About a week ago, I filled you all in on my EPICALLY HORRIBLE night bus adventure from Siem Reap down to Sihanoukville. What I didn’t tell you is that I wasn’t actually headed to Sihanoukville. Instead, I went to Koh Rong!
A Quick Stop in Sihanoukville
Through my travels, I kept hearing negative things about Sihanoukville. It’s expensive, crime-ridden, dirty and the beaches are bad. It’s a party town with nothing to do but get trashed and lay hungover on a crowded beach. Wow! That doesn’t sound like my kind of town…
When I arrived in Sihanoukville, I couldn’t help but disagree. I guess I had heard so many bad things, I expected it to be much worse than it was. The “crappy beach” was actually beautiful! I guess I just have really low standards for beaches because I hadn’t spent months traveling through Thailand.
What’s the deal with Sihanoukville? Well according to everyone I asked, there really isn’t anything to do besides party and lay out at the beach. If that’s what you’re looking for, more power to you; just don’t expect to get any sleep because most hostels are party hostels. With only two weeks to spend in Cambodia, I was fine with skipping it since I didn’t really come to Cambodia to drink and party. But if you just want to relax and blow off some steam, Sihanoukville is a great place to stop for a few days.
Grabbing the Ferry to Koh Rong
Instead, I bought a ticket on the next ferry to Koh Rong, the large and beautiful island off the coast of Sihanoukville. Most backpackers use the high-speed ferry, which costs $20 round trip, but apparently, there is a more budget-friendly backpacker boat that is half the price but takes twice the time.
My tuk-tuk driver took me and a few other people from the bus station to a travel agency to buy our ferry tickets. Had we gone straight down the hill to the water (less than 10 minute walk), we could have bought them for $15 from the pier. If your tuk-tuk driver drops you off at an agency, ask where the pier is. If it’s walking distance, politely thank your driver, wait for him to leave and then make your way down to the water on foot. It’s easier to walk than to argue with your tuk-tuk driver. He needs his commission after all.
Nowhere to Stay
After a very bumpy ferry ride, I was finally in Koh Rong! Since you can’t book a place to stay in Koh Rong online, I had to scramble around the island to find accommodation.
Word of advice: DO NOT come on the last ferry of the day if you can help it. All of the rooms will be gone!
While there are hostel rooms on the island, they’re more expensive than booking a crappy bungalow with a friend. Unfortunately for me, I travel solo and I don’t have any friends. What’s a girl to do? Find another person running around looking panicked and force them to be your friend.
I found a Finnish guy who also couldn’t find a place to stay, and we set off to find a cheap Bungalow that wasn’t completely booked. After almost an hour of searching independently and together, we finally found a place! The front was under construction, but the guesthouse itself was a nice little wooden house with a few double rooms run by a perpetually drunk Australian man. Thankfully, he had one room left for us. He apologized for not having a double bed and offered to push the two beds together. No thanks! I just met this guy 20 minutes ago.
The room itself was a bit cramped, with two single beds covered in mosquito nets we didn’t really need. There was a shoddy bathroom with a curtain as a door, and no hot water, of course. There was also no electricity for most of the day, which is on par with the rest of the island. While “Finland” and I were safe from the late-night bar music, we suffered the noise of crazy-sounding bugs and animals at night and 100 roosters every morning. You win some, you lose some.
But for $7 USD a night each, we got one of the best deals on the island so I’m not complaining.
Where to Stay on Koh Rong
It wasn’t until after I left Koh Rong that I realized you actually can book an affordable stay here online. As a loyal Hostelworld User, I’m not accustomed to checking other sites. However, there are a plethora of options from affordable bungalows to $3 dorm beds.
The Koh Rong Digital Detox
Need to unplug, but have a hard time forcing your face out of your phone? Don’t worry, Koh Rong will help. The island only has electricity at certain times of the day, so you’ll have to work around this when charging your phone and camera (be sure to buy a waterproof one, I love my GoPro!!).
Also, don’t expect the internet to work EVER.
