Photo: Saracen Bay, Koh Rong Samloem.


Just 45 minutes by speedboat, yet a world away from the grubby confines of Sihanoukville, Koh Rong Samloem offers four completely different atmospheres on four different beaches on what many might describe as the archetypal paradise island.

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The island of many spellings -- it's also known as Koh Rong Sanloem, Koh Rung Samloen, Koh Rong Saloem, Koh Rong Samlon and several other variations -- the name means something like Island of the Far Away Cave, though no-one mentioned any caves to us when we were there.

Your seat awaits at Koh Rong Samloem.

Your seat awaits at Koh Rong Samloem. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

Koh Rong Samloem is owned by the Cambodian government though unlike Koh Rong, where 99-year leases are granted by the government, here the system is more short-term and locally managed. As a result, most development on the island is small-scale, with the low-key set up fostering an endearingly intimate aspect across the island. However, larger development plans continue to hang in the air, and signboards thread along the beach beside M'Pai Bei village mark out territory leased to the ominously anonymous sounding Koh Rong Samloem Island Resorts Co Ltd, a portent of what awaits.

You could sit on the dock of the bay.

You could sit on the dock of the bay. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

The speed ferries arrive on magazine-ready Saracen Bay on the east side of the island, apparently so named for the British ship that once moored off here. With its three-kilometre crescent of gleaming white sands, and generally expensive accommodation, this is the glamour destination on Koh Rong Samloem, though it also features some good, cheap digs too.

The western side is the chill-out coast, where Sunset Beach offers a very relaxed getaway, and base for the Dive Shop, while Lazy Beach is the flashpackers' retreat par excellence, with a well-established reputation for excellent food and a relaxed but carefully tended atmosphere. These two are also accessible on foot via jungle paths from the eastern side and are perfect for watching the deep pink sunsets every in the evening. If you're doing that, we recommend taking the easier and shorter route to Lazy Beach even though its orientation is not as ideal as Sunset Beach.

Peak hour, Koh Rong Samloem.

Peak hour, Koh Rong Samloem. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

On the northern peak -- looking straight across to Koh Rong -- M'Pai Bei (it's Khmer for 23, and the 'ai' and 'ei' are both pronounced "i" as in goodbye) is a quirky, friendly little seaside fishing village whose pier lands you slap-bang in the middle of all 400 metres of it. Here you'll find a clutch of Westernised hostels mixing it with local shops and restaurants, but all seeming to blend into one happy community. At the far end of the long, white sandy beach, EcoSea Dive and Bungalows sits in splendid isolation.

We do, too.

We do, too. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

Koh Rong Samloem is known for its diving and snorkelling. Eco Sea, The Dive Shop and Coral Gardens Dive Centre all have bases here, while others from the mainland like Scuba Nation also run trips to the island. Eco Sea sank a boat in August 2014 to create an artificial reef just off M'Pai Bei village, though the natural reefs are teeming with enough life to keep you entertained underwater. Many of the places to stay on the island rent out snorkelling gear.

The centre of the island is mostly jungle, and can be accessed solo on three different routes that link Saracen Bay to Lazy Beach, Sunset Beach and also to The Lighthouse, which we didn't get to as we didn't have appropriate footwear. The forest is as dense and lovely as any we've seen in Cambodia, and absolutely bursting with birdlife especially, we found, on the route between Saracen and Sunset Beach. Among the several species we spotted, you'll find what looks like home to a family of toucans about 100 metres beyond the footbridge that brings you in to the forest proper.

Plenty of paths for exploring on Koh Rong Samloem.

Plenty of paths for exploring on Koh Rong Samloem. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

The 20-minute path between Saracen and Lazy Beach is the easiest of the lot, as it has been properly cleared. The route to Sunset Beach is more difficult, very rocky and quite steep in places, and takes about 40 minutes. You can do it in flip-flops, but we wouldn't recommend it. A twisted ankle would be a real pain in the butt here. We were advised against taking the longer, more difficult route to The Lighthouse, and have resolved to go back properly equipped next time.

In M'Pai Bei, Kristian at The Drift also leads guided treks into the forests behind the village as well as to Koh Kun, the uninhabited island just off M'Pai Bei.

Then, of course, there are all the water-based activities. Several places rent out kayaks (average $7 per hour) and stand-up paddle boards (average ($5 per hour). There's also fishing, snorkelling and Moonlight Resort has a catamaran for hire.

On the other hand, of course, you could just do nothing at all.

Stormy skies over M'Pei Bay.

Stormy skies over M'Pei Bay. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

The Beach Resort hosts monthly full-moon parties, bringing over groups from Sihanoukville to join in the fun. A place called Good Vibz is buried in the forest between Saracen Bay and Sunset Beach also hosts them. We went and checked out the clearly marked path that leads to Good Vibz, and all we can say is "on your head be it". Several years in Cambodia have left us with a reasonably laissez-faire attitude towards health and safety, but this took the biscuit. We heard that the parties will be stopping soon, but if one happens to be going on when you're there, we think you'd be mad to risk coming back through a steep and difficult path, in the dark, while most likely a little the worse for wear from the evening's activities. We didn't quite reach the location because we got tired of imagining the scale of potential damage.

Koh Rong Samloem is beginning to attract more visitors, in part thanks to two competitively priced fast boat services which started up mid-2014, Speed Ferry and ISpeed, leaving from Serendipity pier in Sihanoukville. Both fast boats serve Saracen Bay, now the busiest bay on the island for tourist accommodation, while the Speed Ferry also stops at M'Pai Bei. Lazy Beach and Sunset Beach are only accessible via slow boats arranged through the respective properties.

Getting busier.

Getting busier. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

In high season (starting November 1) accommodation prices hike and rooms fill up fast, so it's best to book before you go. If taking the Speed Ferry to Saracen Bay it's also recommended to reserve your return leg as soon as you arrive to be sure of space for the way back, since you can only buy open returns on the mainland.

The island's electricity comes from generators and solar power, and while there is mobile phone coverage from Metfone and Smart, WiFi is hard to come by. We found the best connections at Secret Paradise and Beach Resort.

There are no ATMs on the island, so you'll need to bring sufficient cash.

There is a police station halfway along Saracen Bay.

Though it's popular, plenty of peace and quiet remains to be found.

Though it's popular, plenty of peace and quiet remains to be found. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

There is no pharmacy on the island. For simple medical care and medicines, the easiest thing is to either go to Koh Rong, where there are pharmacies and a Western-staffed medical centre, or back to the mainland. For anything serious, you need to make for Phnom Penh or, worst case, Bangkok.

There are no shops on the island. However, Orchid Resort has a small (blessedly air-con!) room at the back of the restaurant where you'll find bikinis, sarongs and shorts, as well as a small selection of snacks and toiletries. Lazy Beach also has a small selection of clothes and toiletries. Both stock sunscreen.

Wildlife is an integral part of an undeveloped island and Koh Rong Samloem has a veritable free-range zoo of giant geckos, dogs, monkeys, hornbills and snakes. While you're unlikely to have a close encounter unless you don your safari suit and go looking, you should remember you are sharing the island with its original inhabitants.

At the same time, you could help with efforts to build up knowledge about just what is out there. A huge proportion of Cambodian wildlife is completely unrecorded -- especially its bugs. A Facebook page has been set up in partnership with The Dive Shop through which you can share any wildlife photos you have taken.

One insect you'll almost certain get up close and personal with is the pesky sandfly. These small black flies like to bite, and leave itchy red marks that can irritate for days. The best approach is prevention -- bring along some good strong repellant with DEET and apply it before you hit the beach. Dusk is prime biting time.

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