Cambodia’s Fading Utopia
As fun as it was, hanging out on the beach and relaxing under the sun, we decided to spend our second day on Koh Rong doing something much more productive: walking through the jungle to the other side of the island, where we could hang out on the beach and relax under the sun.
Luckily our friend Suze had done the one hour trek the day before and knew the way, because most maps of the island look a little something like this.
A local guesthouse owner warned us to always tell someone where we were going. “This island is the size of Hong Kong, and there ain’t no rescue team here,” he warned ominously. But it was actually totally fine, because we were using an advanced navigation technique of following bits of white paint splashed onto rocks and trees and whatever. And Mark tried to tell me some military stuff about telling the direction from tree bark or shadows or something but I passed out from boredom.
We were totally alone as we hiked along silently, listening to the cicadas and the branches snapping below our feet. Save for this surly water buffalo we encountered, that is.
Just as I was starting to wonder what specifically I had gotten myself into with this whole trekking thing, I could see a sliver of the ocean. Suze had told me the beach on this side was infinitely more beautiful than the one we were staying on. I kind of brushed her off, like, how is that even possible? Why are we even on this stupid hike when it is super hot and I’m sweating everywhere and bugs are feasting on me?
And then we got there, and I didn’t really have anything else sassy to say. In the words of April from the brilliant Parks and Recreation, “I’m trying to find a way to be annoyed by it… but I’m coming up empty.”
The beach stretched for miles, almost as far as my eyes could see. And it was completely and totally abandoned. The only signs of life were one seemingly abandoned bungalow guesthouse in the hill and a local fishing boat tied to a tree.
It didn’t take long before we went running full speed into the water. We brought out our masks and snorkels, but there was no reef off shore so there wasn’t much to see in the crystal clear sea. Still, I went on the longest swim I’ve been on in ages, just savoring being able to enjoy this paradise so exclusively.
Unfortunately, Koh Rong won’t stay this way for long. None of Cambodia’s island will. All have been sold to developers with hopes of turning them into the next Koh Samui– and rumor has it an airport and island circumnavigating highway have already been approved for Koh Rong.
That’s a shame, because this island is a rare and special place. I can’t think of a single island left in Thailand or Vietnam that can match Koh Rong’s pristine and innocent state. That in itself is a tourism draw- but no where near in the same numbers as a Disney-fied mega resort island could be. Unfortunately, the bottom line is profit.
I feel sad already knowing that there is nothing I can do to stop this development, and that if I revisit in just a handful of years the island will be changed beyond recognition. At the current state of infant tourism on the island, local people are provided additional income opportunities with very little change in the rhythm of their lives. Mass tourism cannot support this, and when it and all the negatives that come with it (prostitution, pollution, loss of local culture and identity) do arrive, the simple lives of the people here will be lost. That’s the Catch-22 about tourism- if a place is beautiful, everyone will want to go there. And when everyone goes there, it will no longer be beautiful.
I suppose I’ll have to make peace with the fact that there is always another undiscovered paradise, and I was lucky to be on Koh Rong at the moment in time that I was. Perhaps I will never come back, because I want to remember it the way it was that day, the three of us alone on miles of sand.
That has to be the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen!
It was simply stunning. I hope you get the chance to go to Cambodia and see it before it’s too late!
“That’s the Catch-22 about tourism- if a place is beautiful, everyone will want to go there. And when everyone goes there, it will no longer be beautiful.”
Devastating and true observation. Thanks for giving us the armchair tour of this pristine place. The fishing boat is a treasure, unlike any I’ve ever seen.
I didn’t even know what it was at first! Now I’ve seen a few more but it still hasn’t lost the cool factor.
It is upsetting to return to such places years later and find them full of resort developments. Like a beautiful old friend who has had a facelift.
I tried to accept that someday this place could look like the Perhentians… and then Koh Tao… and then Koh Samui. But my brain wouldn’t accept it! I will probably never go back because it would be too sad to see.
Unfortunately this occurs when such pristine locations are written about online or otherwise. Don’t look back. Venture on in to the unknown. Paradise will be waiting!
That really is a shame that the island will be turned over to the tourism industry. Don’t you almost wish places like this could keep their serenity.
Do you think that if you discovered a place like this that was still only known by relatively few people, you would write about it and tell people where it is?
By the way, it looks beautiful. I would probably have tried to spend the night there just laying in that abandoned bungalow, listening to the waves. Until some freaky sounds from the jungle frightened me.
That’s an interesting question. First of all, I don’t think I have anywhere near the influence to bring a place onto the tourist map the way that Lonely Planet often does 😉 Maybe if it really was a completely secret paradise I would write about it and not reveal it’s location!
