Sihanoukville to Koh Rong – Per Aspera Ad Astra (and Back)
Through the shit to the stars, and back. That’s how I would describe my Cambodia trip from Sihanoukville to Koh Rong Sanloem in short.
Earlier this year, while I was planning my first ever backpacking trip to South East Asia, I started pinning down on the map all the places I want to see. The Koh Rong islands were one of my first ‘I want to go’ pins. At that time I was still in the Netherlands, waiting for my job resignation to be official. When my good friend Apolline heard that Cambodia would be on my itinerary, she shouted ‘Koh Rong!’ at me. She travelled there a few years ago and worked at a bar on Koh Rong island for a month. After telling me all about it, she saved it on my map as one of the ‘must see’ places.
Since my itinerary had southern Vietnam just before Cambodia, it made sense to me to make Phnom Penh my first stop, as it’s the closest. After a 7 hour bus ride from Ho Chi Minh, I was there. Although the city has much to offer, heavy rain, my impatience, and my tendency to spend more time outside the big cities made me book immediately a bus to the south, to Sihanoukville – the entry point to the islands. Along with that, I made the classic mistake – I booked the tickets through the hostel I was staying in. It’s always cheaper to go directly to the agencies or the bus station (or online) and buy a ticket there. This place was not an exception. So, after 2 days in Phnom Penh I was already leaving the Cambodian capital.
The ‘Aspera’ Part: Sihanoukville
Getting to Sihanoukville
The afternoon ‘bus’ to the Sihanoukville was actually a not so comfortable nor spacious mini van. After hearing a few others from the hostel saying ‘you can be sure it’s gonna be about 1-1.5 hours late’, I was actually happy that mine was ‘only’ about 40 minutes late.
Being used to quite pleasant bus rides around Vietnam, I didn’t enjoy this 8 hour ride from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville. Lack of legroom, not so good AC, extremely bad roads in the rain, bad weather, traffic jams and driver with no knowledge of English didn’t help. Although, very possibly I just wasn’t lucky with the agency choice of my hostel, because some other vans looked much better. Good to check that beforehand! However, a few funny interactions with fellow passengers (all locals), a very strong espresso to-go and my saviour – noise cancelling headphones, kept me in a good mood all the way. ‘It’s fine, I have experienced much worse rides before,’ I told myself as we were arriving at Sihanoukville.
Unfortunately, the ugly part had just started. Only when we arrived into the centre and I was dropped off, the real shock followed – a city full of unfinished buildings, scaffolding, huge holes in the roads, a huge amount of trash on the ground, and big muddy puddles everywhere were the real picture of today’s Sihanoukville. All of that in the dark and the rain made my first impression even worse.
Luckily, I was recommended to stay in a quite nice hostel – Onederz, that made that night before going to the islands bearable. A pool, good food and very friendly atmosphere and people seemed like the safest place to spend the rest of the night. My opinion was shared by many others in the hostel and most of the guests didn’t even go out for a walk. Sihanoukville was definitely one of the ugliest places I’ve ever seen. Later, I learned that this is the result of big foreign investors trying to make a Cambodian ‘Las Vegas’ by building hundreds of casinos, hotels and other buildings for that purpose.
The ‘Astra’ Part: Koh Rong Sanloem
Speedboat to Koh Rong Sanloem
Next morning I had my speedboat booked to Koh Rong Sanloem, the smaller of the two islands. The pier where boats and ferries usually wait was closed due to bad weather conditions. In that case, the agencies organise a pickup for you (a 25 minute bus or a van) to take you to the alternative pier. In this case make sure that you will be picked up from that pier on the way back – because I wasn’t! But more about that later.
As the bus was driving towards the ferries, I just couldn’t believe that even other parts of the city are not spared of the scenes I saw the night before – holes, trash, mud and filth. The speedboat was comfortable and it took us around 40 minutes to get to the island. There I learnt that the return ticket I bought can be used to go back from any of the islands – a practical thing in case I decide to visit other islands (which was my initial plan).
Finally – a long white sandy strip covered by palm trees emerged before me as I was leaving the boat. I was delighted to see no big buildings, hotels or other big concrete structures. I went straight to the hostel, again it was Onederz. It was monsoon season so many places were empty but you could still find groups of backpackers and other guests in particular spots along the beach. I came there to relax so I had no activities nor exact length of my stay planned. The idea was to stay a couple of days here and then jump over to the bigger Koh Rong island. The bigger one is the party island, where Sanloem has more of a ‘chill’ reputation.