Some guesthouses and restaurants claim to have wifi but it almost never works. If by some miracle I could connect to the internet, I couldn’t even get one email to load. As a blogger, this really stressed me out. I imagined myself lounging at a beachside cafe, getting some posts written for the blog… NOPE. I couldn’t even find a place to charge my computer because there were no 3-prong outlets to be found.
I also didn’t tell my parents I would be out of touch for a while, and they basically thought I was dead. Even though I don’t text my parents every day, my mom stalks me on Facebook. If I don’t update my blog Facebook account while I’m traveling for more than a day or two, I’m obviously dead. I also didn’t give my parents my itinerary so they had no idea where I was. I’m sure my mom was about to call the embassy by the time I finally got in touch with her after a few days.
FYI: No ATMs on Koh Rong
There are also no ATMs on the island, so be sure to bring enough cash with you. You can exchange money, but it won’t be a good deal compared to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. If you do run out of money, you can always borrow money from a specific bar on the island. The woman who owns it also works for the ferry company. All you have to do is give her your passport and tell her how much money you want. Once you go back to Sihanoukville you will give the ferry company the money and they’ll give you back your passport.
Whoah! That sounds sketchy!
That’s what I thought until I asked around. Apparently, so many backpackers were budgeting two or three days in Koh Rong but loved the island so much they wanted to stay for longer. Unfortunately, since there are no ATMs, they had to leave. This meant lost business for everyone on the island. The woman who started this exchange saw loaning money as a great way of retaining business (and hopefully getting more customers at her bar). Trust me, the island is so small and close-knit, if it were a scam, everyone would know about it.
But if you’d rather not worry about your passport, it’s best to just take twice the amount of money you think you’ll need, because you’ll probably fall in love with the island and stay way longer than you originally planned. I know I did!
What to do on Koh Rong
You mean besides swim and lounge at an incredible beach??
Koh Rong’s Best Restaurants
Koh Rong is also home to tons of restaurants, some of which are “expensive”, others are affordable. These restaurants are all along the beach and range from beachside BBQ, to Vietnamese sandwiches, to fancy Italian.. you name it! I would definitely recommend checking out one of the BBQ places. I got pork belly and it was absolutely fantastic. I also hadn’t eaten garlic bread in months, so that was an awesome addition!
One of my favorite places on the island is a Thai kitchen run by a Thai man in his sixties. Be prepared to wait forever for your food because it’s a one-man-show, but it’s worth it! I ordered the sukiyaki and it was AMAZING.
Koh Rong’s Best Bars
Koh Rong has a reputation as being the “party island” out of all of the islands near Sihanoukville. For those worried about the party atmosphere of Koh Rong, don’t be. There are a few bars that serve drink specials and play fun dance music. Those that want to join the fun can, and those that would rather avoid it can have a nice beer on the beach away from the noise. The party scene on Koh Rong isn’t too crazy, but there is alcohol… and other things, if you want them. If not, don’t worry about it.
Diving and Snorkeling on Koh Rong
Koh Rong has some of the cheapest snorkeling day trips I’ve ever seen in my life! On the beach, you’ll see men advertising $10 USD snorkeling day trips, where they’ll take you to multiple locations, serve you lunch and an alcoholic beverage, and let you play in the sparkling bioluminescent plankton at night.
One of my friends on the island also did some diving. There’s a PADI school near the pier, where you can even get your dive certification. However, I’d definitely suggest getting your certification on Koh Tao if you’re headed to Thailand. But from what my friend told me, the fun dives are nice and affordable.
You can also bring your own snorkel and swim around the rocks at Long Beach, but be sure to watch out for sea urchins! You don’t want to wind up getting them surgically removed from your feet like me.
Hike to Long Beach
Long Beach is absolutely beautiful, and it’s much less crowded than other stunning beaches in Southeast Asia. The sand is so fine, it crunches like snow under your feet. The water is crystal clear and shallow. I can’t get enough!
To get to Long Beach, you can either hike or take a boat. I’d recommend hiking there and boating back. There’s a small, somewhat treacherous trail that cuts through the island to Long Beach, and it should take you about 30 minutes.
