In the Gulf of Thailand, a few hours’ boat ride from Sihanoukville’s shore, lies Koh Rong. In recent years the island’s white sand beaches and calm turquoise waters have grown increasingly popular with visitors, who savor the laid-back vibe on one side of the island and the party scene on the other.
Koh Rong has neither roads nor cash machines and many businesses and guesthouses have electricity only after dark. But the island boasts 43 kilometers of beautiful beaches, and the number of breezy thatched bungalows and even purpose-built accommodation on the island is multiplying. The world has finally started to discover this undiscovered island paradise, and tourists who are willing to forgo five-star amenities to stay on Koh Rong are amply rewarded.
“People don’t know that this exists…I didn’t even know there were islands here when I first came to Cambodia!” said Rudy Schmittlein, the owner of Paradise Bungalows, who six years ago became one of the first Westerners to settle on the island.
The neighboring island of Koh Rong Sanloem, and particularly the Lazy Beach bungalows, have long been among the Phnom Penh expat community’s favorite destinations for long weekends, but few ventured north to largely undeveloped Koh Rong.
But then in late 2010 a number of new accommodations started to go up on Koh Rong, including Monkey Island, which is owned by the same people who are behind Monkey Republic, a backpacker institution in Sihanoukville. Now there are daily speedboats to the island, and it’s not only backpackers who are discovering the simple pleasures of island life. “You can’t find this in Thailand anymore,” said Paddy Robinson, an expatriate Brit and the manager of Monkey Island, who has been on the island for more than five years.
What makes the island so magical is that, compared to neighboring Thai islands, which are covered with McDonald’s restaurants and high-rise hotels, Koh Rong is still remarkably pristine, even despite the recent rash of development. Move away from the main area and you’ll find kilometers of untouched beaches and an uninhabited interior filled with dense tropical jungle. When the moon is waning, an ethereal phosphorescence can be seen in the water on the shores of the quieter parts of Koh Rong, caused by bioluminescent plankton visible only at night. The plankton respond to disturbance by lighting up even brighter, so feel free to splash away.
Underwater life is another of the island’s draws. Divers seeking adventures of the aquatic variety can arrange for outings with The Dive Shop on both Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. “What people actually freak out about are nudibranches. You’ve probably never heard of them before,” laughed Schmittlein, who then presented photos of the extraordinarily brightly colored marine gastropod mollusks. “They are the most colorful animals that you can find underwater, and you can find them here.”
For those who prefer to stay above sea-level, the island provides plenty of opportunity for exploration. There are seven bays and 28 beaches on Koh Rong, and while most of the locals prefer to get around by boat, there are some trekking trails on the island with marked paths so that visitors don’t get lost.
Many fear that the island’s unspoiled beauty many not endure for much longer. The Cambodian government has granted a 99-year lease of large portions of the island to an investment conglomerate, the Royal Group, that plans to build an airport and ecological resort and, presumably, displace the small businesses and bungalows currently thriving in those areas. On most of the island development is getting off to a slow start, so for now the bungalows are safe. In fact, it seems like more are being built every day.
Koh Toch Village and Koh Toch Beach, on Koh Rong’s southwestern tip, have seen an explosion of development, with dozens of small accommodations being built and more on the way. The sound of construction is omnipresent in the village and speedboats roar to and from the pier all day, puncturing the island idyll.
For a time pollution, litter, drugs, and noise became a big problem on the island, but locals are now taking steps to clean things up. Business owners have teamed up on a number of initiatives. These include replacing throw-away plastic cups with reusable cups that are welcomed at businesses all over the island and taken home as souvenirs; providing veterinary care and de-sexing to Koh Rong’s dogs; creating a small medical center; and supporting an education center where locals can learn English and get help with health and social issues.
“This is a place where you can meet people and where there are things to do. But if you want to explore a little bit further, if you want to look for even more secluded places, you’ve got virginal beaches that no one has trod on,” Robinson boasts.
It’s likely, however, that the serene, rustic atmosphere will disappear along with the budget accommodation, so interested travelers shouldn’t waste any time in visiting Koh Rong.
Looking for more? View the full Koh Rong island guide for tips on where to stay, what to eat, and where to party.