While their Thai counterparts heave beneath the weight of Identikit bungalows, dreadlocked revellers and full moon parties, the 60-plus islands that dot the southern coast of Cambodia have been largely ignored…until now. Hermetically sealed during the Khmer Rouge reign and resultant years of turmoil, the islands are now accessible to intrepid wayfarers longing to lay down a towel on their own private paradise.
The decades of isolation mean that to tour the Cambodian islands is to plunge into a preserved, pristine wilderness unrivalled in the region. While more (relatively) developed spots like Koh Russei and Koh Tonsay lure day-trippers from the jumping-off points of Sihanoukville and Kep, the further flung islands offer the true voyages of discovery.
Koh Rong has been tipped as the “next Ko Samui”, and it’s not hard to see why: with its endless stretches of chalk-white sand and postcard-perfect coves, the second largest of the Cambodian isles screams “potential”. The western side of Koh Smach is an idyllic spot to string a hammock and indulge deserted island fantasies, while the crystalline waters of the uninhabited Koh Tang are a diver’s dream.
But it’s not just sandy snoozes and swaying palm trees – island-hopping offers the curious the opportunity to immerse themselves in local life. Drop anchor at fishing villages on islands like Koh Sdach or Koh Kong and be rewarded with impromptu night-squidding expeditions, home cooked (and home caught) seafood feasts and homestays.
Exploring the 440km coastline isn’t a tailor-made junket: there’s no classic route or event-based itinerary to follow. And it’s precisely this lack of precedent that makes this journey a unique experience. But be quick – it’s not just savvy travellers who have their eyes on Cambodia’s island treasures; a push for development by the government has attracted scores of stake-plungers.
Most islands are utterly devoid of tourist facilities, and ferries don’t go all the way up the coast – houseboats and all equipment (snorkels, diving gear, kayaks) must be arranged on the mainland.
Tamara Sheward travelled to Cambodia on assignment for Lonely Planet. You can follow her adventures on Lonely Planet: Roads Less Travelled, screening internationally on National Geographic.