Friday, June 8, 2012

Island-hopping off Cambodia’s coast

Lonely Planet, June 7, 2012

The picturesque islands scattered across the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Thailand are some of Cambodia's last pristine spots. None have paved roads, cash machines or 24-hour electricity, but what the islands lack in amenities they more than make up for in natural beauty. Development is just around the corner, though, so you’ll have to move fast to get there before the relaxed atmosphere is destroyed by an influx of planned luxury resorts.

Koh Rong. Image by Lina Goldberg

Located two and a half hours from the mainland, Koh Rong is truly stunning, with picture-perfect white sand beaches and placid aquamarine surf. The 78-square-kilometre island, home to 43 kilometres of beaches, is full of diving, snorkelling and jungle trekking opportunities. The most developed of the islands off Sihanoukville;s shore, Koh Rong has more than a dozen guesthouses and bungalows and small local restaurants serving cold beer and freshly caught seafood.

But never fear, you can still find tranquil solitude in the many parts of the island that remain almost completely untouched. If you’re looking for Mekong whisky buckets, on the other hand, you won’t be disappointed either – the popular Monkey Island bar stays open late and has fire-dance performances every night. Next door, Paradise Bungalows offers more relaxed accommodation with a laid-back vibe and a remarkably good wine selection at their bar.

Koh Thmei. Image by Lina Goldberg

To the south of Koh Rong sits the island’s smaller, quieter sister, Koh Rong Samloem. More secluded than its neighbour, Koh Rong Samloem is dotted with beautiful, nearly empty beaches. The Dive Shop runs a boat between the two islands and has recently opened Robinson’s Bungalows – simple, inexpensive wooden cottages nestled in the jungle next to a windswept beach where the sunset paints each evening in vivid pinks and purples. In the next bay over is Lazy Beach, the island’s oldest resort and a popular favourite. Its private beach, plentiful hammocks and full cocktail menu make it the perfect spot to laze away a weekend.

Off the shore of Ream National Park sits Koh Thmei, an almost uninhabited island flanked by mangrove forests. Koh Thmei Resort is the only accommodation on the island, and its peaceful, ecologically minded set-up is perfect if you’re looking to unwind. Solar power means the bungalows have electricity almost all day – a rarity on the islands – although there’s no reason to spend much time indoors when there are beaches littered with exotic shells, a coral reef ripe for snorkelling, and more than a hundred species of rare birds to observe.

A hornbill on Koh ta Kiev. Image by Lina Goldberg

Closer to Sihanoukville is Koh ta Kiev, a small island just an hour offshore with rustic accommodation and camping options. Ten 103 Treehouse Bay has simple treehouses in the jungle, which make their homemade bread, fresh pasta, and other gourmet fare all the more unexpected. Down the beach, Crusoe Island offers inexpensive beachside camping and activities such as spear fishing, squid fishing and jungle treks.

Further north is a tiny island, Koh Totang, that’s inhabited by a handful of villagers and Nomads Land, a collection of simple, ecologically friendly bungalows where you can enjoy sunset cruises, organic meals and hammocks situated to best savour the view of the spectacular blue-green waters.

Koh Totang. Image by Lina Goldberg

Although none of the islands listed are more than three hours from the mainland, island-hopping off Cambodia’s coast can require patience – getting from one to the other may require going back to shore or hiring a private boat for the journey. But it’s worth the effort to see some of Cambodia’s most gorgeous, untouched spots before they disappear forever.

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