Saturday, December 14, 2013

Koh Rong on the map

A look at Koh Rong's longest beach in 2007
The islands off Cambodia's southern coast are becoming increasingly popular. To aid your decision-making about whether to visit and where to stay, Hanuman have taken a timely look at the main options. Here's the first, Koh Rong.

Koh Rong is the second largest island in Cambodia and offers some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. After years of minimal development, the island was leased to the Royal Group (Mobitel, ANZ Royal and many more companies) who laid out some grand plans to create the next Koh Samui, including an airport and ringroad. However, as the global economy imploded, these plans were put on hold and the island has begun to develop in a more traditional, organic sense, with lots of small backpacker pads and bungalow resorts springing up on the island. Hanuman looks at the best of the current crop of accommodation.

Koh Touich (small in Khmer, sometimes spelt Tui) is the main focus for accommodation on the island, with a range of family homestays, backpacker bungalows and a couple of, well almost, flashpacker resorts. It’s a place with a slightly hippy trippy vibe, with backpackers camping out in tents or slinging hammocks between coconut palms during the peak season months of November to February. However, it is an active local community with friendly fishing families resident in significant numbers. Turn left from the main piers to arrive in the heart of the thriving local community, turn right to discover some quieter bungalow resorts and relatively deserted beaches. Between the two piers lie most of the popular backpacker crashpads and small bars.

The best of the Koh Tui accommodation is also some of the longest running. Treehouse Bungalows sits on its own stretch of beach about 1km from the pier area and offers some rustic accommodation, including some stilted ‘treehouses’, plus a relaxing restaurant with wood-fired pizzas. Monkey Island is another veritable veteran on this stretch of sand and some sturdy bungalows, some right on the sand, plus a lively restaurant-bar by night. However, the smartest accommodation on Koh Rong proper (excluding ultra-luxurious Song Saa Private Island nearby) is Paradise Bungalows. This expanding resort has a wide range of rooms, including some of the only air-con options on the islands. There is also a family bungalow available and this would be the accommodation of choice for adventurous Hanuman guests wanting an island escape.

Elsewhere on the island, small resorts are scattered about the bays and beaches. The west side of the island is home to Long Beach or Sok San Beach, a 7km stretch that is picture perfect, but has a reputation for sandflies. There are several bungalow resorts in this area, including Angkor Chum Guesthouse, Broken Heart Resort and Sok San Bungalows, but none of these would be considered comfortable enough for the average Hanuman guest. Formerly a popular Italian-run resort near Koh Tui, Pura Vida has reopened as Pura Vita and offers a romantic hideaway for those wanting to escape from the development in Koh Tui village. Up on the far northeastern tip of the island lies Lonely Beach, a small backpacker hideaway, but once again rather too basic for mid-range or top end travellers.

One thing to remember about all the Cambodian islands is that the beachfront bungalows come at a premium compared with accommodation on the mainland. Depending on the season, prices run from double to triple those found in Sihanoukville or Kampot and are more in line with prices on Otres Beach in Sihanoukville or Kep. Some visitors prefer to stay on the mainland and make a day trip to the islands. This used to be a bit of a challenge, as the only boats running out to Koh Rong were fishing boats or converted dive boats, taking about 2hrs 30m each way. However, this has all changed with the launch of the SEA Cat, a new fast boat running between Sihanoukville and Koh Rong four times daily. Promotional prices are reasonable and will eventually settle at around US$20 one-way, taking just 45 minutes.

When it comes to activities on Koh Rong, it is mostly about relaxing on the beach. However, snorkelling and diving trips are popular and can be arranged on the island. When it comes to choice, there are more dive operators based on the mainland, including long-running professionals Scuba Nation. Other activities include fishing trips, sunset cruises and the possibility of jungle walks through the island’s forested interior.

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