The hostel exceeded my expectations with long happy hour for drinks during the day/evening (50p for a beer!), cheap restaurant with good food ($2.50-$5), clean rooms and lovely staff. It was right on the beach and had a big common area with pool table, bar, reception, hammocks, terrace, books and even a projector for movies. Apart from that, they served one of my favourite things – real espresso. There I met some new people and some that I’d already met at the hostel back in Sihanoukville. There were many other hostels though, as cheap as $5 a night.
I spent most of my time with an English couple, a German guy and his sister playing pool, drinking beer, teasing the staff, playing with a volleyball or just walking along the beach and swimming. In the evening we would go to other restaurants and bars on the beach to meet other people or dance. After 2 days, Morgan, a French guy I had met in Ho Chi Minh, arrived with 4 others. That same night we spontaneously ended up in a local Cambodian birthday party which turned out to be very different birthday experience from we’ve had before – we learnt some new dances, drank new cocktails, sang Cambodian songs and had a glimpse of their tradition. Afterwards, we went night swimming to see the plankton. If you haven’t seen them before – on Koh Rong Sanloem you can feel the magic!
Exploring Koh Rong Sanloem
Other than the main beach, there are few other places on the island worth visiting – the lighthouse in the south, Lazy Beach in the west (big waves!) and some other beaches around the island. As on every other island in this area, paddle boarding, snorkelling and plankton tours are very popular. On a sunny day, the island literally looks like a paradise. It’s like a place from the travel brochures or from the commercials that have been photoshopped, and, very importantly, without trash lying all around. Its beauty makes any activity pleasant – taking amazing pictures, walking for a few hours to the other side or just reading a book in a hammock. It is a proper place to recharge from big cities or hectic sightseeing.
We had a great time doing nothing but relaxing, but throughout the 3-4 days I spent there the weather gradually got worse and worse. Therefore, I changed my plan to go to Koh Rong on the fourth day. Although it was a lot of fun swimming in the rain, I booked a flight from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap. I was sad not to spend more time there, but it didn’t make much sense with the rain. I hoped for the better conditions in the north of the country.
‘And Back’ to Sihanoukville
My flight to Siem Reap was at noon. Since the boats in the morning were often cancelled or delayed due to big waves, I couldn’t risk it. Although I hated the idea, I went back to Sihanoukville that night to make sure I caught my flight. The speedboat left us at the same pier I left from several days before. Everything seemed fine so far.
Hostel staff on the island and people on the boat told me I would be picked up by a taxi/bus to take me to the hostel in Sihanoukville. That never happened. When we got off the boat, there was literally no one who could tell us anything or direct us. There were around 15-20 people in the exact same situation. We were surrounded by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers trying to take advantage and charge us 2-3 times more than usual. Don’t let them do it! It all seemed sketchy.
After waiting for almost an hour we decided to group up and share taxi rides to our hostels for lower prices that we negotiated. I was in a taxi with four English guys who were properly angry about the whole situation – and with reason. At the end at least the staff from my hostel apologised and partly refunded me for the taxi cost. I spent another night in Sihanoukville, not even stepping out of the hostel.
In the morning, I had to reach the airport somehow. The extremely bad traffic made for another unexpected expense ($15). Even a Grab ride cost that much. A ride that used to take 25 minutes from the centre can now take up to 1.5-2 hours. Sihanoukville, what have they done to you! While in the taxi, out of curiosity I checked Google street view from a couple of years ago to compare. I was shocked! The city is unrecognisable. I couldn’t wait to fly away to Siem Reap.
Is It Worth It?
Unfortunately, to reach these divine islands, one has to go through Sihanoukville. But it’s totally worth it! Unless you’re a pro gambler, my advice would be to plan your trip so you avoid spending the night there. Arrive early enough to catch the boat the same day (if I’m not wrong the last one departs around 4pm). Same for the return. Other than that, if you find yourself in Cambodia, I absolutely recommend visiting these dreamy islands and spending some days there relaxing (or partying on the bigger island). They’re simply beautiful, unspoiled, very affordable (especially in the low season) and definitely don’t disappoint.
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