Koh Rong: The best & worst, all in one

Koh Rong is an island in the Sihanoukville Province of Western Cambodia. For Roisin and I, it was a chance to bask amongst sandy coves, coral reefs and promises of some of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful and untouched beaches over the long Labor Day weekend and enjoy a best friends trip/girls weekend. But we got a LOT more than we bargained for—a ride from good, to horrible, to great. Buckle in for this story.

Roisin departed Singapore for Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, early Friday, hours before me, and I took an after-work flight out to meet her there. We reunited in the downtown area at Romdeng, a Cambodian restaurant with dishes ranging from traditional to creative to truly wild (fried tarantulas!). The scene was beautiful, set in a beautiful colonial building surrounded by a lush garden where we were seated. Besides the food being delicious, the best part about Romdeng is that it’s part of the Tree Alliance, a group of restaurants that hire and train former street children and marginalized young people and adults. What’s not to love?

After dinner we headed to our hotel, a basic accommodation we were fine to stay in for just 10 hours before leaving Phnom Penh early the next day. We had an early pickup the next day at 7AM, so after recapping our days and making some plans for the following one, we hit the sack as they say. In our usual travel style, I was up early because like a newborn infant, I need to eat within one hour of waking up, while Roisin slept until the last moment possible. We had a bit of a mixup with the car we were meant to take, but eventually had it figured out and got prepped for our 3.5-hour ride to the west coast of Cambodia. Obviously, lots of talking, laughing and catching up was done in the car, along with bonding with our driver (and teaching him how to use WhatsApp so he can stay in touch with his kiddies!).

Our trip landed us at Sihanoukville, a coastal city in western Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand which would be our port to Koh Rong the following day. We checked in at Secret Garden, a super charming little resort, with individual chalets along paved paths winding through a jungly garden (of which I took many photos for you, Mama Bear!). Across the street, Secret Garden also offered us a stand-alone restaurant on the beach, with a nice, comfy bar area, sea views and some very fine food (veggie options, too!). Roisin had some work to do so she sat in the comfy bar area, while this sun-lover basked in the warm rays for a few hours (with SPF and an umbrella obviously, Dad). I realised as soon as I laid down that I had left my Kindle on the flight (fell asleep and woke up to people de-boarding!!), which was so stupid and SO disappointing, as we had a weekend of little Wi-Fi ahead and I had been looking forward to finishing up a good book called The Power. For all those concerned (Mom), I did end up getting my Kindle back from the airline, but I still get so mad at myself when I lose things! Someday I will become a mature and responsible adult…I hope. Luckily, Julie and Charlotte had left me some magazines from the States, so I was able to read those that afternoon instead.

For dinner that evening, we were happy to stay at Secret Garden, as their menu had lots of delicious options for veggies and non-veggies alike. Prior to our dinner though, we went on a nice, long walk along the beach at sunset, then posted up in our beach chairs with some glasses of wine to watch the remainder of it. Dinner that night consisted of grilled fish and lots of other fresh seafood dishes (and more wine, because it was a Sam-Roisin trip, obviously). I was feeling very relaxed and, although it had all the trappings of being a romantic holiday getaway, I was excited that we had planned this time for the two of us to hang out together before Roisin headed back to the States. Cheers to the long weekend!

I possess the magical ability that makes me unable to sleep in during holidays and weekends, yet not able to wake up during the work week. Truly a unique skill! So I was awake and eating breakfast (coffee, fruit and muesli) at 7AM. While this made for a short sleep, it also gave me the opportunity to catch a glimpse of pure, unencumbered Southeast Asia beach views, with the early morning rays shining overhead. Worth it. When we checked in, our friendly host let us know we could do paddleboard yoga at 8:30AM the following day—and I was instantly in. I had done paddleboarding and have gotten quite advanced in my yoga practice, but have never put the two together. Why not start now? So when Roisin woke up, we changed into our swimmies and headed over to the beach for a morning stretch-out on paddleboards with our *adorable* Canadian instructor. It felt nice to wring out the bones after a long day of travel on Friday.

