Another day, another bus journey gone wrong. Akriti and I been promised an early bus from Phnom Penh in order to get to Sihanoukville to catch the 2pm ferry to Koh rong, but as we were quickly learning Cambodian time is a law unto itself. Everyone will depart an hour later than it’s supposed to and you always need to add two hours on to the projected time (i.e. “The bus will only take four hours” actually means “the bus will take six if you’re lucky”).
We therefore had time to kill in seaside port town Sihanoukville while we waited for our 5pm ferry. The pier area is a bit of a dump, full of construction and tuk tuk tours, but thanks to a recommendation from Merel we killed time at dreamy vegan restaurant Dao. With the vegan fritters, fancy juices and sea views I could almost have been back in Bali.
A fairly painless hour long speed boat ride took us over to the island of Koh Rong. It stopped first at Koh Toch, the busy backpacker part of the beach, and then onto smaller bays around the island. We had elected to stay on the quieter side of the island at Coconut Beach, which was super secluded and away from it all.
Let me start by explaining that Koh Rong was only discovered by tourism a few years ago. People say it’s like Thailand was 30 years ago and it’s hailed (rightly so) as total paradise. There are no roads on the island yet so the only way around is either by boat or a pretty rough trek through the jungle that inhabits the middle of the island. For this reason, it really is different from anywhere I’ve ever visited – and by far Coconut Beach felt like one of the more remote place I’ve stayed, excepting perhaps the Malawian safari camp I stayed at with my friends a few years ago where we only had each other and elephants for company. There are no shops, just a couple of bungalows dotted in the hillside overlooking the sea, and a couple of small cafe shacks that have now sprung up to serve the tourists that stay there. Needless to say, despite its remoteness, there is of COURSE wi-fi because, I am learning, there is wi-fi absolutely everywhere in the world! Which sort of makes me sad, but also forever grateful to be connected.
Akriti and I had booked into the aptly named Coconut Beach Bungalows, and it was the best decision we could have made. After our time in Cambodia’s cities we really needed to chill. Coconotbeach is a simply gorgeous, rustic place tucked away at the end of the shoreline. Run by host Robbie and his lovely family, it is honestly the stuff dreams are made of and I my time spent here was one of the absolute highlights of my whole trip.
When I emailed Robbie my initial enquiry he explained that we could stay in a bungalow, a no frills cabin or a tent on the seafront – with slight trepidation and zero research, we decided to be adventurous and chose a tent. Neither of us actually thought to look at the pictures so both envisioned arriving off the ferry some glorious white glamping yurt. But no, of course this was indeed your regular camping tent but set up off the ground on a wooden platform with a rain/anti mosquito canopy and a mattress, sheet and pillows inside it, so not totally roughing it! You used shared bathroom facilities and had no electricity in the tent, as you’d expect from a proper campsite. It was utterly amazing falling asleep to the sound of waves and waking up and pulling the zipper open to see the sea crashing on the shore through the trees on our first morning.
The beaches on Koh Rong were probably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, perhaps with the exception of Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays. They even surpassed the Nusas and Gilis of Bali. The feel of squeaking powdered white sand under your feet, the coconut trees blowing in the breeze and water that was the clearest blue, plus the seclusion and lazy island vibes, make it one of my favourite places I have ever visited.
Secluded it was, but Robbie and his family were keen to ensure their were comfortable and happy at all times. The food was delicious and served in a gorgeous wooden restaurant at the top of the hill overlooking the sea – with its own well stocked library, much to my delight. At this point we were both sticking to veggie food and it was all really good. I will say that Cambodian food did not blow me away; had it not been sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand where the food is so amazing and unique, it might have. And I did really enjoy Amok, their traditional coconut milk curry, and some delicious breakfasts at Robbie’s.
On the Sunday, we spent a lazy day on the beach, lying out in the sun until the sun started to go down – I think my favourite time of day to lie on the beach is that lovely, balmy, hazy late afternoon time when the sun softens and the sky starts to darken. Sigh. At 6, when it got dark, Robbie lit a bonfire and invited all the guests staying there to sit around it and drink beers (and listen to Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton which was seemingly played on a loop, they really bloody LOVE that song in Cambodia). We then sent off lanterns into the sky (and made wishes obvs) and watched fireworks. I think the best part of this was the reaction of the Cambodian schoolchildren staying at the camp, who screamed with elation every time a firework went off.
Later on, Robbie turned off all the lights so there was no light pollution and we went into the sea and swam with bioluminescent plankton! I’ve never done this before and it was absolutely beautiful. We then lay under the most beautiful starry night I have ever seen before having an early night in our tent with only the sound of the sea lulling us to sleep. We both agreed it was probably the most romantic night of our lives, more romantic than we have had with any guy (if anyone is looking for a rustic honeymoon spot this would be a DREAM)! But there is no one one I would rather have spent it with and it honestly was one of my favourite memories of my whole entire trip.
After almost four days of total seclusion and laziness, we decided to head to Koh Toch, the busy backpacker strip of the island – mainly to meet some other travellers and have a few drinks. For meeting people and eating at some good restaurants/finding some decent bars, it was great, but that was about the extent of the charm of Koh Toch for me. The most unappealing part of this small strip of beach is that there is no sewage system, so big blue pipes just spew sewage into the sea – it is honestly such a shame and makes me so sad that such a beautiful beach is being so polluted! We heard stories of travellers getting nasty infections from going in the water there so stayed out of it. If you want to swim in Koh Toch, think again – you’ll need to walk to 4K beach or get a taxi boat to one of the other beaches on the island.
