Cambodia’s endangered paradise
Cambodia’s Koh Rong Island (Tim Shields)
Koh Rong Island is an inexpensive, unspoiled island getaway with turquoise-green waters, miles of powder-white beaches, endless palm trees, untouched fishing villages and only a handful of beachfront bungalows. But do not wait too long.
If you want to relive the Thailand of 20 years ago, when only a handful of backpackers showed up on its island shores — before roads, vehicles, development and tourism took their toll — many agree that Koh Rong, Cambodia is as close as it gets.
Unfortunately word has already gotten out. In 2006, Kithr Meng, a Cambodian tycoon, purchased a 99-year lease on the island from the Cambodian government. His 20-year plan includes building an airport for small aircrafts, a marina, a golf course, casinos and several five-star resorts. His goal is to make Koh Rong the most famous destination in Cambodia.
But the beauty of Koh Rong is that while there are some activities on the island, such as snorkelling, scuba diving and a somewhat bushwhacking trek through its dense jungles and mangroves, there is not much else to do. If is the goal is to disconnect from your iPhone or Blackberry, swim in pristine waters and follow the sun’s arch while reading a good book, there are few undeveloped island destinations better suited to unplug and unwind.
So far development has been slow, with only a dirt road being blazed through the centre of the island. But eventually five fingers of roads will lead to expensive, upscale resorts. Legally, Meng can bulldoze the island’s four beach bungalow lodging options at any time, needing only to give the owners a month’s notice.
Luckily, the first time Meng visited the island, he granted a 10-year lease to Rudy Schmittlein, the amiable owner of Paradise Beach Bungalows. And Schmittlein said he did not think Koh Rong was going to become the new Koh Samui, Thailand: a once remote island paradise where development ran amok, known as much for luxury resorts, clubs, discos and full moon parties as for its beautiful beaches. Instead, Meng’s grand plan is to become the world’s first eco-island, where sustainability will be at the forefront of design and development.
From the music to the lighting, Schmittlein orchestrates the intimate mood of Paradise Beach’s open-air, thatch roofed restaurant and lounge like a concert. In the morning you may hear Mozart or Beethoven, and in the afternoon and evenings, it might be groovy lounge music like Saint Germain or Kruder Dorfmeister. Unlike the other accommodations on Koh Rong, nightly guests are more likely to relax with a glass of wine than a local beer. The bungalows are simple and straightforward, but guests tend to spend very little time inside of them, choosing instead to lounge in the restaurant, float in the water, walk its sandy beaches or read in the hammock on the front porch of their bungalow.
How to get there
From Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, take a six-hour bus to Sihanoukville for a 4 pm boat to Koh Rong. If you miss the boat, you can hire one or spend the night in Sihanoukville. The best time to visit is between November and March.