We didn’t see much of Sihanoukville in our time there before leaving for the islands, but that’s okay. It looked less-than-ideal.
I’ve heard from a lot of people that most places in Cambodia end up being “love it or hate it” destinations. The reason behind this, I assume, is a lack of knowledge about where to go and a distaste for local culture or food. Cambodian food tends to be much sweeter and more sugary than Thai food, which is heavy on chili and doesn’t contain nearly as much sugar. Apart from that, it’s incredibly cheap and easy to start a business in Cambodia, so most places that cater to tourists are often run by foreigners or locals that have lived abroad and bring back the style and taste of another country with them. I’ve even heard from business owners here that they’re just trying out a business model in Cambodia before packing up and leaving to start in another country where it’s more expensive, but perhaps more lucrative.
Our morning was really difficult, unfortunately. As soon as we were dropped off, we were surrounded by tuk tuk drivers and motocyclists asking to take us to the pier. None of us knew where to get tickets for the boat, but I had an app pointing us in the direction of the beach which was just down the road from us, so we started walking.
A few times, we had to stop and pet the puppies. There are dogs everywhere in Cambodia; some clean, and some terribly filthy, but all pretty cute and most of them are harmless and just looking for food.
It was chaos. No one really knew what was happening, and after purchasing a ticket for the speed boat to Koh Rong, we were informed the speed boat would be several hours late. We were running low on time, so we changed our tickets out for the slow boat that would leave at 9:30, which we thought would get us there at the originally planned time. Totally wrong. A bus was scheduled to come pick us up and take us to the dock 20km away so we could board the bus, but it didn’t come until 9:25AM so everyone was flipping shit. The driver called the boat to let them know we were running late and told them to wait for us, which calmed some people down, until we saw the boat.
Reviews online had said these boats had sunk already a few times and didn’t carry enough life jackets for all passengers. And there were no lifeboats. And we had to board them on a single wooden plank (stabilized by two people standing on either end as passengers boarded). Miraculously, we all made it on alright and headed out for Koh Rong. Or so we thought.
It felt really good to be on the sea again, but this boat was significantly less stable than the giant ferries I had taken between Greek islands two years ago. The water here is very green, and not as clear as the Mediterranean, but it’s still incredibly pleasant and the temperature is perfect for cooling off without freezing to death.
Apart from the 14 of us, there was an enormous group of Chinese tourists on the boat as well. It was almost like watching a movie to see them hanging out on the boat, shoving other people out of their seats with their luggage, drinking coke after coke after coke, and at one point a woman tried to get into my backpack and I had to take it away from her. They loved to scream a lot, too.
As the boat was stopping for the first time, we were still out in the middle of the water, a couple hundred meters from the nearest island. Ana, the Spanish woman, and Flavia, a French woman that was with us, had already thrown up from the constant rocking of the boat and were unhappy that our ride was being delayed.
“We stop half hour for snorkeling,” one of the ship hands told us. “Then we go to island, take one hour lunch, and then go to Koh Rong.”
None of us had any idea this was included on the itinerary for the slow boat, but the group decided to make the best of it and jump in the water for a few minutes to cool off. On the other side of the boat, the children in the Chinese group had brought plastic bottles attached to fish string with a hook at the end and pieces of prawn set for bait, and were fishing off the other side of the boat. Impressively, in just a couple minutes, they had caught a fish the size of my little finger, and a larger fish that could have weighed a pound. Another man from the Chinese group came up with a sea urchin and threw it down where people were supposed to board the boat. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.
Anyway, the rest of the group got in the water and enjoyed themselves, while I stayed on the boat for fear of swimming in open water (it’s irrational, I know, but it’s difficult for me to overcome, despite my love for swimming and the ocean). Everything seemed like it was looking up a bit until one of the fishing hooks got stuck on Honor’s (an English woman in our group) ankle, and someone nearly stepped on the urchin as they were getting back on. Many were already visibly sunburned as well, which brought out the worst in a couple people…
Finally we made it to the pristine island of Koh Rong Samloen, on which there are just a handful of bungalows and a couple restaurants that cater to the people passing through on a daily basis. We were served a simple salad, baguette, and roasted fish (or chicken? We had some trouble discerning what kind of meat it was…), as chickens and dogs ran around the restaurant looking for scraps.
The Chinese group, oddly, had brought their own bags of prawns and crabs and went to town on them, and finished off the last of the coke, which was apparently supposed to have been saved for lunch, and they were treating the waitresses very poorly. I don’t know what it is about Chinese tourists, but I haven’t met very many good ones…
After a bit more swimming and some decent food, we headed out for our actual destination. We thought we were close, but it ended up taking another two hours, bringing our journey time to nearly six hours. The scary part was here, as we hit a huge number of very large waves for the size of the boat we were in, which had all the stability of a trapeze artist who’s taken one too many shots of sea urchin venom.
We were able to find two rooms to fit five of us for only $16 (less than $4 a person), and all the food I could find was actually cheaper here than it was in the capital city of Phnom Penh. It was even easier to find Khmer food there, in my opinion.
Jules and I and the rest of the gang spent our time swimming, hiking, body boarding, kayaking, eating, and drinking. Surprisingly, there was very little rain and just the perfect amount of sun, despite it being the middle of the rainy season.
Locals here climb the trees barefoot to reach coconuts for customers, twisting them until they fall to the ground with a hard thud, and there are bungalows lining the beach to the right of the pier, while on the left there are dorm rooms for much cheaper, as well as private guesthouse rooms. Everything you need is lined up along the beach and there is a ton of construction going on to make the island more touristy. I think we came at just the right time; good food, good people, enough services and tours to support a small population, but not so overdone that you feel choked or like you’ve walked back into a city.
Oh, and we booked a night tour to see bioluminescent plankton for only $2.50, which was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. At 7pm, an hour after the sun had gone down, almost our entire group joined some other tourists on a boat that took us out to sea in ten minutes and then stopped so we could get in and swim around. The plankton that inhabit this part of the ocean emit chemicals that light up in the dark when they’re feeling stressed. So basically, if you splash around or hit the water or just move your arms around in the water, all the little plankton start to scream for their lives so loudly you can see them glow, and you turn into a glowing blue blur in the water. I tried to get it all on film, but the brightness was an issue and even in total darkness the camera lens wouldn’t pick up the soft blue of the plankton against the pitch black of the ocean.
And really, that was the scariest part for me, but the others managed to convince me to jump in, and I’m so glad I did. It’s such a strange phenomenon. We were given diving masks so we could see underwater, and just jumping and and looking around, it felt like my entire body had become a blue light bulb. If you ever get the chance to swim around with bioluminescent plankton… do it! And I wish I could have brought some viable footage back, but… oh well.
All in all it was a really pleasant holiday and a good way to get away from the bustle of Phnom Penh. The boat ride back only took a couple hours by slow boat, and the round-trip price came in at $19 including the free lunch and the snorkeling.
By 10PM, after a bit of trouble getting a hold of our driver to let him know where to pick us up, we were back in Phnom Penh and ready to sleep off the intense sunburn and mild hangovers of a great weekend.