Welcome to Backpacker Paradise – Koh Rong Island in Cambodia
Across South East Asia I heard the same 2 words whispered over and over again by travelers – “Koh Rong.” The whispers told of an undeveloped paradise island like something out of Alex Garland’s classic novel ‘The Beach’, a tropical paradise island that was like Thailand 20 years ago before the resorts, ring roads, 7/11’s and sleazy sex tourists.
I have yet to met a traveler who doesn’t dream of finding their own rustic, undiscovered slice of paradise and I’m no different so I decided to follow up and check out Koh Rong before, inevitably, the whispers become a roar and the paradise is ruined.
Leaving the hassle and touts of the somewhat seedy beaches of Sihanoukville behind I jumped onto a wooden boat headed for the island of Koh Rong along with 30 or so other travelers who had also heard the whispers and headed the call to see if the hype was justified and if Koh Rong really was a backpacker’s paradise.
The Cambodian coast of Sihanoukville hardly seemed to fade as travelers passed the 2 hours on the slow, rickety, wooden boat laying out on the top of the boat smoking, playing cards and listening to ipods as we drifted through the azure seas past several islands until finally drawing up to a forested island where a long sliver of white sand was backed by just a handful of wooden huts and bungalows.
Arriving in Koh Rong
The boat pulled up to Koh Rong’s wooden pier by a small fishing village and we stumbled through the sand with our backpacks looking for somewhere to stay among the wooden houses that had cropped up along the beach by the village near the pier. Outside a variety of cane chairs and benches were strewn across the sand while backpackers lazed around drinking fruit shakes and cans of Klang beer while the sea lapped gently at their feet.
It was only the start of November (and the start of the high season) and already a couple of places were full up, but I managed to find a basic room above a wooden restaurant for $10 a night – expensive by Cambodian standards. The room was little more than a hard bed and mosquito net in a large wooden house with thin partitions between the rooms, a small open hole for a window and shared cold water showers and scoop to flush toilets and electricity run by a generator for only a few hours in the evenings.
Koh Rong is not great value compared to the rest of South East Asia and as the island grows in popularity I can imagine it may be a struggle to find accommodation in the middle of peak season so its a good idea to book in advance – you can book online for Koh Rong on Booking.com
I took a stroll along the shoreline past the 20 or so wooden guest houses that now crowded the coastline, and more were being hurriedly built, to met the rising demand for accommodation and already started to dominate the small Cambodian beach side fishing village. Further along the beach arched round and the village thinned out to just a smattering of rustic sea facing bungalows among the trees, the sand so impossibly soft and white leading to the amazingly crystal clear, calm and turquoise sea.
As the sun faded lights strewn across the palm trees twinkled over the tables and chairs spread out on the sand while rustic restaurants offered seafood BBQs, Khmer and Western food and cocktail happy hours, some even with painfully slow wifi beamed over from the mainland. As the night wore on the generators cranked up the music in one or two of the bars and sleep eluded me through the open windows and paper thin walls as the bites from the sand flies itch uncontrollably and the sound of the music, bugs and cockerels kept me away. Undeveloped sure is nice, but it does have it’s downsides.
What to do on Koh Rong
Most visitors to Koh Rong are content to laze on the perfect beaches but I explored the island some more. Koh Rong is a large island but the fishing village and pier area is quite small and back from the shoreline develops into thick, steep jungle very quickly which makes the island feel rather small even though it isn’t.
The pier and fishing village of Koh Touch is the hub of Koh Rong island. The Khmers open their wooden fishing houses as guest houses and foreigners open rustic bars on the island and the locals and westerners mingle together. Lazy days on the island were spent swimming, sunbathing, walking along the beach, watching dogs play fighting and children playing, drinking fresh fruit shakes from the stalls that the locals had set up. Island life is dictated by the arrival of the 2 daily boats that bring in passengers, tourists and all food and supplies from the mainland and take back out the rubbish.
Most of the action is based around the village but a few other rustic resorts and empty beaches are scattered around the island. The village does already feel a little crowded so if you came to Koh Rong to get away from it all you will need to make the effort to get across the island.
Other beaches on Koh Rong
Koh Rong is covered in thick jungle so it’s not easy to get around but there are boats to other villages and beaches if you want to escape. The easiest escape from Koh Touch is Long Beach, the easiest way to get to the other side of the island would be to charter a small boat but if you’re up for a challenge you can make the sticky trek through the lush jungle that blanketed the islands steep hillsides before falling into the turquoise sea.
