It is incredible how little known the Cambodian islands are in comparison to many other islands in Southeast Asia. For example the Thai and Indonesian islands of Phuket and Bali are internationally renowned and have been tourist hotspots for decades. Yet Cambodia has many magical islands to be explored, made all the more charming by their relative quietness; they afford visitors some solitude in stunning natural surroundings.
As with any series of islands there is diversity to be found. From the party areas of Koh Rong to the islands encompassed in the Ream National Park, there is a natural diversity here as well as a striking divergence in the amount of development and tourism in each island. There are also some overarching similarities; these islands can be categorised by their white sand beaches, dense jungle interiors and the famous bioluminescent plankton.
Cambodia, particularly the southern coast and islands, is at a tipping point, poised for a burst of development that will irreversibly change the area. Our main advice is if you’re planning to go, go now!
Koh Rong Samloem
Koh Rong Samloem is one of the more well-known of Cambodia’s islands and a popular destination of Phnom Penh’s expats looking for a quiet weekend away. Yet despite its relative popularity it is by no means busy; even its stretches of beach are long enough to give visitors a feeling of isolation and privacy. The western side of the island is home to the Lazy and Sunset beaches and the majority of the island’s more established accommodations, whilst the eastern side is where you will find Saracen Bay, which is fast becoming the most developed part of the island.
Saracen Bay is quite a spectacular sight to behold: a small inlet, whose shape resembles a heart, made up of pure white sand beach and perfectly turquoise waters. It is easy to see why it is becoming so popular, particularly with honeymooning couples. The north of the island is the least explored. M’Pai Bay is where you will find a selection of very budget accommodations and the opportunity for a more authentic local experience of Cambodian beach life.
Koh Rong Samloem offers visitors a space for pure relaxation, whether that is sipping a beer whilst watching the sunset, getting lost in a good book on the beach or spending the afternoon dozing in a hammock. However, if you’re starting to feel a bit restless, there are a few activities to be enjoyed here too; the water sports are unbeatable, including snorkelling, scuba diving and paddle boarding, whilst exploring the jungly interiors offers a chance to see a range of flora and fauna.
Koh Rong is well known for its partying although it has so much more to offer its visitors than thumping music and buckets of cheap spirits. The beach of Koh Touch, where the island’s party reputation comes from, is essentially the backpacker quarters, formed mostly of a strip with various guesthouses and bars cranking out music till the early hours – imagine something of the Thai party islands and scale it back vastly. This can be enjoyable for a night or two but if you’re not really wanting to dance until dawn this island has a little something for everyone.
Koh Rong has a diverse ecosystem offering a range of activities to partake in. In the jungly interiors you will find trekking opportunities (as well as a 30-kilometre dirt trail for cyclists) in an untouched rainforest where you can discover waterfalls, several deserted beaches and some local fishing villages. It is easy enough to follow the cycle path but if you want to go trekking off the beaten track, we would recommend that you hire a guide. Some companies even offer overnight trekking, staying overnight in one of the local villages.
For both the trekking and cycling you will have the opportunity to see monkeys, hornbills, reptiles and fishing eagles. The jungle’s diversity is compelling but the sea life is something else! The island’s underwater activities, particularly scuba diving and snorkelling, are breathe-taking. On the island there are seven bays all brimming with marine wildlife: the vast sub-surface rock formations are not only awe-inspiring visually but create an ideal habitat for corals and creatures.
Koh Ta Kiev
Although Koh Ta Kiev is nearer to the mainland than its larger counterparts it is generally the most overlooked of all the Cambodian islands, which is a real shame as it has a lot to offer its visitors. Those who do visit often try to do the island in an afternoon but you really need a few days to give justice to it. You will find a little slice of paradise on any of the island’s three yellow sand beaches, each lined with pine trees providing shady respite from the heat whilst the beautiful coral reefs are ideal for snorkelling.
If you’re feeling a bit more active and adventurous there are some fantastic trekking paths to be explored, these are also perfect for wildlife lovers as they are the home to an array of flora and fauna, including over 150 different species of bird. There are two main pathways, signposted by red and blue markers respectively: one meanders south from the centre of the island ending at the Naked Beach, whilst the other follows an easterly direction to a local fishing village on the east coast.
Now that we’ve painted a picture of the quaint and quiet charms of Koh Ta Kiev, so you may be surprised to learn that another activity you can engage in here is a visit to an absinthe distillery. Syn Absinthe is a one-man bar and distillery, which produces small batches of absinthe. Visitors can take a tour, which charts the entire process (including an insight into its infamous history) ending with a tasting session: shots served flaming with caramelised sugar and cold water. A lot of fun for an afternoon.
Koh Thmei may be the best Cambodian island for nature watching. Part of the Ream National Park, it offers a unique ecological experience with its 210 square kilometres of protected terrestrial and marine habitats located on the southeast side of the Prey Nob district of the Sihanoukville province. The island is home to a diverse range of animals including various lizards, monkeys, civets, hundreds of species of bird and several very rare species, most famously the fishing cat: a wetland wildcat that lives near water and gets its name from its ability to swim long distances (including underwater) and having a primarily fish-based diet.
This is a stunningly pristine island almost completely untouched by tourism. You will not find any Wi-Fi or modern conveniences as such so you can truly immerse yourself in the charm of a break from technological society. Wander along the deserted beaches where, if you’re really lucky, you may even have a chance to spot a dolphin leaping out the water.
These islands are fantastically varied and there are many wonders to be discovered here. However, as they are only at the starting point of development and accessibility to tourists, it is hard to plan a trip in advance because there is limited detailed information online. Therefore our main advice when visiting this area is to be flexible and adventurous, but to give you a helping hand here a few extra specific recommendations of places to check out.
- If you’re looking for accommodation on Koh Rong Samloem, you should definitely check out Ecosea Dive. The diving is great but even if you’re not a keen diver you can still stay here. Cute private bungalows and dorm rooms are available on a stretch of private beach where the sea comes alive at night with the bioluminescent plankton.
- In Koh Thmei there is only one place that offers visitor accommodation, but do not despair as it is wonderful. Koh Thmei Resort is a small series of beachfront wooden bungalows each with its own balcony and hammocks, making it ideal for a day of relaxation. The resort also has a football table, cheap draft beer and kayaks for rental.
- For some really unique scuba diving go to the island of Koh Tang. Once the site of a clash between the U.S. Forces and the Khmer Rouge during the Vietnam war, the island is now almost entirely deserted, meaning that the water is clear and undisturbed, offering fantastic visibility. Marine life to be spotted here include poisonous pufferfish, electric blue stingrays, multicoloured nudibranches and the fantastically coloured coral reef.