Be sure to stay for the famous sunset and hop on a boat that will stop and let you swim around in the sparkling bioluminescent plankton. It was one of my most favorite travel experiences to date!
Why I Love Koh Rong
There’s just something about Koh Rong I really liked. It’s a walking-only island with no real roads. While there was a concrete path in the village up to my guesthouse, the main beachfront area is just sand. You’ll be walking barefoot most of the time here (there’s no way to walk in all that sand with shoes) so be sure to bring your flip flops and a basic first aid kit in case you step on anything… which you will.
Koh Rong is also a very tiny island, especially since most people stay around the pier area. The locals and foreign residents all know each other by name and take care of one another. I met an Italian guy who runs an Italian restaurant on the pier. He told me that the locals will often hand him their babies to watch for the day. It’s like one giant family!
This generosity and kindness doesn’t just extend to the residents of the island. My guesthouse was in the village area, and I was constantly surrounded by laughing barefoot children, strange-looking chickens, and men drinking the local liquor. One evening the construction workers at my guesthouse offered me a shot of their alcohol and gave me a small serving of octopus! They found it hilarious that I enjoyed both their offerings, and we all had a good laugh together.
Another evening I cut my toe on a rock (of course), and was trying to clean it out with iodine and wet wipes. It was difficult for me to see what I was doing since the sun was going down. One of the neighbors saw me and offered me a flashlight! He didn’t speak a word of English, but he and his baby daughter sat with me for a half-hour while I doctored my foot.
I can definitely see why Koh Rong attracts so many foreign residents. If I didn’t need functioning the internet to run this site, I would consider staying there for a few months, working in a bar or restaurant.
Is Koh Rong only for backpackers?
No way. Koh Rong is for everyone! I saw older couples and families visiting, along with the backpacker bunch. Like I said before, it’s easy to avoid the “party” atmosphere if you want to, and enjoy a beer or cocktails on the beach. There are also tons of activities for kids, and the whole island is very safe and friendly.
I’d honestly love to come back to Koh Rong with a bit more money, solely for the opportunity to stay in one of the tree house bungalows. Yeah, you heard me. TREE HOUSE BUNGALOWS! On my first night, a few friends and I wandered all the way to the end of the main beach towards the more expensive bungalows (some were more than $200 a night!)
At the very end of the beach, we stumbled on a fairy garden full of bungalows in trees. Literally, the entire garden was lit with fairy lights. It was a magical fairytale wonderland! Even if you don’t stay here, bring a camera and wander around at night. I didn’t have my camera with me and I’m still upset about it.
I don’t normally do review posts for comped hotel stays but I would DEFINITELY do one for this place…Call me?
I found the Tree Hotel on Agoda if you’d like to book!
Don’t Wait. Go Now!
Travelers in Southeast Asia are always looking for the newest hidden gem. No one wants to visit a place that’s overrun with drunk backpacking tourists and trash. I’m going to be honest, Koh Rong is very underdeveloped and it’s not the cleanest place, but it has a certain charm lacking in a lot of the very developed Thai islands.
Koh Rong does have a lot of trash, and the water near the pier is not something you want to go swimming in. The locals and foreign residents are very passionate about keeping the island clean, and part of the money from your ferry ticket goes towards cleaning up the island. Resources like water and electricity are scarce, and certain foods and supplies often run out.
The island is constantly under construction. More and more people want to visit, but there aren’t enough guest houses (especially budget ones) to hold everyone. My friends and I agreed, the more people that visit Koh Rong, the less of an island paradise it will become.
That’s the dilemma I face: do I tell everyone about the magical paradise that is Koh Rong, or should I keep it quiet to preserve the island as it is? To be honest, if you go to Cambodia you’re going to hear about Koh Rong anyway, so I may as well fill you in on what to expect. Since you’re all my friends here, I’ll advise you to go now, before all the charm is gone.
What are you waiting for? Add Koh Rong to your Cambodia backpacking itinerary and don’t miss out on this beautiful hidden gem!
What’s your favorite island paradise?