Five best Cambodian islands for some peace in paradise
The country's islands are on the tourist map now, but don't worry, with more than 60 there are plenty to explore and more than enough pristine beaches to go round
From palm-fringed, isolated white sands lapped by clear turquoise water, to more vibrant beach life, Cambodia's once-forgotten islands are increasingly being planted on intrepid travellers' to-do list. While some of the islands have transformed from peaceful havens into bustling stretches of beaches, the idyllic life exists in abundance. And there are more than 60 islands waiting to be explored.
"Some of the islands really are pristine and offer a natural beauty that seems to have disappeared from Thailand's islands," says Kimhean Pich, founder of tour operator Discover the Mekong. However, as the picturesque beauty of the islands is picked up on more tourists' radars and development continues to pick up pace, to experience deserted tropical island life and get back to basics, now is the time to visit.
At 78 sq km, Cambodia's second-largest island is undoubtedly the country's most developed. Within a few short years, the southern part of Koh Touch village has transformed from untouched pristine white sands that are home to a few bungalows to a vibrant stretch of beach littered with guesthouses, bars blaring music until early morning, beach shacks and a few marts serving convenient snacks.
When Paddy Robinson opened Monkey Island bungalows in 2010, it was a very different scene. "There was one guesthouse at the top of the beach and a couple more the other end. That was it," he says. "We used to be known as the place to party; now our bungalows are the place people come to for peace."
Despite the nightlife, today Koh Rong still boasts bright-white beaches, crystal-clear waters and dense tropical jungles. And peace and quiet can be found on many of the other beaches that skirt the island and attract a tamer crowd.
Koh Rong Samloem North
While both development and visitor numbers are rapidly gaining traction on this idyllic island, which sits a 30-minute sail by fishing boat from Koh Rong, postcard-perfect snapshots remain in abundance on Koh Rong Samloem.
M'Pay Bei, a traditional fishing village that hides among palm trees and tropical forest that cover the island's northern tip, boasts a handful of simple shacks and guesthouses, faded green fishing boats bobbing on inviting waters, and almost desolate shores, save for a few locals and travellers.
The island is known for its diving and several centres are based in the village, offering packages for those wanting to explore what lies beneath. M'Pai Bei is also the base of Marine Conservation Cambodia, a volunteer-funded ecotourism project that gives visitors the chance to take part in volunteering initiatives, including marine conservation.
Koh Rong Samloem West & East
To the east is the more exclusive Saracen Bay. Significantly more developed than M'Pay Bei, a cluster of eco tents and boutique bungalows are nestled on the edge of the pristine beach. Despite being another popular stop-off point with day trippers, isolation can still be found and relaxing on the beach or snorkelling in the sea are the perfect way to laze away the day. The western side is an hour trek through the thick forest via jungle paths from the east, or can be accessed via boat. The rolling hill on the way makes the perfect spot to watch the stunning sunsets that paint the sky. Three desolate yellow beaches await, with Sunset and Lazy beach having accommodation.
Ream National Park
Ream National Park may well be on the mainland but it's worlds apart from the hedonistic shores of the main town of Sihanoukville's hedonistic Serendipity strip. Sitting a mere 20km from the town centre here the only sounds are the waves gently crashing on the shores, birdsong ringing through the air, the chorus of cicadas and odd call of a monkey from the heart of the looming jungle.
Spread across 210 sq km of land and water, the scenery is a stunning kaleidoscope of colour and terrain, taking in the turquoise coast, white beaches, lush green forests, coastal mangrove swamps and marshes, gushing waterfalls, and the islands of Koh Thmei and Koh Ses. Its diverse landscape also makes it a wildlife haven, with monkeys swinging through treetops and more than 155 species of birds calling it home. Dolphins can also sometimes be seen swimming close to shore in early morning.
Up until recently, the park was a place for day-trippers but thanks to the opening of Monkey Maya three months ago, the true tranquillity on offer can be enjoyed for longer jaunts with sensitively built, eco lodges hidden in the forest that hugs the hill.
Koh Ta Kiev
Save for a few guesthouses, this island features all of the elements that make the perfect postcard. Shimmering, powder-soft white sand, coupled with calm, clear blue waters, lush green pine trees and an extremely laid-back vibe.
With three accessible beaches, the secluded, western side of Koh Ta Kiev boasts four guesthouses, with Ten 103 even having its own absinthe distillery. Long Beach and Coral Beach are also good spots.
With Koh Rong becoming over-run with tourists, this spot is the new escape and has stolen the title of perfect island getaway. It is now becoming more popular with travellers wanting to get off the beaten track so, undoubtedly, it won't be long before its shores become well-trampled. Expect guitar-playing round campfires on the beach, a solo fire thrower and dreadlocks.