Koh Rong is a place
That does not want to be reached.
Boats coast waves from the mainland
that would thrill seasoned surfers
passengers are less enthused
and bolt for the toilets.
If the weather is poor
or the sea is too rough
you may be stuck in Sihanoukville.
Sorry, tough luck.
For those who do wash up
on its blinding white coast
the island is not exactly
a hospitable host.
Snakes fill the dense jungle
beware their venomous bites
there are no birds or mammals
and a limited freshwater supply.
Sand fleas feast on tender legs on the shore
the warm saltwater corrodes and infects open wounds.
This island does not want to be discovered.
This island does not want to be known.
Yet one day the twenty seven hidden beaches
lining the jungle backed coast
may be disrupted by casinos, clubs and resorts
The jungle will be flattened
with a paved road and an airport.
Men will take over
perhaps nature will retort.
with bites behind my knees and between my toes
intermittent electricity, cold showers
and one sand path instead of roads
nowhere but Koh Rong
could feel so right.
Awakened by roosters and sobbing children
I watch the sunrise on the pier
fishing boats rock in the distance
the waves are all I hear.
Women sell fruit
from picnic tables on the beach
children, puppies, roosters
run freely in the “street”.
Walking past the backpacker bars
serving eggs, beans, and toast
guesthouses become fewer
bungalows dot the coast.
Through a jungle path
then wading across a bay
the stretch of sand on 4K beach
is my morning getaway.
For adventure I hike a jungle path
up and down rocky cliffs
the deafening sounds of cicadas surround me
until I finally reach the sea.
On Long beach time stands still
with miles of shore white as snow
the ocean is clear and turquoise
the sand so clean it squeaks under my toes.
When the fiery sun lowers on the horizon
tourists gather silently honoring its majesty
all that exists is the crash of the waves
the hum of the jungle
the beat of my heart
the island has everything I need.
Boats takes beach bums
back into town
the journey is cathartic
no one makes a sound.
For dinner I eat Khmer noodles
or freshly grilled catch
sip wine with a plate of gnocchi
while the Italian owner sings.
Bars compete for tourists
playing reggae, dub step, or hip hop
come midnight the electricity ceases
forcing the party to stop.
When darkness surrounds the island
wade out into the night sea
comb the water with your hands
plankton glows luminously.
Magical places become developed
here and everywhere else
but is there a way to make progress
without the devastating cost?
Can building sustain instead of deplete?
Can communities collaborate instead of compete?
Can people preserve instead of pollute?
Can culture thrive instead of dilute?
For Koh Rong this is what I hope.
So if you must go
if you must build
please hear my plea:
Keep Koh Rong real.
Keep Koh Rong right.
How to Keep Koh Rong Right
Refill Your Water Bottle
One of the biggest adjustments for me traveling the last two months through Southeast Asia has been lowering my standards on how much waste I produce. I spent the first few weeks in Vietnam walking across cities dehydrated asking to refill my water. People looked at me like I was a crazy woman. So, you can imagine my elation when I arrived on Koh Rong and saw signs EVERYWHERE for water refills!! Not only does it save tons of plastic from being burned or shipped off the island to landfills, it also saves lots of money. Restaurants typically charge $1 for a bottle, versus only $.25 for a refill.
Respect the Culture
Yes Koh Rong is vacation paradise, but is also home to a community of locals. Remember that you are a guest and treat your hosts respectfully. This means donning a cover up when you come into the town instead of walking around in just your bikini. It doesn’t take much effort for you and it makes a big deal to them. Do your best to learn some of the language. Khmer is probably the hardest language I’ve attempted, but people always appreciate the effort. Consider locals as new friends, not as novelties to be photographed. The people here are unbelievably friendly and will encourage their darling children to wave and you and say hello. Most do not mind if you take a photo, but it’s important to always ask.
Directly in front of The Friends of Koh Rong on the pier jutting out from the village are recycling bins. Use them. It’s easy.
Support the Right Businesses
Voting with your dollar is hardly a new concept. Support businesses who are developing sustainably. You dictate the development of a place by creating demand for certain kinds of businesses. Perhaps instead of raising concern about spotty wifi or inconsistent electricity, make suggestions for better recycling and use of all natural cleaning products.
Friends of Koh Rong is making an inspiring effort to help the island develop sustainably. This means establishing better waste management and recycling practices as well, educating the locals to prepare them for the tourism influx, and improving the health and nourishment of the children on the island. You can get involved through monetary donations, volunteering, or simply spreading the word. Even if you are just staying on the island for a few days, you can pop into the education center and spend an hour teaching the kids English. Find out more on their website.