‘People go to Koh Toch and never leave’ warned one traveller I met in Siem Reap. And it’s true that there is a small expat community of people who seemingly visited the island and never left. While I understand the appeal of living on a tropical island, I have this fascination with this particular type of expat that ends up in places like Koh Toch as the lifestyle I observed many of them living isn’t one that appeals to me in the slightest. I am absolutely not saying everyone does this but from what I see, there’s just a lot of daytime – and night time – drinking, a lot of smoking weed and not a lot else to while away your day doing if you decide to live there. One Australian woman working in a restaurant there served us drunk and proudly told us she’d been drinking all day and gone to work anyway. It just felt like a bit of a bizarre place and we observed that a lot of these Western people seemed a little bit out of it and a little bit lost – but I guess that’s what you get if you visit one of the drinking hot spots of Cambodia?
Take island “legend” Richie Rich, who heckled us from a bar stool outside his bar to join the “biggest ever Koh Rong pub crawl” on Tuesday night. We were hesitant, and didn’t join it officially, but ended up going along because the strip of bars was so small it’s just where everyone who went out that night ended up anyway.
Ok, you all know that I can get wild and crazy and let my hair down and many people reading this will have been witness to some outrageous behaviour, but let me say this here now – I am officially over organised pub crawls. I just can’t relax into them. I find the forced fun/big group of people thing utterly overwhelming and the way people behave horrifies me to the point I’ve realised I might just be becoming a proper, boring grown up. There’s a reason most of them are full of young backpackers and at 21 I would have LOVED a lairy pub crawl with a bunch of strangers (in fact I did, does anyone remember Carnage in Cardiff?! Those really were the days). But that side of backpacking isn’t for me. That night, between us we saw three couples doing bits VERY publicly (including two women on a pool tables upstairs, much to the delight of the group of men who had gathered to watch and were behaving like a pack of rabid dogs), one guy we genuinely thought had died because he fell and smacked his head and there was blood everywhere and arghhhh (I really hope he ended up being ok), people vomiting and pissing in the street. Etc etc, you get the picture.
That said, I’m kind of glad I went believe it or not because we made the best of it, laughing at ourselves and some of the drunk people we met. It’s not partying or having fun or drinking a lot of tequila I object to, I just find the carnage that comes along with these events really disrespectful to local cultures and communities – especially in a town where there are signs saying please don’t wear a bikini in the street and please don’t drink in the street. I KNOW I sound like a boring old kill joy but this blog is for my reflections and these are my reflections on pub crawls. So there you have it.
To summarise, I would go back to Koh Rong in a heartbeat but would skip Koh Toch and head straight for Coconut Beach to read books in the sun and drink margaritas at lunch and wake up to waves crashing on the shore.
Situated about 10k West of Sihanoukville, Otres Beach won Akriti and I both over instantly and we both wished we had longer there.
Let me explain that everything in Cambodia is slightly rough around the edges so this is not a pretty little village – when I had heard that most of the businesses were Western run I think I conjured up a European seaside town in my head. But of course, Otres has got the same dirty dusty roads and random piles of rubbish and cows hanging out in the street and ramshackle buildings that grace the rest of Cambodia. But something about it just charmed us both and the beach itself was beautiful and clean.
The vibes are far more laid back than Koh Toch – there are a lot of expats and older travellers there, it’s very hippy and VERY chilled. Everything just felt nice and slow in Otres, I think it helps that pretty much everywhere on the beach is 420-friendly (I couldn’t possibly comment on whether we made the most of that or not but I was verrrrry relaxed by the end of our stay here). We stayed in a really nice bungalow (Whitemoon Bungalows) in Otres Village run by a lovely family, but hung out on the beach at Otres 1. Our favourite spot here was an Italian restaurant/beach bar called Papa Pippo where I had my first pasta in four months and it was my favourite – simple, al dente spaghetti with good olive oil, garlic, chilli and black pepper. YUM.
Is definitely recommend skipping and Sihnoukbille and heading straight for Otres and the islands.
Reflections on Cambodia
And just like that, mine and Akriti’s time in Cambodia – and together – was over. We headed back to Phnom Penh together so she could head back to London and I to Thailand. It was really hard for me to say goodbye as not only did we get much closer (inevitable when you’re camping in a tent on the beach in hot season) but with Christmas just around the corner I sort of just wanted to jump on the plane to London with A and see everyone.
But it is not an easy country to travel; kudos to Akriti for using two weeks of annual leave for what was probably quite a tiring trip, with lots of disjointed and long journeys, mishaps and amusing ‘this could only happen in SE Asia moments’ (for example, the time we waited an hour and a half for our dinner and every time we asked when it might arrive were told with a shrug “maybe soon, maybe later”). Luxuries like hot showers and air con are out of the question on a backpacker budget, in fact after Siem Reap we never had one. AC – and indeed electricity – isn’t a given everywhere. Unlike Bali and Thailand it is a proper developing country.
When people scoff at Cambodia for being dirty or poor or boring I would urge them to consider why. We would have agreed that, unlike its slap-you-in-the-face-with-culture neighbours Vietnam and Thailand, Cambodia is sort of lacking an identity, as well as some of the dramatic scenery . It feels like a country that doesn’t quite know itself and is catching up with itself. Of course it is. When you look at what happened here, you understand why that is and forgive it those things and appreciate it for what it is. You look a little deeper. You notice things like there aren’t many old people in Cambodia – because most of them were killed. You find yourself looking at the people you meet and wondering how they were affected. You forgive it its poverty and, in a non patronising way, you are amazed at the way it has done such a brilliant job at recovering just forty years on and building a tourist industry which is growing year on year.
You see the beauty in its temples and its stunning, relatively undiscovered islands and its warm people and you love it for those things. I would never discourage anyone a visit and, if you missed it on a SE Asia trip you’d be doing yourself and a recovering country a massive disservice.