On my trip to Laos in December 2022 (read about this journey HERE), I met Karolina, a fellow traveler from Poland. During her multi-months through Asia, she stayed on the island of Koh Rong Sanloem (sometimes also spelt as “SaMloem”) in Cambodia. According to Karolina, the island was a real tropical beach paradise and still remained untouched by the mass tourists. I am always on lookout for these “not discovered yet” places which are – unfortunately – increasingly difficult to find.
And so, after some research and four months later, in April 2023, I arrived on Koh Rong Sanloem. Your first question is, of course: “Where exactly this island is and how to get there?” As you can see from this Google map, Koh Rong Sanloem is part of the small cluster of islands situated 23 km / 16 miles off the southwest coast of Cambodia. It lies about 4 km / 1.5 miles to the south of its three-times-larger (and much more developed) island of Koh Rong.
The nearest urban center and gateway to the island is Sihanoukville, the coastal city and the only deep-water seaport in Cambodia which is named after former king Norodom Sihanouk . If you are already traveling in Cambodia, finding some overland transportation (like bus, minivan) to Sihanoukville is really easy. If you want to make arrangements for tickets to Sihanoukville in advance, I personally recommend travel agency called 12Go.Asia which specializes in transportation across various Asian countries. Traveling to Sihanoukville internationally – say from Europe or North America – is also not a problem, because the city has a decent international airport.
By the way, most guidebooks and travel blogs describe Sihanoukville as not very attractive place with little to do there. My opinion about and experience of Sihanoukville are different: it is a modern, fast-growing city, with vibrant street life, colorful markets, interesting shops and plethora of good restaurants.
Hence, you may consider spending couple nights in Sihanoukville either before or after visiting Koh Rong Sanloem. In Sihanoukville, I stayed in a small boutique hotel called Manoha Villa and loved this place. It is located on a very quiet side street. The grounds are gated, nicely landscaped, and the hotel has a good-sized outdoor swimming pool. For $25, you will get a sizeable room, with strong WiFi, air-condition, hot shower. Free bottled water, tea, coffee and various snacks are unlimited and included in the price. The staff is incredibly hospitable and can arrange any type of local transportation (tuk-tuk or taxi drivers will show up in matter of minutes), tickets for ferries to the islands and much more. You can book Manoha Villa on booking.com or by sending them email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or calling (+855-96-440-1586)
There is no shortage of good options to eat in Sihanoukville which would fit into anyone’s budget: from the street vendors selling huge variety of traditional foods prepared in front of you to fine restaurants. But one place, in my opinion, stands out: restaurant “Sandan.” It offers good selection of traditional Khmer dishes, but prepared and served gourmet-style. Also, the servers at Sandan are students who are given opportunity to learn hospitality business while earning some money. Their skills and command of English may not be top-notch, and the service is somewhat slow, but these drawbacks are compensated by genuine hospitality, efforts to make their very best and, most importantly, excellent food.
The menu at Sandan is extensive with options for both meat-lovers and vegetarians. My favorites were “Amok” (a particular kind of fish curry) and squid cooked with Kampot pepper and wine.
Also, when traveling in Asia, I like to have for desert fried bananas, and there are many ways of preparing and serving this otherwise simple dish. The nut-crusted version with home-made ice cream which I had at Sandan was to die for.
Okey: enough about Sihanoukville. Let’s go to our major destination, the island of Koh Rong Sanloem. To get there from Sihanoukville, you need to take a ferry boat and the ride lasts about one hour. Several ferry companies offer their services and the tickets can be purchased via your accommodation in Sihanoukville, through numerous tourist agencies in the city, or directly from the offices of ferry companies in the harbor. These companies have different reputations (some more and some less reliable), run on somewhat different schedules, and make stops at different islands and at various harbors on each island.