Paradise!! We will definitely visit this island when we’re in Cambodia – as long as it is still the paradise that it is now. A shame to know that this might (will?) change soon.
You guys should DEFINITELY put this on your list! I’m hoping it still has a good year or so before real development sets in, but you never know. Construction moves fast in South East Asia!
Perhaps next time you get a navigation rant from Mark, you might mention the lack of bark on the starboard side of htms sattakut, and the 40m of zero visibility blue water to its east 🙂
Haha! Heard you guys had quite the underwater safari the other day…
I’ve been to Cambodia several times but I’ve yet to visit this gorgeous place. Not that I needed an excuse to come back but now I have more to look forward to 🙂
I’m glad you added it to your list! Like I said though, you might want to plan that trip sooner rather than later…
So odd as I don’t think of Cambodia as a beach-y destination, and clearly it is just that as these pictures are gorgeous.
I would never think of Cambodia that way either, and frankly, for most of the population it wouldn’t be… I don’t think many people are down with four hours of electricity per day! But I wish they would keep it that way, it’s so beautiful and pristine right now. There’s no where left in Thailand like this.
Yes, Northern Californian beaches are ridiculously cold! I’m a Khmer American, but have never stepped foot in Asia even. I’m glad I came across your blog before I visited Cambodia, because otherwise I would only have been touring the Angkor temples and mom’s hometown of Phnom Penh. Island hopping will definitely be on my itinerary now as your hammock picture in “Cambodia’s fading Utopia” blog totally got me.
I’m so glad to hear I’ve inspired you to explore Cambodia a bit more. It’s my favorite country and I’m so excited for your someday-visit!
Heading to SE Asia a month from today, and Cambodia around NYE time. I’ve added this to my list too. Looks amazing. Cheers for the blog Alex, making me soooooo excited!
Thank you James, I love to hear that! You’re going to have the time of your life!
I am heading to Cambodia this Friday and your blog really sealed the deal on our Koh Rong trip! I just have a quick question- which part of the island would you recommend staying? Or where did you stay? I am not sure where to go and apparently its quite big!
Thanks so much!!!!
Hey Alessandra, so happy to hear that Koh Rong is on your list! 🙂 I can’t remember the exact name but I believe we stayed at a place called Treehouse Bungalows? We arranged it all in Sihanoukville. There are a couple different bungalows but they all seem to be on the same beach. Just pop into a travel agency when you get to S’ville and they’ll sort it out!
Do you know which side of the island you went to which had that amazing beach? I would love to go there!
Hey Mary, it was the opposite side of the island from where all the accommodation was at the time 🙂 Sorry I don’t have any more information, it was a while ago!
Hey Mary, the ferry will drop you on the side with all the accommodation. If you want to go to the beach Alex is mentioning, either ask at your guesthouse to give you directions (the path up and across the hill is just at the beginning of the local village) or get a local boat to give you a ride for $2 or so. Make sure to wear solid shoes for the hike, sometimes it’s more abseiling on the way down than hiking…there are 2 accommodation possibilities on that amazing beach too as far as I remember (went there last year). It’s still fantastic there and no other island has been able to reach that amazing level of beauty of Koh Rong. Enjoy!!!
Thanks for all those tips, Judith! Hey, just curious… where are y’all finding this post? It’s unusual to have an influx of comments on the same day so many years after publish. Happy to have you here! 🙂
haha, I’m working my way through your archive. stumbled across your blog a few days ago while I was daydreaming of going back travelling (only went for 6 months from Oct 2013-May 2014).
Maybe Mary and Cindy find some hints in my blog entry from December 2013 (scroll further down for the English version). Definitely make sure to go for a meal at Paradise Bungalows (but first ask if the Russian chef is still working there). I would have never expected to eat that great on an island like Koh Rong. Of course not the cheapest but truly amazing what the Russian does there. Generally, just walk around the corner from the main strip with bungalows and keep walking for another 10 minutes (there’s an easy path which is fine with flipflops) and you’ll already escape most people. Otherwise, hike across the hill as described earlier and be amazed by Long Beach!! Very jealous of you guys who are going there.
Hi! What Beach is this, and how will we know how to get there!? We will be in Koh Rong in a month and while ive made arrangements for lodging…at the Palm Beach Bungalows…the beach looks nothing like this! Help!
Hey Cindy, check out Judith’s response to Mary above, it’s super helpful! It sounds like she has been there much more recently than I (visited in 2011 and sounds like a lot has changed.) Hope that helps!