Did you know that Cambodia has gorgeous islands? Neither did I. That’s one of the things I learned from other backpackers throughout my trip. There are a few islands off the coast that are popular tourist spots. The main one is Koh Rong. It’s mostly a party island, and I heard countless horror stories about people getting sick there (some kind of a sewage problem, I presume). The second most popular is Koh Rong Samloem, a laidback, less developed version of Koh Rong, or perhaps what Koh Rong once was. Sounds like my kind of place.
Most backpackers that start their trip in Thailand head south for all the “kohs” (“islands”) they can muster. I on the other hand opted to remain rather pale until the tail end of my trip.
To get to Koh Rong Samloem, you head to the coastal town of Sihanoukville. The town itself is nothing spectacular; Otres Beach is about the only thing worth seeing. Then you can grab a daily speed boat to one of the islands. I was happy to see most of the bro tanks get off at the first stop, while I continued on.
Thankfully, I wasn’t expecting much when I got to M’Pair pier on the north side of Koh Rong Samloem. There was a row of modest hostels and food shacks, a small local school, along with some fishing boats and a pier—and that’s about it. No wi-fi. No air-conditioning. Few bathrooms had flushing toilets. But one look at the turquoise water and I thought, if this is roughing it, then so be it.
Turns out, three days without a phone isn’t half bad when you’re engulfed in island life. Time moves slower, but there seems to be more of it. One day I woke up early, ate breakfast, wrote a blog post, and was shocked that it was only 10 a.m. It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t spend an hour in bed scrolling through Instagram. I even serendipitously ran into a couple of friends (shout out to Corey and Thea) that I met three weeks before in the north of Vietnam. This island was full of surprises.
Koh Rong Samloem seems to be one of those places like Pai, where drifters end up staying months longer than they planned. After an hour trek through the jungle from M’Pai Bay, we stumbled upon Clearwater Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. On it stands a lone hostel elevated in the trees, where half-naked backpackers in dreads lied in hammocks, smoked, and gazed out over the crystal-clear water. Unlike Pai, which has become over-saturated with aimless youngsters looking for a different life, it seems as if people here are soaking it up while it lasts.
The day before I left the island, I went on a snorkeling trip organized by a leather-skinned British man in his 60s who has been living in Cambodia for years. “I give it 10 years before this island has a road running right through the middle of it,” he told me.
Untouched beaches have big signs on them claiming that various resorts now own the land. I’m told that another part of the island is already shaping up as a go-to honeymoon destination. “But it can be good for locals who rely on tourists to make a living, right?” I asked. “Then they install big plumbing systems that they can’t handle, and you have a hellish situation like on Koh Rong,” he replied. “What’s good about that?”
A common complaint about Thailand’s islands is that despite how beautiful they are, some are spoiled by overcrowding. Many of them were once the Koh Rong Samloems of Thailand.
As I sit on the fishing boat, it’s sad to think that the next time I return, Koh Rong Samloem might be one of those places I try and avoid. But for now, I close my eyes and feel the breeze on my face as the sun sets, and I think about how grateful I am to experience it right here, right now.