There were we. Sihanoukville, a Chinese gambling and beach city at the gulf of Thailand. The sun was about to set and the streets around the pier were buzzing with people. Women selling grilled squids from a bucket BBQ or slicing fresh fruits for vitamins to go, kids were running around, and men were trying to sell you tuktuk rides or ferry tickets. And somewhere in the distance music was blasting. So just the usual southeast Asian atmosphere.
We checked in at our guesthouse, just 10 meters from the pier above a Japanese restaurant, and with direct view aross the sea from the terrace. We sat down to watch the sun set and have our well earned arrival beer, as one of our neighbors left his room. A man in his 80s from England. He sat down next to us and started talking with us. He is a doctor who worked in the US and Hong Kong, retired for a couple of years already, and currently in Cambodia for some dental procedures which are supposedly cheaper yet of equal quality in Phnom Penh than in Hong Kong. He has been backpacking his hole life, going through eastern Europe in the 60s and 70s, and just recently upgraded to double rooms instead of dorms, as his 70-year old wife is not as fit as she used to be. A quite interesting talk and a nice reminder that, given you stay healthy, traveling as backpacker is something you can do all your life. you just have to like it ;-).
After dinner we took a walk along the beach to find a nice bar for a few drinks. The beach seamed endless, as far as we could see there were lighs of hotels, bars and resorts along the coast, so we walked with our feet in the breakers which calmly rolled in from the sea. Surprisingly for the first minutes we did not see any bars. All the lights were from private parties on the beach, all equipped with big speakers at what looked like pre-installed cocktail tables. Pretty neat idea. The downside, however, was right in front of us. Trash. A lot of trash. Everywhere on the beach. And the reason: people just seem to not give a fuck. Very often I saw people carelessly dropping plastic wrappers or tossing away cans. So sad to see such a beautiful nature spoiled like that.
The next morning we took the ferry at 11.00 to Koh Rong. We explicitly bought the direct ferry to avoid the detour to Koh Rong Sanloem, however, the lady at the ticket counter intentionally sold us the wrong tickets. Instead with the recommended direct fast ferry we took a smaller and less renown company which almost doubled the time on the boat and, as we would find out later, did not have an office on Koh Rong island, so you don’t know when or if a boat is going from Koh Rong to the main land. Just another proof that there is not one honest soul in Cambodian transport industry. In retrospect I can say that not one tuktuk, taxi, bus, or ferry person did not (try to) lie to or overcharge us.
We boarded the ferry around 11.00, it was a rather modern speed ferry with maybe 60-70 seats, and is quickly filled up with a mix of tourists and few locals. In front of Melli and me was a Khmer family of 5. Father, mother, two very young kids, maybe 6 monts and 2 years, and a lively 3 or 4 year old. The older girl was watching music videos on her parents tablet for the first part of the trip, until she got bored and discovered us behind her seat. She started to play peek-a-boo with Melli and me, always hiding behind her seat and then popping up and laughing. Our lighter hair and my reddish beard were especially tempting to her. When she was popping up she tried to touch our hair or my beard, laughing and hiding again. We joined the game and started to hide as well, or peeking through the slits between the seats when she was hiding. Up and down the seats she climbed, grabbing beard and hair and having a lot of fun. Her parents, on the other hand, did not care at all what she was doing, or that we were playing with her. Imagine in Germany some strangers would start playing with your kid, it would grab their beard or hair, and climb on chairs. I don’t know who would get more yelled at, the kid or the stranger. Not only here but also in other situations, where for example 5 year olds were watching over 2 year olds when the parents weren’t around, it seemed to me that in Cambodia parents are more trusting in their kids and strangers.
After 1.5 hours we arrived at Koh Rong. From the boat you could see long white beaches, a beach front with small houses, and behind the houses the jungle rising across the island. I stepped off the boat, with my backpack on the back and my daypack on the front, and let the scenery sink in for a moment. Turquoise waters, wooden pier, small restaurants and guest houses on the beach front, backpacker and locals walking along the footpaths in front of the houses, and the smell of fresh food in the air. From all the pictures of Cambodia I had in my head, this was not it. This were the pictures you knew from glossy Thailand travel brochures or Caribbean islands. Then we went up behind the beachfront where we would stay the first two nights.
