A trip to Koh Rong Sanloem
A couple of weeks ago, we got invited to go with some friends to Koh Rong Sanloem, which is an island off the coast near Sihanoukville to the south. This trip would be a few firsts for us: our first visit to Sihanoukville, first time to an island in Cambodia and our first time travelling with a group of friends in Cambodia. We travelled over Pchum Ben (ancestor’s day), a week-long holiday where Cambodian people usually visit their home village and pray at their local pagoda.
It was a 4-day trip in total. This gave us two full days on the island, with a day on either side to get there and back.
Day 1: Getting there
We left at 6.30am from Phnom Penh for a 6(ish) hour drive down to Sihanoukville including breaks. The road had just been finished a couple of years ago, so it was a smooth drive all the way down (not a common thing when driving to a province in Cambodia). A couple of highlights we spotted on our drive: 1. A waterfall down the side of Kirirom mountain and 2. Outdoor shrines crowded with people praying for their ancestors for Pchum Ben.
From Sihanoukville, we took a speedboat directly to Koh Rong Sanloem, a ride which took around 30 minutes.
I’d heard a lot about this coastal city since moving to Cambodia. I’d heard that in the past five years, this small beach town was transformed into a Chinese-run gambling city infested with crime, gangs and trash. But personally I found it to be a nice place in the limited time I was there. True, it does somewhat resemble a Chinese city. With big, wide roads, concrete buildings and signs with Chinese writing dominating the cityscape. On the surface it looks like a cleaner and more modern version of Phnom Penh but hey, maybe I just didn’t have time to visit the underbelly.
“None of this was here when I last visited in 2018”, one of my friends tells me.
Looking at the number of high rises, skyscrapers and roads here today, it’s hard for me to even comprehend how this was all built in three years.
The island of Koh Rong Sanloem
Situated next to (and not to be confused with) its bigger sibling, Koh Rong, this island is a beautiful getaway lined with palm trees and a sprinkling of resorts. It’s everything you’d expect from a relaxed tropical island. Although the pandemic has left it feeling a little extra relaxed, sullen even. As far as island tourist destinations go, this one felt pretty untouched – there were almost no roads and and everywhere had to be travelled on foot or by small boat. Wooden boats lay anchored near the shore and the place had a sleepy vibe to it. We were staying in Saracen Bay, the main part of the island, where white sand and blue-green waters run a long stretch enclosed by a bay. It was a great little escape from our usual landscape of concrete, pollution and crowds.
We stayed at Sarasea Resort in a beachside bungalow. Outside of our front door, the only thing separating us from the ocean were a few shrubs and a 30 metre stretch of sand – literally a stone’s throw away (and trust me, I can’t throw very far). It’s quite incredible really: being able to just walk out be in the water in under 15 seconds. We’d really been missing the beach lately and this was just the dose we needed.
It wasn’t exactly the ideal time to be visiting – we were in the middle of rainy season after all. And this held mainly true: it rained every day that we were here, and grey clouds were almost a constant feature on the horizon. But there was always at least a sliver of time during the day that would prove ideal for a swim. It wasn’t the postcard-picturesque-blue-sky scenery you’d imagine when somebody says tropical island, but it was waaay more than good enough.
Day 2: Snorkelling, fishing, waterfall and abandoned resorts
Our Khmer friends organised this morning’s activity for us. In the morning, we were taken out on a small boat waiting for us near the shore. This took us out to a bigger boat anchored a bit further out. The boat’s driver took us out to secluded patch of ocean and on the way we spotted an unreal-looking resort on the other side of the beach with terraced housing. Once we reached the spot, he threw down the anchor and stairs and we jumped in with our snorkels.
The water was calm and it felt liberating to be out swimming in the ocean again. Visibility on this was wasn’t so great – I could only see a couple of metres in front of me. But it was still good enough to spot and swim with a few schools of fish and catch glimpses of coral.
After our snorkelling session, we pulled up the anchor and stairs and moved to a different patch of ocean. Here, the driver gave us spooled fishing lines and bait, and our friends started fishing off the side. Surprisingly within minutes people were catching fish!
After coming back to have lunch and a nap, we went out that afternoon for a stroll to a waterfall on the other side of the beach.
On the way back, Mel lead us into the ruins of an abandoned resort. The same one with terraced housing we spotted on our boat ride that morning. It was a rather bizarre place – the buildings themselves looked new and almost complete, yet some of them were already crumbling. We explored this place for a while with our detective hats on, trying to figure out exactly what had happened here. We gathered that it was built by a Chinese casino company (I spotted a wifi password in one of the empty rooms). Most of the rooms were unfurnished, some of them were sparsely furnished and others looked like they were stuffed full of random things like a family garage. Looking at the new unlaid cables around, it seemed like a project that was probably nearing completion in early 2020 but quickly got abandoned when the coronavirus hit.
Day 3: Hiking turned trail run, lunch at Lazy Beach, movie night
On our last full day on the island, we decided to venture inland. The day before, somebody tipped us off to the fact that there’s a lighthouse on the other side of the island, so we ventured out to explore it. A few of our friends joined us for the start of the hike but had to leave an hour in, so Mel and I continued the rest of the way ourselves. The light rain kept us cool most of the way, which was nice.
After we reached the lighthouse, I could feel my stomach growling. We’d just walked for two hours, it was 9am and I hadn’t eaten breakfast yet. The constant light rain on my skin reminded me that I wanted something warm. Our plan was to hike further to Lazy Beach, an even sleepier beach nestled on the other side of the island. It would take 1.5 hours to walk there, so in the interest of warm food we decided to run the distance instead to cut the time in half. Along the way, the light rain turned into a downpour at least a couple of times, forcing us to find refuge under an abandoned shack – which there were plenty of.
Eventually we stumbled our way over to Lazy Beach Resort. After running through jungle and forest, being cold and wet for hours, we walked into the warm hut of the restaurant like weary old travellers. I ordered two meals and dug into it like a hungry wolf.
Day 4: Departure
On the final day of our trip we woke up and went for a short run plus one last splash in the ocean before our scheduled ferry back to Sihanoukville. You need to let the ferry company know a day in advance when you want to leave, so they can reserve you a seat on the boat.
But there was a bit of a mess around the boats came late, so we got to spend a bit of extra time on the island. We soaked up the sand, the water and the nature vibes, savouring it until we get the chance to come again.