Koh Rong Samloem is a little slice of heaven in Cambodia. White sand beaches, turquoise blue waters, and fairly cheap accommodation if you know where to look, this is the kind of place that lures you in and lulls you into an enchanted slumber.
I want to pretend that I intentionally set time aside and treated myself to a little island getaway, but that isn’t how it happened at all. Instead, I went to Koh Rong Samloem on a whim, with no reservations and almost no research.
I’d spent the five days prior relaxing on Otres Beach during the Khmer New Year. I was supposed to go to Phnom Penh. I was meant to get back to my “real life.”
But with only $150 in my pocket and a sense that I couldn’t leave Cambodia without seeing at least one island, I booked the ferry instead of the bus.
Getting the Ferry to Koh Rong Samloem
I booked a ticket through my hostel in Otres and didn’t really ask any questions about where it went on the island or if it was the best choice.
That was a mistake.
All ferry tickets to Koh Rong Samloem cost $20. This covers your ferry ride to the island and your ferry ride back to the mainland, no matter how long you stay. But here is the catch: there are several different beaches and bays on the island.
Saracen Bay is the main beach featuring resorts and bungalows. M’Pai Bay is the more casual backpacker hangout with hostels and cheaper prices.
My ferry took me to Saracen Bay, the land of luxury. Since I hadn’t done any research at all, I had no idea that I wasn’t on the right beach. As I first stepped off the ferry onto the pier, I was ecstatic to be on the island. The beach was stunning: crystal blue waters reflecting the tropical sun. The kind of beach where one can imagine James Bond meeting a gorgeous woman and then beating the Sultan of Brunei in a game of poker. I set off to walk down the beach and find a place to stay.
It only took a few moments for something to feel off. The only accommodations I could see were resorts. No one else was walking down the beach. No one had an overly stuffed backpack. No one else looked confused. Something was wrong.
I even walked up to one place that had the appearance of a backpacker hangout. Yes, they had bungalows. For the low, low price of $90 a night. Welp. I’m clearly in the wrong place.
I walked for almost an hour down the whole beach. With a twisted ankle, I should probably add. I tried to ask a local guy running a shop how to get to M’Pai Bay, and he gave me some story about needing to rent a private boat for $50. Like, where am I? What happened to my Cambodian paradise?
I was completely confused and thrown by how difficult this all was. Years of showing up in cities with no reservations had made me arrogant. I was thrown by my own hubris. Of course, you need to plan and do research! But I hadn’t, and I was paying for it.
Eventually, I walked down almost the entire beach and saw a place with a crowd of backpackers standing in front, looking confused. My tribe! I had found them. I wandered up and asked the first person if they knew how to get to M’Pai Bay.
“We’re waiting, apparently a water taxi is coming soon.”
Excellent. I was right on time. Not 5 minutes later 2 different water taxis pulled up. For $5, I got a lift to M’Pai bay, land of the backpacker hostels. This is the kind of beach James Bond would hide out at after he killed the ambassador to some African nation.
I later learned that different ferry companies stop at different bays. I paid a total of $30 to get on and off the island, including the water taxis from Saracen to M’Pai. I could have paid only $20 for a direct ride from Sihanoukville to M’Pai. Megan didn’t research. Megan paid extra. Don’t be like Megan. Do your research.
Staying on M’Pai Bay, Koh Rong Samloem
Let’s get to the wondrous parts. After all the chaos and frustration of my arrival, I finally made it to Paradise. I met some people on the water taxi who were all headed to a hostel called Yellow Moon. Cool, I had no reservations so it sounded just as good as any other hostel.
Travel Tip: If you make friends on the way to a destination, stay with those friends. If you don’t, take your time and explore the options. It doesn’t always make sense to take the first thing you’re offered.
Yellow Moon ended up being the last hostel in the bay, right on the water with lots of hangout spaces and a nightly bonfire. Their dorm was full, but they directed me to the nearby Coast 23 hostel, where I took a bed in the 10 room dorm. The dorm was extremely basic, just 10 metal framed bunk beds with mattresses and mosquito nets. Coast 23 is basically an extra dorm room for Yellow Moon and they share a common area.
Yellow Moon ended up being the “party hostel” of the island. I put it in quotes because there isn’t much of a party scene on Koh Rong Samloem. The music stops at 1 am. Parties are for Koh Rong. Life on Koh Rong Samloem is about the more subtle pleasures of island life.
Checked into the dorm, put down my stuff, then headed out to explore. I found some rocks by the water and had a moment of silence, staring out across the bay. As I stared out across the bay I was thrown back to my backpacking trip in 2014. The memories of other tropical islands and peaceful beaches came flooding back to me, and I recalled the sense of peace and tranquility that comes with life on an island. This is why we fly halfway around the world to be here.
One Full Day of Peace on Koh Rong Samloem
My one full day on the island was dreamlike in its perfect. I awoke late, finding myself to be one of the last people still sleeping in the dorm. Oh well. Rising from my bed, I wandered off down the beach in search of a coffee.
Sat in some chairs in front of a place called Mango Lounge and sipped my coffee, reading my book, and enjoying the sound of the waves slowly rocking up to shore. Backpackers ambled by, locals drove motorbikes through the sand, and I existed, quietly.
After enough time had passed, I rose from my chair and wandered off to the beach.
The beach at M’Pai Bay is a bit far away from the hostels, which makes it all the more isolated and gorgeous. A 5-minute walk down a sandy path opens onto a white sand beach devoid of houses, roads, or hostels. Way down the far end there is a small pier and maybe some bungalows, but tucked away into the foliage, you hardly notice them.
I ambled down the beach until I found my perfect spot, shaded by the trees. Deposited by things and headed into the ocean.
I let the salt water envelop me, I let my consciousness go and became the sea. The water was warm and gentle, like an embrace from someone you love with all your heart but never get to see. The waves were soft, the sun was bright, the air was fresh. If perfection were a place, this would be it. I swam, I rested, I floated, I stood. I laid in the sand. Read my book. Slept.
Got up and walked back into the ocean.
I think it was one of the best days of my life. Stillness has a way of making everything brighter.
One more night on Koh Rong Samloem, spent chatting with backpackers around a bonfire and drinking a bit more beer than I should’ve. I woke early on my last morning, very reluctantly ready to leave my island paradise.
Leaving was just as confusing as arriving, unfortunately.
I got on the first boat to show up at the pier, around 8:30 or 9 am. It took me back to Saracen bay for $5. But then the problems began. I was dropped off at the FAR end of the beach from the pier I needed. It would be an hours walk in the hot sun (on my currently twisted ankle) or I could try to figure out a water taxi.
I flagged down a small dingy and (in Khmer) tried to ask the guy how much to go to the far pier. I was ready to pay up to $2. His starting price? $10. I countered with $3. He said yes, then laughed, and drove away.
The one thing I did not like about this island: relationships between locals and tourists seem very strained. The locals do not seem to like or respect us at all. It isn’t so surprising, our party culture is the exact antithesis of Cambodian norms. But it was still disheartening.
Some time later, another boat showed up and the captain drove me to the further pier for free, so alls well that ends well. My ferry showed up 10 minutes later and I was off. Waving goodbye sadly to my little island paradise.
I could have happily spent a week laying on that white sand beach outside of M’Pai Bay.