How to Reach Koh Rong
$20 round trip, 2.5 hours
Hostels and tour companies in Sihanoukville (reachable by bus or flight from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, or Thailand) arrange boat trips from your hotel/hostel to the island. Be prepared, the ride is rough and does not always leave on time. The boats offer open ended return dates so don’t be surprised if you get stuck on the island!
$26 round trip, 40 minutes
Why would anyone take the slow boat when there is a fast boat for practically the same price?? Oh, right, because guesthouses won’t tell you it exists! Pay the extra $6 and get there in a fraction of the time without the seasickness!
What to Do on Koh Rong
Hike to Long Beach
An intense but quick 45 minute hike, across the island from the main town, takes you to one of the most beautiful, untouched beaches in the world. The trail is well blazed and well marked with plenty of signs, but do not go alone!! There are plenty of snakes in the jungle, it’s possible to take the wrong path, and the steep rocks can easily be slipped on. Wear proper shoes for all the rock scrambling and to protect your toes from critters. You can also take a boat ride from the main pier for a few dollars. I highly recommend taking the boat back to watch the sun set on Long Beach before returning to the other side of the island.
Less of a mission than Long Beach but arguably as beautiful, 4K beach can be accessed by following the beach from the main town past TreeHouse Bungalows and along a jungle trail that follows the coast. It takes about twenty minutes until you need to walk across a lagoon about waist deep. From there you have a 4 kilometer long unspoiled beach.
Snorkeling, Fishing, Sunset Cruise
Most bars and guesthouses on Koh Rong offer boat trips that depart at 1pm and include snorkeling, fishing, and a beach BBQ on Long Beach. The price ranges from $5 to $10 per person depending on the size of your group and the outfit. You can also create your own tours, like spearfishing, with a local.
A few guesthouses rent kayaks enabling you to explore tiny nearby islands and discover hidden beaches. The current can be strong so ask around before deciding to venture out. Rates aren’t cheap at around $20 for the day.
Explore Nearby Islands
Koh Rong is the largest and most developed of the islands off of Sihanoukville. Charter a boat and explore some of the pristine nearby islands. Many guesthouses offer tours as well. Some of the islands, like Koh Rong Samloem have guesthouses you can stay in. Read about the other islands here.
The Koh Rong Dive Center offers PADI certified training courses, free dives, and discovery dives. They also offer a complimentary orientation for tourists the moment the boat arrives to the island.
See the Phosphorescent Plankton
At around 1am head to a dark spot on the beach and swim out into the sea. The ocean will began to glow and sparkle around you with phosphorescent plankton. Obviously, do not do this alone and keep your valuables in your guesthouse.
Where to Sleep on Koh Rong
$6 dorm bed, $12 private, shared bathroom
For an inexpensive room on Koh Rong you really can’t beat White Rose Guesthouse. The facilities are clean, the staff is incredibly kind, the owner speaks fluent English, and there is pretty decent wifi in the morning and evening. Request a room upstairs which feels more light and airy and opens up to a great shared balcony.
$20-$30 for a bungalow
Monkey Island is in a prime location at the far end of the main beach, making it quiet but still close to other restaurants and bars. The bar and restaurant are a great place to meet other travelers, the staff is really friendly, and the owners are dedicated to sustainable development on Koh Rong. Hands down the best budget bungalow option on the island.
$35 to $100 for bungalows that sleep 1-10 people
The most upscale accommodation option on the main beach is Paradise Bungalows. Some huts even have glass enclosures and air conditioning. If it fits the budget it’s certainly worth staying here, or at least visiting their highly affordable and gorgeous dining room. The bungalows are fully solar powered, which is a step in the right direction for the future of the island.
$45/night with shared bathroom, $65/night with private bathroom, includes full breakfast
The one guesthouse on 4K beach has five beautiful bungalows and one large bungalow for a family. The onsite restaurant has an inspired Italian menu. Electricity is available from 6pm to 10pm only so this is a place to truly relax and escape. You can reach it from the main dock by a short 10 minute boat ride.
$10 for a dorm, $25 for a private bungalow
If you decide to stay on remote Long Beach head to Broken Heart Resort, the only guesthouse, which has bungalows overlooking the beach and an onsite restaurant. The location is amazing especially at night when you can see every star in the sky. This is also where you will likely have lunch if you spend the day on Long Beach. The banana flower salad is divine and the staff is super friendly.
