Cambodia is playing tourism catch-up to its popular neighbor, Thailand. Over the last decade there has been year after year increases in foreign investment in the tourism sector. As a result, there is a huge variety of accommodations and many places are affordable and of a great quality. Many others, however, are cashing in on the demand with huge cookie-cutter hotels and resorts that are completely out of sync with the cultural and natural environments in which they are set.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Gulf of Thailand coastal areas. This wonderful part of Cambodia is punctuated by countless small islands and pretty beaches. Sadly, this area is becoming home to some hideous forms of tourism and attracting many fly by night tour operators and massive casino complexes.
The town that most exemplifies this type of unsustainable and frankly, ugly economic planning, is Sihanoukville. As a mid-sized city that serves as a gateway to the islands, it is being overrun by visitors from all corners of the globe. The place attracts huge numbers of recently prosperous East Asian visitors, seeking affordable time on the beach and fun in the surf. Young Europeans and North Americans also flock in with backpacks, braids, skimpy clothing and money to burn on huge volumes of alcohol served at all night beach parties. This demographic is equally matched in numbers by repugnant male baby boomers in speedos seeking the company of young Cambodian women, with whom they parade along the vast stretches of cheap beach restaurants and bars.
We decided to limit our time in this earth-bound Mos Eisley, and made our way via high speed ferry to a quiet island just off the coast – Koh Rong Sanloem. We had heard from another traveling family (@mumpacktravel) that the island offered an opportunity to experience Cambodia’s beautiful coastal landscape, completely off-the-grid and relatively isolated from the great unwashed touring masses. The island has neither roads, nor cash machines and the guesthouses have electricity only after dark, run by generators.
After a few hours on the ferry, we were dropped at the western coast of the little island and we hobbled along the long, skinny pier, watching clusters of small fish follow our shadow through the crystal clear turquoise water. We landed on the beach surrounded by little open-air beach huts selling fresh seafood, cold Chang beer, and mango smoothies. After quenching our thirst we asked around for our resort and were directed to a path through the jungle marked by a sign that read ‘Lazy Beach’.
We strapped our luggage to our backs and started our 1 km hike through the jungle to the other side of the island. This was our first attempt to try out the back pack features on our ‘convertible’ luggage, as the wheels didn’t cooperate in the sand. Watching me struggle under the weight of the backpack in the 42 degree heat, Gabe created an innovative luggage-carrying device by hanging the uncomfortable bags on a stick, like a wild boar on a spit being carried to the fire pit.
After what seemed like a lifetime, we emerged from the jungle to the beautiful Lazy Beach Resort, where we were greeted with ice cold lemonade by smiling staff in the Gilligan’s Island-style bamboo guesthouse on the beach. We had booked one of their beach huts for the next 5 days – a tiny, raised bungalow with two double beds shrouded in mosquito nets and a composting toilet and shower off the back. We spent the next five days blissfully unplugged, playing on the beach, teaching the kids to snorkel in the gentle cove, playing ping pong and badminton behind the restaurant, and homeschooling the kids in the resort’s family-friendly lounge/restaurant. The most amazing part of that short week, was staying in the surf after sunset and discovering that under the waning moonlight, the water would light up with an ethereal bioluminescent plankton that is only visible at night. The plankton responds to disturbance and would light up even brighter when you swam through it. It was like swimming through the Milky Way, with tiny stars that clung to our bathing suits and our cheeks. With no light pollution at all, we spent hours floating on our backs in the dense salt water, comparing the phosphorescence with the bright stars.
At the end of our five days, we were sad to depart, but excited to be heading back to Phnom Penh to catch our bus north to Siem Reap and the amazing archeological complex of Angkor Wat.