Finding the right hostel on Koh Rong is actually not that easy. In the main settlement, Koh Touch, are many guesthouses and hostels, but also the main bars and clubs. You have almost endless options for eating and drinking, but also hear the people partying until late at night every day. The bungalows and resorts further away or even on the other sides of the island are quiet and relaxed, but you have to walk a bit to other hotels, if any, to try a different restaurant. Melli found a great location just at the end of white beach, the beach right at Koh Touch. It offered treehouses as bungalows, built in the palm tree tops right at the beach. Sleeping with a view across the sea up high in a tree was tempting, but the only availability was 9 to 11 January and for 70 USD/night. Quite steep for a backpacking budget, but we decided that we need to treat ourselves every now and then, so we booked two nights in the tree house and the 2 preceding nights in a cheaper guesthouse for 20 USD/night. Still not dead cheap, bu you don’t want to be on the other end of the island or in-between the party bars, so you have to take what you get if you book last minute.
We started to explore the town and it’s long, white beach. The beach front with restaurants and guesthouses stretches along 200-300 meters along the southern part of the beach. On it’s southern end was the Khmer village, where the locals live, and at the northern end where the beach continues the side-by-side houses are replaced by sparse bungalows and forest. This island was a place for backpackers largely run by backpackers. All menus at restaurants were in English, every bar was offering the best pizza in town, burgers with fries, and of course the best pub crawl in Cambodia. Western staff was working as waiters, and all wanted signs were asking for western staff. This place is heaven for those who want to live away from home but still feel like home. At night a mini night marked popped up along the restaurants, selling vegan samosas, hand-knit accessories, or jewelry made from scrap metal. All the things to bring some money into the travel fund and allow to stay a bit longer on the beautiful island. I talked to a few people about how long they were on Koh Rong. Some stayed only a few weeks, other a couple of months, but some already stayed for years and were not planning on leaving any time soon.
With all the western-oriented menus it was actually harder to find good, non-standard Khmer food than spaghetti or burger. Luckily we found a small, family-run restaurant on the pier with the name “Khmer family restaurant”, or at least it was the only part I could read. On the 8 tables many locals were sitting and having beer, with 0.75 to 1 USD per glass or can in Cambodia a big bargain, so we gave it a shot. The food was really good, smooth barracuda amok, juicy fried noodles, and spicy shrimp with green Kampot pepper. But spicy in Cambodia means edible-spicy. Not the chili madness of Thailand, where a “little spicy” papaya salad brings tears in your eyes and and burns at least twice. And the prices for main dishes were between 2 and 4 USD, also en par if not cheaper than Thailand given the quality you get.
The first two days we mainly explored the beaches north of Koh Touch: long set beach, also known as 4k beach, and Vietnamese beach. Long set beach is an almost 4 km long fine white sand beach with shallow waters. The sand is so fine it really squeaks when you walk on it. A good half hour from the town there are small bungalow resorts and tent resorts the only buildings in sight. It’s easy to see why people loose track of time here. After another 20 minutes through the forest at the end of long set beach lies Vietnamese beach. Not as white, not as sandy, but spotted with rocks along the coast, it is a nice place for a little bit of snorkeling.
For the last two days we moved into our trehouse. A quite spacious bungalow up in the trees, less than 5 meters from the waterfront, which was luxurious yet the same time basic with power only in the morning and evening, and only cold water. From the balcony we had an unobstructed view across the sea, and as we learned the next morning, direct view of the sun rising from the sea. A nice way to wake up at 6 am, when the bright and warm reddish light shines through the mosquito net onto your face. The second morning we even had a few visitors. Two monkeys jumped on our balcony, rather young ones I would guess, and one even tried to come through the open balcony door. But a loud “shhhh” was enought to convince the little guy that there is nothing of interest in our room.
After 5 days and 4 nights we decided to leave Koh Rong and head towards Kampot, a small town on a river a few hours away from Sikhanoukville. If you had asked me before if a small paradisiac island like Koh Rong belongs to Cambodia, I would not have believed it. A few days there are totally worth the border hassle.