Where to Eat on Koh Rong
$2-4 for breakfast, $5-7 for lunch and dinner
If you go to one restaurant on Koh Rong, make it La Mami. Built on a dock over the water the atmosphere is quaint and peaceful. The owner is a lovely character from Italy who will make you feel right at home. One night she brought out her keyboard and played me songs she wrote herself while drinking her own homemade Limoncello. I came here in the morning just after the sunrise for homemade plain yogurt with oats, dates, and fresh tropical fruit and watched the fishermen go out to sea and kids play on the dock. For lunch and dinner they serve a variety of Italian classics including the best gnocchi I have ever tasted and Italian and French wine. The food is simple, but that is precisely what makes it so good. It is truly a magical place.
$6.50 for a 12″ pizza
Nestled in the woods at the end of the main beach are Treehouse Bungalows which have amazing wood fired thin crust pizza. This is a remote island in Cambodia, so don’t expect prosciutto crudo or buffalo mozzarella, but the crust is so thin, crispy, and chewy it doesn’t matter. In fact might be one of the best pizza crusts I’ve ever had!
$5 for a large fillet, salad, potato wedges, and garlic bread
Many bars and guesthouses offer nightly BBQ, but Island Boys has the best one! The fish is freshly caught that day, marinated and grilled, and served with a big satisfying salad and potatoes. It’s a bit more expensive than other places but the portion size is huge. Tables are lit with candles and spill out onto the beach which makes for a great evening atmosphere. Get there early as they sell out of fish fast.
$2-$5 for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
The menu has a huge variety, and it’s all delicious! The restaurant is usually packed in the morning and evening with people staying at nearby guesthouses. Anything from homemade veggie burgers, eggs with hashbrowns, and Khmer curry are made fresh and fast.
$2-$5 for breakfast, lunch, and dinner
Happy Hour 5-9 two for one drinks
Coco’s tends to be where most evenings begin and end on Koh Rong. Their Happy Hour has the best drinks specials, especially the amazing mojitos for $1.50 each, and every night they host a different party.
Don’t expect anything compared to Thailand, but there are a few street food vendors in the main village. Huge, and I mean huge, tropical fruit salads cost $2, fruit smoothies are $1, and a few vendors sell fried rice, fried noodles, and noodle soup.
Good to Know
THE ISLAND HAS NO ATM!!!!! Bring all of your cash to the island with you! If you’re really in a bind some guesthouses and the dive shop will give you a loan that you will need to repay with a fee once you’re back on the mainland.
Nearly all guesthouses and bars shut off electricity in the afternoon and late at night. Wifi and power is typically available from 8am until 12pm and again from 4pm until 12am. Most places do not have hot water showers.
Remember that you in an undeveloped place with open air establishments. Cockroaches and rats occasionally appear in restaurants and guesthouses. Roosters may wake you with their crows in the morning. Learn to deal with it.
Sand fleas can be a huge problem, especially at sunset on Long Beach, so slather your skin with coconut oil when you’re on the beach to keep them at bay. Whatever you do, do not scratch your bites. Leave them alone and they should disappear quickly.
Do not walk by yourself in the jungle. Really. Don’t.
UPDATE: 15 April 2014
Has Koh Rong Gone Wrong?
When I first came to Koh Rong backpackers spoke its name as if it were the mythical island in the novel The Beach. To my surprise since I returned to Cambodia everyone mentioned it with disdain like Koh Phi Phi. I couldn’t understand why! Yet just four months later I hardly recognize this place anymore. There are many new guest houses, tons more boats coming to the island, many tours, and even a zipline. When I wrote this post I worried that big business would destroy the beautiful magic of the island, and funny enough what has tainted my experience this time around is all of the backpackers. Back in November there was definitely a “scene” here, but it was small enough that you could still do your own thing. It could be because it’s Khmer New Year and the end of the high season, but now the beach is littered with drunk drugged out 20 somethings day and night who treat the island with a total lack of respect. The village is full of wonderful people dancing and celebrating the New Year, handing free beers to everyone in the streets, but just 50 feet away and it’s party island… in a bad way. More remote beaches like 4K beach and Long Beach are still beautiful and pristine, fortunately, so if you do go to Koh Rong I highly recommend you stay there. Keep in mind each only has one guest house. Budget travelers can rent tents or string up their own hammocks. If you’re looking for relaxation but don’t want to be on a completely remote beach, I recommend to heading to Koh Rong Saloem, which I plan to write about in the coming weeks.