While Sihanoukville is still Cambodia's most popular beach spot with locals and tourists alike, the islands off Sihanoukville's shore are quickly becoming a destination in their own right. Located in the turquoise-blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, the Cambodian islands have an undeveloped, laid-back charm not easily found elsewhere.
While many of the islands are covered in jungle and almost completely uninhabited, others have lovely stretches of perfect beaches and have started to cater to tourists, offering bungalows, tree houses and camping opportunities. Most of the islands are slated for major development, so if you're looking to appreciate the rustic atmosphere, go sooner rather than later.
The most developed of the islands is Koh Rong, located about two and a half hours from the mainland by regular boat (speed boats are on their way, but aren't in regular operation yet). This island is one of the most beautiful in the archipelago, with miles of white sand beaches, gently swaying palm trees and tropical fruit orchards. Koh Rong has more than a dozen guest houses and bungalows and more are springing up every day, ranging from dormitories and inexpensive home stays to flashpacker accommodations and fancier family-sized bungalows.
The southeastern tip of the island is where most of the accommodation is situated, and it's the busiest part of the island, with fire dancers, nightly beach barbecues and music that can go into the wee hours. If this isn't your cup of tea, there are more secluded options located around the island. Nature lovers will appreciate the many hiking and snorkeling opportunities, and there are two scuba outfits on the island offering dives and certification.
For those looking for something a little more luxurious, just off of Koh Rong are two private islands known as Song Saa (sweethearts, in Khmer) that are home to an all-inclusive five-star resort, the first of its kind in Cambodia.
If you're coming from Koh Rong, you can take a boat straight to Koh Rong Samloem, the next largest island in the Koh Rong archipelago. Located about two hours from shore, Koh Rong Samloem has several guesthouses offering a quieter, more secluded alternative to Koh Rong. Koh Rong Samloem is dotted with empty beaches and relaxation opportunities are not hard to find. If you're looking to experience a bit of rustic island life, you can stay in Mai Pai Bai village on the northernmost part of the island, but be warned: Cambodian roosters wake up early! There are also a couple of foreign-run dive outfits operating out of the village that offer certification and trips to nearby islands for dives. On the western side of the island there are lovely beaches and a few accommodation options, ranging from cheap and cheerful to more upmarket bungalows.
Closer to shore is Koh Russei, or ‘Bamboo Island’. The island is favored by backpackers and even though most of the accommodation has been torn down, what remains is as popular as ever. At less than an hour from Sihanoukville, the island is the closest to the mainland and easily visited on a day trip. Many of the tour operators in town include Koh Russei on their islands day trips, but they all stick to the golden sand beaches on the eastern side of the island. It's just a short walk to the more secluded beach on the western side if you want to escape the crowds.
Next to Koh Russei is Koh Ta Kiev, a lovely island with beachside camping and simple treehouse accommodation. Lovely yellow sand beaches dotted with pine trees offer the perfect spot for reading and relaxing, and visitors will never find themselves too far from a hammock. Koh Ta Kiev also offers many bird-watching and snorkeling opportunities for day trippers.
Located off the shore of Ream National Park is Koh Thmei, an island that is on the brink of development but is still blissfully quiet. Flanked by mangrove forests and home to more than a hundred species of birds, the island offers splendid sunset views and the chance to stay in a compound of ecologically minded bungalows that are set up with solar power and a special water filtration system. Otherwise Koh Thmei is as yet still almost completely untouched and receives very few visitors.
Further offshore are Koh Tang and Koh Prins, which are only reachable by boat, a trip that can take as much as eight hours. These islands offer what are said to be the bestdiving opportunities in Cambodia, but visits must be arranged via the diving and fishing outfits in Sihanoukville, as they do not have independent accommodation on the islands themselves.
Things to do on the islands...
Most visitors to Cambodia's islands are happy to do little more than relax and sunbathe on the gorgeous beaches. If you're looking for something more adventurous, there are many activities to keep you busy on the islands. There are dive outfits located on Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem where you can get certified or do fun dives -- there are also dive trips organized from the mainland that go to some of the more distant islands including Koh Tang and Koh Prins (see page 29). You'll find ample snorkeling opportunities on all of the islands, and most of the bungalows have snorkel equipment to rent for under $5. It's also possible to tag along on one of the diving trips that leave from Koh Rong or Koh Rong Samloem if you'd like to snorkel further afield.
Although most of the islands aren't very big, Koh Rong is big enough to offer multi-day trekking opportunities, and there are a few marked paths for shorter trips. Inquire at your guesthouse for more details. Bird watching opportunities abound, especially on Koh Ta Kiev and Koh Thmei, which is home to over 150 species of birds. Those who enjoy fishing will find lots to do on the islands, from spear fishing on Koh Ta Kiev to overnight boat trips to Saracen Bay on Koh Rong Samloem. Fishing trips are best organized from Sihanoukville, although there are day trips from Koh Rong and many guesthouses have their own basic equipment if you want to strike out on your own.
Organized boat trips are available from Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem, but it's best to organize from the mainland if you're looking for something other than a day trip, (see page 30.) There are also simple three-island trips that offer a barbecue lunch and a chance to visit a couple of the islands that sit closer to shore. If you're already on the islands, it's also possible to hire private boats to go between the islands. Be aware, though, that due to the cost of petrol private boats can be quite pricey. It's possible to go between Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem for about $20, and there is a daily boat from the pier run by the Dive Shop for $10 per person.
Getting to the Islands...
It's best to reserve a room in advance for island accommodation and check with your guesthouse about the best way to reach the islands. The smaller islands have private boats once per day arranged by the guesthouses. Only Koh Rong has enough accommodation to show up without a reservation -- if you'd like to go there, you should decide first which side of the island you want to go to (it's quite large, and still difficult to traverse by land). There are two daily boats that go to the southeastern side of the island, leaving at 8am and 2pm from the Sihanoukville port. Tickets can be purchased on Serendipity Beach Road for $20 return, and a shuttle to the pier leaves from Koh Rong Dive Center at 7:15am or in front of Monkey Republic at 1pm. The Dive Shop also runs a 7am boat to Koh Rong that leaves from Pier 52 in the port, plus an afternoon boat from Serendipity Beach. Both cost $25 return. It's also possible to book a private speedboat through some of the agents on Serendipity BeachRoad. A speedboat will save a few hours off your journey, but it won't come cheap.
Most of the available accommodations in the islands are quite rustic - wood and thatch bungalows and basic rooms on or near a beach. It's best to reserve a room in advance for island accommodation and check with your guesthouse about the best way to reach the islands. It is a unique time to stay on the islands of Sihanouk Ville, still offering something of a Robinson Crusoe ambiance that will no doubt be lost to development in the coming years.