Our next stop was Kactus, a resort on Koh Ta Kiev Island that had been recommended to us by a friend in Singapore. We packed up our things and headed to the ferry pickup point at 11:30, and headed over to the island (not before I ran to two different shops in town to try and grab a book before we took off. #Fail). We had been told it was a “minimalist” experience, and we were very much looking forward to a few days of no Wi-Fi, some simple and modern bungalows, maybe a spa treatment or two. But when we arrived, we quickly realised our stay would be much less understated chic and more Survivor: Ghost Island. Not only was there no Wi-Fi, but there were also no doors on the bungalows, no electricity, no fans, no bug spray available, no private bathrooms, no showers, no running water, and very limited food options (there was nothing about this listed on the website). To make matters worse, we were surrounded by hippies. It was like the physical and mental testing of an Iron Man race without the prize, glory or delicious post-event snacks. I really thought Roisin was going to break when we saw the thin mattress laying in a tiny hut in the middle of the blazing sun, but being the optimist I am, I really tried to strap in and just push through for the both of us. “It’s just two nights, we can do this!” We headed up to the common area for the lunchtime meal served at 2PM, ate some dishes “created by our French chef” (although it was one hardworking Cambodian woman in the kitchen with a tiny window for air), and then hung around a bit, napping and reading (they had a bookshelf with some good Spanish reads, figured it would be good for practice).

Our hope was hanging on by the promise of the “1km private beach with gold sand and pristine clear water” that Kactus offered on its website. So in the late afternoon we decided to get away from the hippies and take a walk on that beach. By what were we greeted? Two syringes, hundreds of cans and plastic bottles, clothing, pots and pans…and a TV. A full TV set washing around in the dirty shores. It was at that point it clicked for us: the staff at this place was a group of volunteer backpackers who were not contributing in any way to the local, regional or national communities of Cambodia. They were here on holiday, working to make some money to fund their trip around Southeast Asia, and nothing more. Rather than creating jobs for the local people, they staffed up their establishment with these backpacker volunteers except for the poor woman in the kitchen, charging ridiculous prices for the amenities and services offered and not allowing any local boat drivers the ability to transport people to or from their beach (only their boat). Rather than take care of their establishment and contribute to the maintenance of their space, they let the beach rot, instead sitting around the bar taking shots, hitting on the female guests and enjoying their trip abroad. Not to get on a high horse here, but being able to travel is a gift, and I really think it’s important to leave a place, especially a developing nation, better than you found it if given the chance. Whether it’s offering tips to the people along the way that help you out with your bag or transport you from one place to another, what is a small cost and simple action for you can create a significant positive impact for someone else. It’s easy to do, and it’s why I don’t question it. To see these people with all the opportunity and access in the world be so inward looking was truly disgusting, and Roisin and I wanted nothing to do it with it for that reason. So we decided we’d stay for dinner and head out in the morning.

Luckily, we had met a very cool retired couple on the boat over (which we also had to pay extra for?), so we hung out with them at dinner, exchanged stories, and headed to bed. I don’t want to overdramatise the story here, but as you can probably imagine, it was a terrible sleep. Our new retired couple friends lent us some bug spray, and we had to strap into our thin mosquito net, and get ready for the night of heat and humidity ahead. Around 4AM a tropical thunderstorm came through, and without windows or a door on our bungalow, everything was soaked. Of sleep, there was none.

The rain, thunder and lightning did not stop through the morning but we were determined to get on the one ferry out that morning. I was laughing through the pain because, with all that had happened, on top of it was a massive storm that had us drenched, and it was really just a comically horrific scene. We tried to be as polite as possible in telling the staff we’d be heading out early, but they turned incredibly hostile incredibly quickly, and we were ready to go. If it sounds like I am putting this place on blast, it’s because I am. Horrible place, awful staff, bad. Bad. Bad. If you’re a halfway conscientious and decent person, you’ll not want to stay there. MOVING ON.