I bought tickets for “Speed Ferry Cambodia.” The main reason for this choice was timing: Speed Ferry Cambodia offers earliest (around 9am) departures to Koh Rong Sanloem and also the earliest option for taking the return trip: back from the island to Sihanoukville. I double-checked that they make a stop at “MPai Bay” on Koh Rong Sanloem, bought return ticket and was instructed to call them (or send message via Telegram) one day prior to return trip in order to confirm both the day and particular timing of departure. This confirmation is important, because in high season the number of potential passengers can exceed capacity of the boat, or, in the opposite case of the absence of confirmed passengers, the boat may simply skip a particular stop at the island.
Your next question is likely to be: How to choose accommodations on Koh Rong Sanloem? The island is small: just about 25 sq km / 10 sq mi, with the length of 9.5 km (6 mi) and maximum width of 5 km (3 mi). Yet, there are three distinctly different areas to stay on the island, and these areas are not exactly well connected to each other. Hence, the choice will depend on what your preferences are and what you are looking for.
One option is MPai-Bay on the north of the island. The accommodations here are the cheapest on the island, and they exist within and alongside the local fishing village. What you get at MPai Bay is more like a backpacker-hub: big number of hostels, a decent nightlife and plenty of cheap places to eat and drink.
The second option is on the east coast of Koh Rong Sanloem called Saracene Bay. If you are a family or a couple who want better service, nice hotel room and classic holiday island experience, then the best place to stay would be here. Also, Saracen Bay is famous for its wide, fine, white sand beach.
The third option – and this was my ultimate choice – is on the west coast, at Sunset Beach. Hidden away, surrounded by the lush tropical vegetation and essentially disconnected from the rest of the island, Sunset Beach is for those who want a rustic, slower pace of life, and a more alternative experience. This is where you’ll find hippies, divers, long-term travelers, those who “like to take it slowly” and, of course, the best sunsets on Koh Rong Sanloem.
Here is a simple map which gives a good idea about island’s geography.
If you – like me – decide to stay at Sunset Beach, bear in mind one IMPORTANT fact: the ferries from Sihanoukville arrive to M-Pai Bay and Saracen Bay, but they do NOT go to Sunset Beach (the waters are too shallow and there is no pier to anchor). Instead, there are two options to reach Sunset Beach. The first is to get off the ferry at Orchid pier on Saracene Bay. From there, you can hike about 40 min. across the island: partially in an open space, partially through the tropical forest. The trail is well marked, but – at times – rough, and with portions of the steep “ups and downs.” For people in a good shape and with a backpack, it is Okey. However, if you have some health conditions and/or travel with a suitcase, this is not a good option.
The alternative – and this was my choice – is to get off the ferry at MPai Bay and ask your accommodation on Sunset Beach to arrange a private transfer from there by a smaller boat which can easily anchor at Sunset Beach. The price would be $20-25. It is a nice 40 min. ride around the northern tip of the island with attractive views, etc. Problem is that when the seas are rough, this option does not exist: the boat won’t be able to park at Sunset Beach. But when I arrived to M-Pai Bay, the weather was perfect and my personal “sea taxi” was waiting.
This was my first glimpse at Sunset Beach and my accommodations there: Kamaku Bungalows.
When the boat approached the shore, I looked at the sea waters: they were exquisitely clean, transparent, and perfect for snorkeling (which, as I found later, was not the case in M-Pai Bay or Saracene Bay).
The first order of business was to settle in my new tropical home at Kamaku Bungalows. They have three types of accommodations: dormitory style, small huts which are good for a single person or a couple, and bigger “family” huts. All of them offer the same level of comfort: simple but comfortable beds with mosquito nets, electric fans, and the toilets and showers in a separate outside building. What I really liked was location. Kamaku Bungalows are at the very northern end of the Sunset Beach offering most privacy and best conditions for snorkeling. Further, all huts are situated in some distance from the Kamaku’s main common area (which includes restaurant/bar), are surrounded by tropical forest, and yet only steps away from the beach.
I was given a hut #3 – one of Kamaku’s single or double occupancy options.
The view from the steps of my hut was quite pleasant and definitely suggesting: let’s go to the beach!
