Thailand has been Southeast Asia’s “it” destination since the end of the Vietnam War. U.S. soldiers, injured and exhausted, flocked to the coast for the white-sand beaches, the endless sunshine, and the laid-back party atmosphere. “The Land of Smiles” has remained atop must-visit lists ever since. Which means the nearby—and the equally beautiful—islands off the coast of Cambodia have been largely ignored.
Across the Gulf of Thailand, the islands off Cambodia’s western coast look much like their Thai counterparts did 30, or even 40, years ago. The hilly islands are full of dense jungles, thick mangrove forests, sandstone rock formations, and, of course, gorgeous beaches. The difference: they’re empty.
Koh Rong Samloem is one of these islands. It’s off the coast of Sihanoukville (a popular port city) and south of Koh Rong (the area’s largest island). The French built roads and a lighthouse here in the 1950s; both are long overgrown. Water buffalo carts and boats are used, though walking is still the easiest way to get around. Mangoes, cashews, and coconuts are grown near the island’s small navy base. While every meal features freshly caught seafood.
Your first stop on the island: one of those beaches, of course. Saracen Bay hosts all-night parties during the full moon. But right now, it’s deserted, except for a great hornbill and a few kingfishers. Walk to the waterfall at the end of the nearly four-kilometer beach. Snorkel among seahorses and nudibranches in the calm, clear water. And be amazed that no one else is here. Then head inland, passing small ponds and colorful salamanders. The chattering up ahead turns out to be three macaques running between the tree branches. You watch them until they disappear from sight, and then climb the steps of the old French lighthouse. From the top, you have an amazing view of the turquoise water, the nearby islands, and Sihanoukville in the distance.
There are obviously no resorts on this quiet, little island. But on Lazy Beach, a squeaky clean beach on the western side of the island, there are bungalows near the water’s edge. The simple, wooden bungalows have stone floors in the bathrooms, turquoise sheets on the beds, and hammocks on the balconies. You’re greeted by two friendly black dogs, a brother and a sister who love to play with their guests. Walk down the pine tree-lined beach. Swim among bright coral and even brighter fish. Join a fishing trip on the old squid boat. Or just relax at the Octagon Bar overlooking the water. Between the oversized cushions and the comfy sofas, table tennis and board games, the sun deck and lots of Angkor Beer, there is plenty to keep you in a relaxed mood.
The only thing you’ve yet to try: all that seafood about which you keep hearing. Sizzling spring rolls, fried rice, and pad Thai come out first. They’re followed by fried fish with sour lemon sauce, barbecued giant prawns, and spicy squid. The food, like the rest of this Cambodian island, is quite simple, but simply perfect.