The next five hours were dedicated to Operation: Escape from Hell. We met another couple on our boat out that was also escaping Kactus, who told us about a very nice beach nearby called Koh Rong Samloem. We had heard about it previously, plus it had the word “Sam” in it, so we knew it had to be good. We decided to catch an 11:30AM ferry to this beach, whipping through the streets of downtown Sihanoukville in order to buy our tickets and get to the ferry point on time. We boarded the ferry and already felt a wave of relief, but as we were cruising over to Koh Rong Samloem, the skies cleared and brilliant sunshine emerged. Coincidence maybe, but we took it as a sign of hope. Things were looking up!

Upon reaching Koh Rong Samloem, we had to take another short boat ride over to our new hotel at Saracen Bay Beach, which Rajat (Roisin’s boyfriend) had found and booked for us. Second best boyfriend on the planet, in my book. I think both of us almost wanted to cry when we reached our new hotel—it was clean, modern, employed a full staff of lovely Cambodians, and best of all, ELECTRICITY. Lighting for all! We were greeted by the friendly Polish owners and escorted to our room, where Rajat had sent us a bottle of our favorite white wine to toast to the next chapter of our trip (again CRUSHING it, Rajat). Our first stop? Spa, clearly! We were both really drenched and kind of gross from the rain, so we lined up facials, pedicures and massages for the afternoon. The spa staff was absolutely fantastic and let us bring in not only our wine, but snacks, too! We ended up bonding with them all and they became a very special part of our trip the next two days (and now we are all Facebook friends, obviously). Feeling pampered and much more fresh than we had felt in days, we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around the pool, reading (I had picked up a book from the bookshelf at Kactus, the one good thing they did leave me with), and enjoying a glass of wine (what else is new?).

When the sun goes down, it’s always time for a beach walk, and this new beach we were staying on was perfect for it—one of those classic Southeast Asian beaches with long stretches of sand, a mountain backdrop, crystal clear water…and completely syringe-free. Win! We made this one an extra long walk, as we were both (finally) feeling excited and happy to be on holiday, and it was time to recap the last few hours and talk about all things life, love and liberty (we are American, after all). We waded around in the warm water until long after it was dark, when we realised we were getting hungry. We decided that since we were staying in a clean and nice place that we would go a little glam for dinner, with makeup, skirts/dresses and all. Why not? The hotel had a nice beachfront restaurant with vista views, and we balled out a bit to celebrate our return to normalcy: coconut drinks, grilled fish, spicy soup, and all the other things on the menu that looked tasty. We had a nice chat with our waiter and enjoyed a bottle of chilled white as well. Super nice dinner, super fun conversation, super happy evening. It was turning into the best friends trip we had wanted.

The next day was sadly our last day at Koh Rong Samloem, but luckily we had until 2PM to relax and enjoy the hotel. Of course, I was up early for breakfast and coffee per usual, and snapped some nice photos of the beach in the most silent and special hours of the day (seriously, I love the stillness of morning). There is really not much to write about here as the trip home was quite uneventful, but consisted of a ferry back to Sihanoukville, the same 3.5-hour drive back to Phnom Penh, and then a 3-hour flight back to Singapore. A long day, but all spent with Roisin, so it felt like 30 minutes. It’s rare that you find the kind of friendship that you can always count on, where you can always say what you truly feel and know it will be recognised and valued, where you believe in and defend each other to no end, where you know the other person deserves the world and more. This trip was, for all intents and purposes, quite the journey—our patience, our comfort, our ethics were tested, but we were the perfect duo to endure this strange experience. Throughout the ordeal we laughed, we recognised its absurdity, we looked ahead and made a plan together. Roisin left Singapore last week for good (hoping she’ll be back for a visit in the fall!), so it seems like an appropriate time to post a tribute to her. I feel so lucky to have a friend like her, one that I know will be in my life forever. Cheers to many more trips, on beaches with no TVs!

Some photos from Koh Rong: