What Could Koh Rong?

Believe it or not but in the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia has a slice of paradise worth checking out.  

In November 2014 I had the pleasure of spending six glorious days and nights on Koh Rong Island which has over 20 different beaches scattered along its coastline. Located in the southern part of the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Rong is Cambodia’s second largest island and is located roughly 25km from the mainland.

The island is accessible by several types of boats including the standard ferry which takes approximately two hours, and there’s also the “Speed Ferry” which when operational, gets you to Koh Rong or back to Sihanoukville in about 45 minutes. There are other types of boats that you can hire to take you the island from the mainland, but either of the two options I just mentioned are the least damaging to your travel budget. I booked my $15 USD roundtrip ticket on the faster of the two boat options when making my guesthouse booking directly with Monkey Island Beach Bungalow Resort.

The day I was scheduled to head out to the island the weather decided to be uncooperative. Rather than postpone the departure time due to the storm that had already reached the mainland, the boat’s crew decided it was time to shove off before the boat was damaged against the pier due to high winds and rough water.

It was quite interesting and entertaining for everyone already onboard the boat to watch as everything unfolded right in front of our eyes. There was a mad scramble to get the rest of the passengers and cargo loaded onto the boat and the next thing we knew we were on our way. I couldn’t resist making a comment to the Frenchman sitting next to me about how this felt a lot like the opening sequence to the television comedy series Gilligan’s Island.

I’ve been on a fair amount of boats during my travels and there has only been one other time that the conditions were actually worse than this trip. That would be the time I was in New Zealand and made the hour-long crossing from the South Island to Stewart Island.

Some say that getting 'there' is half the fun, and I tend to agree with that statement except when I’m traveling by boat. Fortunately, the boat made it through the storm and we arrived at the main pier on Koh Rong Island’s southeast side ahead of schedule since we not only departed early, but the skipper drove the boat as if he had just stolen it.

The southeast part of the island is by far the liveliest part of the entire island and blends in right next to the local village of Koh Tui. Here the beach is lined with guesthouses, restaurants and in many instances a combination of both.

Monkey Island Beach Bungalow Resort is a solid ten minute walk north along the beach and as I made my way there I noticed that life seemed to slow down more so than on any other tropical island I had visited before. There are no paved roads on the island and therefore no cars nor tuk tuks, and motorbikes are few and far between. In fact, I only saw two motorbikes the entire time I was on the island and each was on a different part of the island.

Upon check-in at Monkey Island I was upgraded at no extra cost to a larger bungalow that included multiple beds and a private bathroom. The smaller bungalow I booked costs $20 USD/night and although the larger bungalow typically costs $25-$35 USD/night, the resort honored the price of the bungalow that I originally booked for the duration of my stay.

Needless to say, I was happy with the upgrade but since I wasn’t traveling with anyone at the time, I used the extra beds as a staging area for my gear instead. The staff at Monkey Island was friendly and helpful and the resort had a lively restaurant/bar area with a decent menu containing khmer and western dishes.

In the four days I spent on the east side of the island I was able to sample food not only from the restaurant at Monkey Island, but also from a handful of other restaurants away from the resort. I fell in love with the barbecued barracuda, and enjoyed that same meal for dinner three nights in a row at different restaurants simply because the fish was so fresh and prepared perfectly every time. Just thinking about the barracuda while writing this blog post makes my  mouth water!

I met up with the French guys from the speed ferry over to Koh Rong and we hired a local fisherman to take a group of six of us on a half-day boat excursion. The day’s activities included snorkeling, fishing, and a visit to the other side of the island. Once over there, the friendly locals cooked the fish we just caught and served it to us with rice, vegetables and cold beer.

This made me totally forget the fact that earlier on the boat trip I had dropped my iPhone 4S into the puddle of water that collects in the bottom of most, if not all, of the wooden boats that call SE Asia home. As the iPhone sloshed around in the seawater I quickly thought to myself, “Oh well, time for a new phone…” and went about reaching my hand in between the wooden planks to fish out my waterlogged iPhone. I powered the phone down, wrapped it in my t-shirt and didn’t think about it or turn it back on until later that evening. I am happy to report that six weeks later my iPhone is working perfectly as far as I can tell (knock on wood). 

Before heading back over to the west side of the island where I would spend my final two days on Koh Rong, I had the pleasure to speak with Fran, one of the volunteers at an organization called Friends of Koh Rong (FoKR). Several of the staff members at Monkey Island suggested I speak with someone at FoKR once I told them about how I was beginning my journey to become a certified English teacher, and that I would very much enjoy volunteering in an island environment much like Koh Rong.

Fran informed me that they currently had enough volunteers, and that hopefully FoKR would be expanding to neighboring islands in 2015 in order to educate the local people about sustainable growth in order to stay ahead of the explosive tourism growth (and heaps of rubbish caused by humans) that is inevitably heading their way.

As I mentioned above, my last two days on this island were spent over on the much quieter west side near the village of Sok San. I wanted to stay on the west side of the island because I love taking pictures of sunsets and I figured this would give me the best opportunity to capture some great images as the sun went down over the horizon.

There are limited options to getting from one side of the island to the other, and rather than trek across the island through the jungle and then across the seven kilometer white sand beach, I opted to take a local fishing boat (not the same fisherman as mentioned earlier in this story) around the south side of the island and over to the west side.

Prior to leaving the mainland and heading over to the island, I used the well-designed interface at Agoda.com to book a bungalow at Sok San Beach Bungalows. Once I arrived on the west side of the island I was met at the end of the boat pier by the property’s owner, Julian, a knowledgeable and quick-witted Australian expat who recently became the resort’s new owner.

Julian and I walked a short distance to the Sok San Beach Bungalows property and I was promptly checked in and shown to my bungalow on the beach. The property is at the beginning (or end depending on how you look at it) of the seven kilometer white sand beach and each of the 14 bungalows are the only ones on this side of the island to physically be located directly on the beach.

The room came equipped with a private deck and bathroom, battery-powered fan, and mosquito nets over each of the beds. Electricity was only available between 6pm-10pm and this is common on the entire island as there is no power overnight anywhere else in any of the villages.

On the return boat to from Sok San village on the west side to Koh Tui village on the east, the boat was late leaving the pier and it took us longer to get around the south side of the island due to the strong headwinds and choppy waves. Timing was close but the boat made it back in time for me to catch the speed ferry back to the mainland.

That is, however, until I arrived at the boat pier to make my transfer and was greeted by a mass of people all trying to get on board the standard ferry. It was complete chaos and I asked someone what all the confusion was about. I learned that the speed ferry was not operational that day, and if I wanted to get back to the mainland my only option was to take the two hour standard ferry.

Luckily, I was able to board the standard ferry and had planned to have a couple of hours on the mainland before catching the bus to my next destination, Phnom Penh. I will admit that when I first arrived at the ferry dock I was somewhat worried about catching my connecting bus but once on the boat, the standard ferry was actually very enjoyable. I was able to sit on the shady sid of the boat, hang my legs overboard and check out the marine life as the boat slowly made its way back to the mainland. Starring off into the horizon, I quickly forgot about all that was playing out in my head and stressing me out before boarding the ferry.

Had I not taken the standard ferry that day, I would have missed the opportunity to have the lengthy chat that I had with another traveler from the UK. We talked about living abroad and how blessed we are to be able to see first hand how less-fortunate cultures differ so much from our own and still survive, yet seem to be somewhat more efficient at the things we often take for granted. Traveling to Koh Rong and back again to the mainland reinforced my belief that one should always have a plan but be flexible, because everything happens exactly as it is supposed to.

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