The trail is called the flip flop trail and I did it in swim suit and flip flops thinking it would be an easy 5 min stroll but actually climbing up and down hills, watching out for poisonous snakes and clambering over rocks on the steep, sweaty jungle track made for a pretty exhausting trek in the heat.
But it was worth it…
After the sticky trek the plunge into the cool sea at the end felt amazing. On the other side of the island is Long Beach and a small, rustic resort called Broken Heart.
The beach over here is even more amazing – so white it blinds your eyes and squeaky, soft beneath your feet as it swirls into sea so gorgeously blue and it goes on for miles without seeing another soul. Here you really can find your own slice of paradise before wading out to catch a boat going back to the village in the afternoon if you can’t face another jungle trek.
There are also other beaches and villages on the island like Lonely Beach at the very North but you wouldn’t be able to walk there, you would need to get a boat to get there and they aren’t that cheap.
Nightlife in Koh Rong
The highlight of Koh Rong was the nightlife – but not the bar kind! (although there is now plenty of that and alcohol, and other things, are all available here)
After a few drinks on the beach instead of turning into bed at 3am I headed back down to the darkest part of the beach skeptical at what I would see. I waded slowly into the dark, glassy sea and waited. At first nothing happened but then I moved deeper into the sea and started the waves my arms and legs around under the water.
I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing as the water started to glitter with flashes of light from the phosphorescent plankton as it followed my every move through the ocean lighting up and sparkling the most vibrantly in the darkest parts. In the dark I noticed a dozen other people all doing the same and staring at the sea in wide eyed amazement.
The glittering phosphorescent plankton is such a surreal and magical experience I started to question if it was really happening or if I had had way too much to drink but sure enough as I played for ages in the sea swimming, and wriggling my hands and feet to simulate and illuminate the iridescent neon green plankton continued to glitter away and amaze me.
I wish I could have got a photo of it, but if you want to see the plankton you’ll just have to visit Koh Rong and see it for yourself!
Scuba diving on Koh Rong
There is now a scuba diving and snorkeling business on the island and Koh Rong is one of the cheapest places in the world to learn to dive plus the visibility and variety of marine life is great. It’s also possible to organise snorkeling or spear fishing trip with local fishermen or hire a kayak and paddle across the sea to a tiny rocky island home to an old crumbling temple. You also get great views back over to Koh Rong island.
Tips for visiting Koh Rong
Koh Rong is beautiful but still a very undeveloped island so you may need to forfeit some luxuries here. Be aware that electricity only works for a couple of hours a day, the water is kind of brakish and salty and many places do not have hot water and only have manual scoop flush toilets.
There are no ATMs on the island so bring enough cash with you, and be prepared to be disconnected – even though some places advertise Wifi it really doesn’t work well enough to actually do anything. There are also annoying sand flies but if you use coconut oil on your skin this stops them from biting too much but there are no medical facilities on the island.
Due to the increasing popularity of Koh Rong it’s a good idea to book your accommodation in advance, especially if arriving late in the day in peak season.
The Future for Koh Rong
Life on Koh Rong can lazily slip from days into weeks and I can understand why many backpackers get stuck here and end up staying on Koh Rong for months, this lazy, laid back life style on this beautiful tropical island is appealing and the rustic feel and lack of package tourists, ring roads, development and 7/11s is wonderfully refreshing.
There’s no denying that Koh Rong is a beautiful, laid back, rustic tropical island, for now. But already I can see that the island is changing, developing and becoming crowded, noisy and dirty. Foreigners now out number locals, guest houses are being rapidly built to keep up with demand and rubbish and waste water is starting to become a big problem.
The Cambodian government has sold Koh Rong to an investment group who have grand plans to turn this island into another Koh Samui complete with ring road, airport and five star luxury resorts. There has not been much of this kind of development so far although rumours have it for a five-star hotel and casino at the southern end of Long Beach look by December 2016.
So far the rustic bungalows have been left alone on the terms that they have signed agreements saying they will leave whenever they are ordered to.
There’s no denying there is something special about Koh Rong; the beautiful beach, rustic vibe and the travelers community, I just hope that the inevitable development of the island will be able to sustain this pristine paradise, the special atmosphere and the affordability but if you want to see this backpacker’s paradise go now.
Have you been to Koh Rong? How was it for you?
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