When I settled and unpacked, it was one of those perfect “tropic island” afternoons: bright sunshine, blue skies, crystal clear and calm ocean, fine golden sand. On top of everything, it felt like the entire beach belongs to me only. I guess everyone else was either at lunch or having a siesta nap.
I went for a long swim (the water temperature was about 30 C / 86 F) and then walked to the main common area of Kamaku Bungalows which includes bar and restaurant.
The first thing that I saw at the bar was this sign which put me immediately in a right frame of mind: no rush and no need to do anything – you are already in a prefect place and at a perfect time.
Following this motto – “don’t panic – you have time” – I ordered cup of coffee and spent couple of hours reading the book, cleaning my lungs with breezy ocean air and absorbing the scenery.
Now is time to say a few words about the place where I stayed: the Kamaku Bungalows. There are only four options for accommodations on Sunset Beach and I will write about other three later. My choice was simply based on recommendation from Karolina, the Polish girl whom I met in Laos and who told me about Koh Rong Sanloem.
Kamaku Bungalows are owned by a young cheerful couple from Barcelona: Julia and Oscar. They bought this place from the previous owner about three years ago, re-designed and rebranded under the new name. Oscar is an excellent cook and – instead of traditional local Khmer dishes – the restaurant at Kamaku Bungalows offers a Spanish-inspired menu with dishes like Paella, Tortilla (Spanish potato omelet), Arroz a la Cubana, Patatas Bravas, etc. Fast forward, I did not regret my choice: both because of careful attention to all needs and requests of the guests and also because I enjoyed nightly conversations at the bar with Julia and Oscar about their life experiences on this tiny island in the Gulf of Siam.
In the late afternoon, I observed an interesting procedure which I will witness later several times: Julia was lifting a basket hanging on a tree in the front of the restaurant. Inside was…her mobile phone. In a second I will explain what she was doing, but first a word of cautioning for those who are hooked up on social media: Sunset Beach may not be a good place for you, because there is no cellular reception here. Some accommodations (but not Kamaku) provide WiFi, and there is also one public WiFi spot offered by a diving shop on the beach. Yet, overall Internet access here is shaky and not very reliable.
As to Julia’s manipulations, by putting her phone on the top of the tree, she was able to get a cellular signal and create a hot-spot which allows her to communicate with the outside world: confirm reservations, answer questions from coming guests, etc. Also, if there is some urgent need, the guests at Kamaku can use this “hot spot” as well.
In the evening, I went for another swim and then finished first day with a perfect dinner prepared by Oscar: grilled freshly caught fish and seafood accompanied by tomato salad.
The next day – besides swimming, sunbathing, and reading – I decided to explore the Sunset Beach in its entirety. Well, it is only about 500 meters / 600 yards long, but I was curious to see the other three places to stay. Julia mentioned that they all are fairly different in the price, level of comfort, type of people staying there, and food served in their restaurants. I thought that the latter – various food options – is especially good for people who spend on Sunset Beach a more extended period of time.
The place next to Kamaku Bungalows is called Sleeping Trees. Besides bungalows, Sleeping Trees has camping-style accommodations in tents: right on the beach. Restaurant here has wood-fired oven: hence, this is the best place for an artisan pizza on Sunset Beach. Also, if you like snooker, a billiard table awaits you at Sleeping Trees.
Walking further along the beach, you will run into the Dive Shop. Well, it is a dive shop which can arrange diving and snorkeling tours, but it is also like a social spot on the Sunset Beach. This is the place where people can get access to free public WiFi and enjoy a variety of coffees, smoothies and cocktails served on open air from a small bar.
After the dive shop, you will come to the SUNBOO Beach Bungalows. This place has the nicest accommodations on Sunset Beach, daily yoga classes, WiFi for the guests, and more elaborate menu in the restaurant (including home-made ice cream). But, of course, all these comes with a higher price and different type of people staying here.
The last place to stay is at the southern end of the Sunset Beach. It is called Robinson Bungalows. Being the largest by the number of guests, it also feels like a major party spot on Sunset Beach which attracts backpackers and hippy-style visitors.
