Koh Rong Island
When planning our trip to Cambodia, we soon learned about Koh Rong and the up and coming islands off the coast. The islands are pretty untouched and just starting to develop. We heard a lot of mixed reviews and debated going for several weeks. Some people complained that there wasn't much to do on the islands, the electricity was bad, wifi didn't work, one of the islands only runs on generators, there aren't a lot of hotel choices, the accommodations are grubby, the locals don't know a thing about hospitality, etc. etc. On the contrary, we also heard that it's a slice of paradise with white sandy beaches, clear turquoise ocean, and endless coastline to explore. Unlike Thailand, who's islands are well-known, well-developed, and touristy, the Cambodian islands are just getting started. We decided to take our chances and go!
There are two main islands to choose from; Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. Koh Rong is the main island and more developed. It's known as more of a backpacker/party island. It has a main town/beach, called Kaoh Touch, on the south side of the island with a more dense population of shops, restaurants, bars, and guest houses. You can stay on other parts of the island that are more remote but you have less food choices and will have to pay for a taxi boat to get to other parts of the island. Koh Rong Sanloem (the second most popular island) is much less developed and we heard that it only runs on generators. We decided to dive headfirst into Koh Rong and stay in Kaoh Touch, the main tourist/backpacker hub. We wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
We took an hour long ferry from Sihanoukville, on the mainland of Cambodia, to Koh Rong. The boat dropped us off and deposited us immediately on the beach. We soon learned that the island doesn't have much paving at all, let alone any real roads. There are no cars and if you want to get around the island you have to walk or take a taxi boat. Our guest house was up a hill a bit from the beach. There is tons of new construction everywhere, a sure sign that Koh Rong is developing fast.
We couldn't bear the thought of a hostel with a shared bathroom (90 degree weather, no air conditioning, drunk 20 year olds, and sandy floors) .... Blake and I have learned that we really aren't true backpackers. We like the next level up. Anyway, we booked a room with our own bathroom for $33 a night. This is double the amount we're used to paying, but it was a last minute booking and places were still booked up from New Years. You can easily find a similar place for $20-$25 when it's not peak season.
Our guest house, The Happy Elephant, seemed new-ish but is wasn't anything to rave about. We had a decent size room with our own bathroom and we actually had functioning wifi most of the time. It didn't have any air conditioning, but we were grateful for 2 fans. When the power would cut out and the fans stopped moving, we were sweating immediately and would have to vacate! We had two twin beds but it would have been too hot sleeping together, anyway. The beds only had a sheet instead of a blanket, but again it would have been too hot with a regular blanket. The showers were cold, but absolutely wonderful after a long day at the beach. Unfortunately, it was a bit noisy with the construction and late night partiers but the fans drowned out most of the noise. I think for around $50-75 we could have gotten a more remote guest house with some other amenities, but all in all we were happy with what we got. We really only spent time there to sleep and shower.
Most people are in their swimsuits all day, walking around barefoot, and don't even bother getting ready. While there is a certain young vibe to the island, we saw plenty of older people that blended in just fine. It seems that most people did their research and knew what they were getting into. If you want a fancy resort, comfortable lounge chairs, nice restaurants, and waiters bringing you drinks while you sunbath, you're not going to find it here.
What you will find is a mix of locals and expats trying to make a living on this gorgeous slice of island. There are basic guest houses, tree house bungalows, and small beach hotels popping up all over. There are several restaurants serving both western and Asian food, and even a few pizza places. You can get fresh smoothies, beers, and tropical cocktails at any establishment for just a few dollars or less. I got a mango smoothie for a dollar and our cheapest dinner was $4.50 total for red curry with rice and pad thai noodles.
There are plenty of people advertising day trips to the other islands, scuba diving, snorkeling or party cruising. You won't feel pressured to buy anything, as the island is busy enough! The expat running our guest house said that for New Years Eve this year, the island had 300 more rooms available compared to last year and almost all of them were sold out. He said he even gave up his room and so did several of his staff.
The great thing about staying in the main hub of Koh Rong is it's proximity to 2 other gorgeous beaches. If you walk 20 minutes north on the east side of the island, through the jungle, past miscellaneous bungalows and small private beaches, you walk out onto a huge stretch of sand called 4K Beach. The walk is quite nice and truly organic. It seems fake, like they strategically placed foot bridges, streams, boulders, and hand painted signs to make it feel like the real deal. But this is in fact, the real deal! They didn't fabricate your surroundings to make you feel somewhere exotic. You are somewhere extremely exotic and these paths are all natural, developed over time by the locals. The boulders and streams have been there all along. Many of the foot bridges are planks of wood thrown down or just rocks to step on. The hand painted signs are hand painted because they don't have any other materials to make a sign! I hope it stays this way forever.
When you exit the jungle, You are greeted with the newly built Nest Beach Club, a fun little bar/pavilion with a volleyball net, beach lounge chairs made out of pallets, tree stumps for tables, and awesome music. If you keep walking past the Nest, you will find plenty of empty stretches of sand for the taking. There are a few other beach bungalows scattered about but we spent an entire day in the water alone. The nearest person was a good 300 yards away.
On the west side of the island, is Long Beach and Sok San Beach. This walk (or rather hike) is definitely tough and a good workout to start or end your day. More on this later....
We read that many people come to the island planning to stay for just a few days but end up staying much longer. We wish we had more time and would have stayed another 3 days.