From the image of pristine, picture-postcard-perfect cliche to somewhat messy, party destination extraordinaire to… whatever comes next, Koh Rong’s transition continues in tandem with the efforts to “develop” it on the one hand, and the efforts to halt or redirect that tide of development and some of its associated negative implications on the other.
Koh Rong has so much to offer, from 43 kilometres of impossibly gorgeous, pristine beach front, along seven bays, all teeming with corals, marine life and fluorescent plankton, as well as dense forests covering much of the 78 square-kilometre interior.
For years Koh Rong was almost completely undeveloped save for a diving outfit and a few bungalows, though that has now changed beyond recognition, in particular on the southern patch of Koh Touch. The rapid development has mostly affected this stretch of yellow-white, southeast-facing sand, which now resembles nothing so much as our image of a mid-18th century Caribbean pirate port, only with party bars instead of brothels.
Serviced by the fast boat from Sihanoukville as the fourth stop, Koh Touch is a sandy, guesthouse-packed stretch that has earned Koh Rong its party-island reputation. We found that to be largely true still, though there are plenty of other businesses along here that are seeking to offer something a little more profound. It may take a little while to get there, but they’re working on it.
All the other beaches on Koh Rong, however, are an entire universe apart, offering far more seclusion than you’ll find on Koh Rong Samloem (except for Lazy Beach), for, in general but not always, less money. It is easy to find a quiet refuge on this island.
The main beaches away from Koh Touch include Long Beach (also known as Sok San Beach, and 7km Beach), Long Set Beach (aka 4k Beach), Coconut Beach, Palm Beach and Lonely Beach. There are even more among Koh Rong’s seven bays, but weather prevented us from getting to them.
You’ll find accommodation on Koh Rong ranging from the cheapest bed-bug infested flophouse to Cambodia’s premier luxury destination, Song Saa, where a royal villa can set you back more than $4,000 a night.
Dotted among the bays, visitors can indulge in diving, snorkelling, mountain biking, trekking, kayaking and boat trips. At night, watch the luminous trails the phytoplankton leave behind.
The island is so gorgeous in fact that a film production company has set up a permanent base here on Soksan Beach, making the most of the deserted beaches and exceedingly beautiful waters for filming all sorts of movies and programmes, including reality TV show Survivor.
Koh Touch is where you’ll find the lower-end offerings, plenty of guesthouses, plenty of chances to party, with DJs, live music, barbecues, restaurants and more. Just remember, the closer you are to Coco’s, the later you’ll be awake. The clientele closest to the village are mostly backpackers and divers who have come to enjoy the nightlife, with expats and couples preferring more seclusion further along the beach at quieter, more spread out accommodation.
We felt a real sense of community among many of the business owners on Koh Touch, who have banded together to set up things like Friends of Koh Rong, which supports community development projects, the local school, healthcare and cultural projects, especially for the kids of migrant workers, the people who likely built the guesthouse you’re staying in. They’re responsible for setting up the medical centre, which was behind Coco’s when we visited in mid-2016, but is moving, which provides free healthcare to locals, as well as advice and support to travellers.
On that note, the island has not been set up with a system for managing wastewater yet, and while leases are so precarious it’s hard for individual businesses to band together to deal with the problem, as it will require a not-inconsiderable investment. In that case, don’t ignore — as we did, despite the warnings we’d received — small cuts on your feet. They will turn very nasty if not covered and regularly cleaned.
Sok San is a sleepy village atop a seven-kilometre stretch of white, white sand, that’s a world away from Koh Touch. There are regular direct slow boats from Sihanoukville and a fast boat primarily serving the production company based there, with an accordingly irregular schedule. Family-run over-water stilted bungalows and basic beach huts are the order of the day here. Most of the bungalow resorts do their own food, but we stopped off for a cooling drink at The Moon, about halfway along the village, where the smells of Thai food coming from the kitchen nearly made us faint. The newish 154-room Sok San Beach Resort is, bar Song Saa, probably the loveliest property on the island, and pretty reasonably priced to boot.
A handful of other one-off resorts are set around the island at Lonely Beach and Palm Beach, while Coconut Beach has seen its options jump up to four, and there is now a similar offering on our favourite beach, Long Set, just a little east along from Koh Touch. Many of these organise their own boats from Sihanoukville. From Koh Touch, the interior of the island is largely undeveloped and travelling between beaches requires trekking or a boat; the latter is relatively expensive.
The Cambodian government has sold Koh Rong to an investment group, which has plans to build an airport and "ecological" resort. Development activities have so far had something of a stop-start-stop quality to them, though the plans for a five-star hotel and casino at the southern end of Long Beach look set to be realised by December 2016. Based on what we’ve seen so far, beauty and congruity are not going to be among its chief attractions.
So far the development group has left the bungalows alone. The operations pay rent and have signed agreements saying they will leave whenever they are ordered to. So if you want to take advantage of Koh Rong's perfect beaches, diving, snorkelling and phosphorescent night swimming (subject to availability), go now.
There are no ATMs — bring the cash you’re going to need with you. If you do run out of cash, Coco’s offer a foreign exchange, and Bong’s Bar will lend up to $300 against your passport which they ship to their booking office in the mainland where you can recover it on repayment plus a 10% fee.
A couple of properties now offer free WiFi, including Coco’s Bungalow Resort, Dragon Den further towards the beach, and the White Rose. Monkey Island, further down the beach, reportedly has the fastest in Koh Touch, a place where speeds, of all kinds, tend to be slow. It might be easier to purchase a Smart SIM card for $5 plus $1 for internet for your phone or mobile device. The shop beside White Rose has them.
Rooms are highly sought after in high season, and it's better to book before you go, or arrive on the early ferry to catch rooms at Koh Touch beach. The island does not have mains electricity, but most places on Koh Touch now have 24-hour power. Water is a precious commodity, and many places have a bucket-flush system, and careful reminders to preserve water.
One of the problems of deserted beaches is that undisturbed sand can be the perfect habitat for sand flies. These small black flies like to bite, and leave itchy red marks that can irritate for days. The best approach is prevention so bring along some good strong repellant with DEET and apply it first thing in the morning as well as after the sun goes down.
While you're enjoying the turquoise waters, don't forget to look for sea urchins underfoot. The spines are painful if they embed in your sole and won't pull out easily. However, the discomfort will wear off in a couple of days and these particular creatures are not dangerous.
There are several pharmacies on Koh Touch and a medical centre behind Coco’s Beach Resort, though that will be moving to a new premises in July 2016.
By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 27th June, 2016.