles and cans and drop it off on the end of the pier for pickup. In fact, it was a pretty therapeutic activity and reminded me of all the cleanups I did in high school back in Florida.
All while I was enjoying Koh Rong Samloem, I also lamented its fate that I can see so clearly. You come to this island for the beaches and water but what makes it such a uniquely fantastic place are the people eager to meet each other, the slow pace of life, the rustic charm of $2 curries and forgetting about the rest of the world because the internet's too slow. On Koh Rong, they've already begun building and airport and there were reports of people getting sick from swimming in the ocean too near where the sewers emptied out, a beach that's no longer safe because of the influx of people visiting. It's a long shot, but I hope M'Pai Bay can hold onto itself for just a little while longer. May it remain an escape from the world, a timeless sanctuary in the middle of nowhere, for people like me.