What I liked at Robinson Bungalows, was their restaurant. Unlike restaurants at other accommodations, it is built on an elevated slope. The open-air terrace offers dining patrons an excellent view of the ocean.
Also, the restaurant at Robinson bungalows would be a good choice for people looking not for more traditional Cambodian and Asian dishes and for more budget-friendly prices. I eat there one night and was very happy with the seafood platter, accompanied by green papaya salad which was followed by fried bananas with honey.
After checking-out all accommodations, I thought: “Being a small place, Sunset Beach offers a fairly good variety of places to stay and eat.” And also, after looking at all other options, I was still very happy with my choice: the Kamaku Bungalows.
I had only four nights on Koh Rong Sanloem and, honestly, could happily spend all the time hanging around Sunset Beach: swimming, sunbathing, socializing with fellow travelers, reading, and simply chilling out. But one day I went on a hike to an abandoned lighthouse on the southern tip of the island. Here is again the map of Koh Rong Sanloem.
From the Sunset Beach, you first need to cross the island to Saracene Bay, then walk along the water to Paradise Pier, and then uphill to the lighthouse. It is an easy hike which takes about two hours and gives you a good idea about the entire island. The lighthouse is open and there are stairs inside: so, you can climb to the very top.
The view from the lighthouse over entire island is perfect.
On the way back to Sunset Beach, I decided to check-out another little visited beach on the west coast of Koh Rong Sanloem: Lazy Beach. It was attractive and empty.
But then I noted a big boat pier at the end of the Lazy beach which looked fairly new. My immediate thought was that this place may be about to change and become much more developed.
Speaking about “new developments on Koh Rong Sanloem,” now is time to explain why I wrote “a disappearing paradise” in the title of this blog. Hiking through the island, I saw everywhere the signs of big-scale construction works. The giant roads – like on the picture below – are being built all across the island. I also saw old-fashioned bungalow-style accommodations being demolished and thought that the modern and much bigger resorts will probably replace them.
My speculations were confirmed by Julia and Oscar: indeed, the new developers with deep pockets arrived to the island, and it was changing quickly. Some people believe that the new owners are Chinese, some have other versions, but the likely outcome would be all the same: the rustic paradise of Koh Rong Sanloem is about to disappear as it happened already with many other places which I visited in the past. But, in the meantime, you still can come and enjoy the island in its original and – relatively – untouched appearance.
On the last morning, Julia and Oscar arranged again a “sea taxi” to take me and my brother back to M-Pai Bay. Both, me and Vladimir, were unanimous that we will come back very soon in order to have another chance to immerse into the life defined by the motto: “Don’t panic – you have time!” And we will definitely stay again with Julia and Oscar at Kamaku Bungalows (email@example.com, WhatsUp: +34-641-124-385).
I was about to finish this post, but then decided to add a few words for super-active type of travelers – you know…those people whose bum gets numb already within the first hour of lying on the sand. Koh Rong Sanloem is a tiny tropical island and chances are that most of us escape to tiny tropical islands to do absolutely nothing. But if you start craving a little more activity, then you can do quite a few things heer:
- Take a snorkel boat tour. The water around Koh Rong Samloem is exquisitely clear, and (in addition to snorkeling at Sunset Beach) you absolutely need to head out on a boat for a few hours
- Go swimming with bioluminescent plankton. These are tiny organisms in the ocean that glow bright when disturbed. Bear in mind that swimming with the plankton is best in the first part of a new moon, when there is very little light in the night sky and their shining is most prominent. I was told that there are special “shining plankton” tours from Saracen Bay
- Go diving. I am not a diver myself, but saw people with diving equipment going on/off the boats in all major accommodations areas: M-Pai Bay, Saracene Bay, Sunset Beach
- Besides “must do” hike to the lighthouse, there are a few other interesting destinations for trekking: Military Beach, Buck Beach, Twilight Beach…The chances are great that at all these places you would have the entire – beautiful – beach for yourself only
Take care and, perhaps, see you on Koh Rong Sanloem!