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Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap… Koh Rong? Despite being the thing of desert island dreams, Cambodia’s islands are curiously absent from the main tourist trail.
When our senior product executive Chris moved to the UK from Cambodia, he brought tales of an island with palm-fringed white beaches and colourful coral reefs with him; a place reminiscent of the Thailand of days gone by: Koh Rong.
This Cambodian island is just 9 miles north to south with 39 miles of sandy beaches and a dense jungle interior. Of course, Chris wasn’t the first to discover it; Koh Rong has long been used by TV production companies, and lively Koh Tuich village in the south has no shortage of beach bars and places to stay. But I wanted to find these fabled stretches of pristine, empty coastline.
Getting to Koh Rong
Without an airport, the only access to the island is by boat from Sihanoukville. For years, laidback travellers in the know have been spending lazy days in this coastal town, dipping into the sea and sipping sundowners. Sadly, heavy foreign investment is saturating the area with high-rise construction and this heyday is fast becoming a distant memory.
Otres 2 beach is a beautiful place to watch the sunrise, but travelling to the port in the light of day, jagged lines of busy cranes and gaudy casinos soon filled the horizon. Was paradise still waiting? With a room booked at the Royal Sands on Koh Rong’s western stretches, I skimmed over the Gulf of Thailand on the hotel’s private ferry to find out.
I’ve always been sceptical of travel photos with skies a little too blue, seas a little too clear and curiously empty beaches; the preserve of poorly photoshopped travel brochures or overenthusiastic Instagramming. As the boat drew closer I lowered my sunglasses for a filter-free view.
Stepping on to the beach, the breeze was soundless but for the squeak of powdery sand underfoot and occasional flutter in the trees; Sihanoukville’s showers replaced with skies untroubled by clouds and turquoise waters winking in the sun. It was as perfect as any overdone travel snap.
Snorkelling on Koh Rong
At the Royal Sands, cheerful staff deliver guests to their villas in golf carts after tiring days by the (infinity) pool. En route to mine we passed two restaurants, a yoga studio and a helipad; but remembering Chris’s words about a marine playground, the reception’s water sports centre caught my eye and I signed up for a half-day snorkel with the hotel team.
Cambodia established its first National Marine park, to protect 52,000 hectares (including Koh Rong), earlier this year. There are several spots to see the island’s rich biodiversity, but at an area dubbed ‘Blue Lagoon’ by the locals, ours was the only boat bobbing on the water. Below the surface, the seabed was a hive of activity; graceful swishing of anemone contrasting with urgent fish flitting between imperceptible gaps in the coral. I could’ve happily spent a whole day watching this underwater world.
Other island activities
There are plenty of activities on the island, including kayaking, biking, hiking and even a ‘savannah’ tour. In my opinion, days are equally well spent kicking back in this paradisal spot. Take the odd golf cart, enjoy the squeaky sand and hole yourself up in a beachside cocoon; secretly hoping Koh Rong escapes that Cambodia tick-list a little longer.
Read more: 5 best beaches in Cambodia