Having spent a lot of our trip so far in different cities in Asia, I was very excited to get in some decent beach-time in Cambodia before heading North to Angkor Wat, and I read that Koh Rong was the perfect place to do so. Somewhat of a backpackers paradise, Koh Rong is actually a pretty huge island – the same size as Hong Kong – and it has a lot more to offer than what first meets the eye when you step off the speed ferry.
My first impressions of Koh Rong were pretty mixed – on the one hand, there seemed to be plenty to do, with adverts for day trips to nearby islands, diving, and plenty of beach bars – but on the other, the immediate beach seemed dirty, full of litter, and with not many locals in sight.
We made our way to our accommodation – a bungalow in the jungle. It sounded so romantic when we booked it, but by the first night we were cursing our lack of foresight, after being kept awake by fruit falling on the roof, various animals, and a serious mosquito infestation! Luckily we were able to swap after that night and things improved somewhat, but we still wished we’d booked something on the beach. However, we weren’t too far away, and by the time we’d got in the water the next day our troubles were all-but forgotten – the water was SO clear and the sand SO pure and white (away from the main pier) that it was hard to be upset about anything. That was when I saw for the first time how Koh Rong had charmed so many, and become the famous destination it is today.
As I said, our primary objective was beach time, so we spent a lot of time chilling and relaxing, mostly at Police Beach. So-called because the police station was built here, the small beach is now (in a somewhat confusing manner) the site of full moon parties, with a few ramshackle bars and psychedelic art installations dotted around. There is a bar/café at one end with a decidedly slow pace of life and various dogs and cats to hang out with.
The beach itself is small and pristine and there is a floating jetty you can swim to, drink beer on, and even do yoga on at sunset if your heart desires. The vibe was very relaxed, although I’m sure if we’d gone on a Saturday night we would have seen a different side. However, it was clean and relaxed and that was all we wanted.
Other notable beaches are the White Sand and Long beaches – both reachable by foot from Koh Touch (the main touristy area of the island), though the walk to Long Beach is quite a long one and requires plenty of water, a decent level of physical fitness for the sections of bouldering, and closed shoes because of a very serious risk of snakes! The sign en route warns you about all this, and even advises you to take a picture of the snake if possible, which slightly terrified us! Well worth the adventure though, as on the other side you are greeted with a huge stretch of pristine white sand. Because there is less footfall on this beach, another thing to remember is bug spray, as sand-flies are more prevalent here.
If you are more of a thrill-seeker then look no further than Adventure Adam! Adam has been on the island for three and half a years now (a long time in Koh Rong time!) and what started as a hobby and a nickname has turned into a well-established and thriving activities business. He has done over 6,000 dives around Koh Rong, so for any diving tips or spots he is definitely your man. I have to admit, breathing underwater freaks me out a little bit, but I do love the ocean, so I opted for a day boat tour around the island. Starting off on a traditional fishing boat we set off towards a fishing village on the north of the island, stopping for a sea swim and safety brief en route. The fishing village was fascinating – it was the first time I’d seen much of ‘local life’ since being on the island, and I was bowled over by how friendly and sweet the locals were. Relaxing in hammocks and around the small shops, most people were quick to smile, and our guide Ben spent quite some time chatting to Mama, a local woman who had helped to establish a new temple in the village. Mama also cooked the food for the training monks every day and produced roasted cashew nuts, which we gladly purchased to help fund the incredible temple and the powerhouse of a woman behind it!
After the fishing village we sailed around the top of the island, past Song Saa island, a luxury private island resort owned by a wealthy Swedish family. As we heard how much one room can cost in this resort – upwards of 3000 USD a night – I felt a little disgusted by the stark inequality of the luxury resort, so close to a community of some of the poorest people in the world. However, I quickly learned that the people behind Song Saa had actually invested a lot of money into local communities, including schools, and marine conservation and sustainable tourism. This was one of many times when I realised that first impressions aren’t always right.
After lunch on Lonely beach and some snorkelling (pro tip – avoid sea urchins AT ALL COSTS and for gods sake don’t kick the coral – it hurts!) we were back on the boat and headed to Long Beach for the sunset and a fire show from our guide Ben. Then we got back on the boats and headed back towards Koh Touch, before the final activity of the day, which was in my opinion the highlight of the whole day – phytoplankton swimming! The boats turned off their lights and the only light came from a distant thunderstorm and the incredible stars above us. We piled back into the dark water and swam around watching the plankton around us light up as we moved. We put the snorkel masks back on and dived down a couple of metres to see their lights even more brightly in the black water, which was a slightly scary if awe-inspiring experience! After half an hour of this it was back on the boat and back to Koh Touch, where we disembarked; soggy, in some cases sunburnt or drunk, and all-round very satisfied with a great day out!
Other companies offer similar activities but for 25 USD I think this is really one of the best value options, and I felt in very safe and knowledgable hands. I also think it’s really important that Adventure Adam are trying to continue their tourism in a sustainable and culturally-sensitive way, something that is becoming increasingly important.
Our guide Ben told us about the future plans for Koh Rong, which was when I sensed how the island is on the brink of huge changes. A large multinational company, the Royal Group, has just bought the rights to much of Koh Rong for the next 99 years.
They have plans to build vast resorts, casinos, and an international airport. As we talked about it at the bar at Adventure Adams, the mood grew troubled, as it became clear that the island is about to be changed forever – not least because of the vast planned deforestation, removing around 70% of the forest.
As we went out to other bars that night, I sensed the fragility of this ‘haven’ for backpackers, as the island faces an uncertain future. Certainly most of Koh Touch’s infrastructure will remain, but will the people? The laid-back and relaxed nature of the place is what makes it special – and while some may argue it has already changed a lot (and not always for the better, to be sure) – as we left on the speed ferry back to the mainland, I looked back at an island that I was certain would not look the same if I returned in a few years. Of course, when we go anywhere, we can never guarantee it will be the same when we return; we live in an ever-changing and evolving world, after all. But that feeling was extra pronounced when we left Koh Rong.
So, if you are thinking of visiting this slice of paradise, I would recommend you to do it sooner rather than later!