Looking for the unspoilt Thai islands of the 90s? Head to Cambodia

Authentic backpacker towns are filled with beachside restaurants and hotels – Alamy

I seem to have arrived in a dystopian video game. All around me are tall, craggy skyscrapers, half built or half collapsing, with dozens of empty windows as black as skeletal eye sockets. Grim towers parade down the dirty coast, each sight more apocalyptic than the last. Any minute now, a hybrid tungsten killer zombie will appear around the sunburned corner and laser me to death, which means I’ll have to restart from Level One. I’ve been to better places.

All of which is a shame, as up to this point my trip through Cambodia to the supposedly wonderful Cambodian Islands has gone decidedly well. I started in Phnom Penh, which in recent years has emerged from decades of dormancy to become one of Asia’s most exciting and affordable capitals: full of great food (the freshwater prawn pancakes!), vibrant neighborhoods Blade-Runner style night lights, elegant and new. boutique hotels, gleaming and renovated 14th century Buddhist temples, riverside boulevards with gastropubs, sky-bars, tapas restaurants and still-authentic markets selling Russian teapots, live catfish, tiger’s eye jewelery and total sensory overload.

Long Set Beach, Koh Rong, CambodiaLong Set Beach, Koh Rong, Cambodia

Koh Rong Island is home to exquisite beaches – Alamy

From Phnom Penh I took the new Chinese highway towards the Cardamom Mountains, to the hidden edenic hotel of Shinta Mani Wild (the brainchild of hotel design genius Bill Bensley), where you reach via a thrilling zip line over the waterfalls to the reception (although (there’s a less exciting Jeep option) and generally depart in a state of languor, after several days of watching hornbills in banyan trees and lazily listening to the lulling white noise of rainforest wildlife.

I did exactly that: I barely moved from my all-inclusive wooden glamp suite (with its separate bathroom on the terrace), only moving to eat the excellent tasting menu on the restaurant’s wooden terrace, wander around the ornate bathtub-like pool, right next to the waterfall, and take a languid boat trip, where I swam in the shady green river and watched tropical kingfishers flutter vividly overhead, adorned in all the colors of Elton John during its heyday in the mid-1970s. .

Shinta Mani WildShinta Mani Wild

Shinta Mani Wild is a hotel hidden in the rainforest

After that I returned to the boulevard and quickly arrived here: to dystopia. The shocking nightmare that is modern Sihanoukville.

Why is Sihanoukville (“Snooky”) like this? That shiny new Chinese highway, which comfortably reduces a seven-hour trip to the capital along the coast to about 120 minutes, provides a clue. In recent years, Chinese investments have poured into Cambodia, and one of their main targets is – or was – the fishing settlement of Sihanoukville, once famous for its cheap and riotous curries, its excellent beaches, its Western deserters and not much further.

In just a few years, the Chinese built millions of towers, which quickly became filled with some questionable characters. Suffice it to say that when the Cambodian government finally expelled the online gamblers, human traffickers and general undesirables, there wasn’t much left, and Covid wiped out the rest.

Now Snooky is here, strange, unpopulated but spectacular in its own way, if you like 21st century oriental versions of a vertical Detroit on steroids.

Understandably, most people heading to the islands of Cambodia tend to skip the city altogether. After an eye-opening urban tour, I join the crowds at the gleaming marina.

Koh Rong, CambodiaKoh Rong, Cambodia

Koh Rong Island Remains Virgin – RF/Getty Moment

A few minutes later, we all sailed in a large speedboat across the Gulf of Siam. Soon, the gray wash of Snooky’s pollution gives way to emerald cleanliness, lushly silver flying fish, and the occasional dolphin. After half an hour, we arrived at a private pier on the western side of Koh Rong Island, and one of the most exquisite and stunning beaches I have ever seen.

The beach is called Sok San and comprises seven long, idyllic kilometers of angelically soft white sand, shaded by palm trees and lapped by gentle waves skillfully heated to a relaxing temperature of 29.3°C. This is such a perfect beach that, after your third passion fruit mojito, you start desperately trying to be picky: “Well, could that palm tree be moved two meters to the left, for a slightly higher photo?” Even better, they regularly clear it completely of sandflies, which can be a nuisance in other parts of the region.

The obvious comparison for a world-class beach like this is the Maldives, Thailand or Polynesia, and therein lies the rub. In all these places you would be looking at an island full of development, making the most of the sand, sea and natural blue sky. Here in Cambodia, that development has not occurred. There were plans to devastate the place (think Sihanoukville), but they are now on hold indefinitely. Hurrah!

The Royal Sands, Koh RongThe Royal Sands, Koh Rong

Royal Sands is Koh Rong’s only five-star resort

All that means Koh Rong consists of just one excellent five-star resort: Royal Sands, where I stay, with glass-floor spa, private beachfront pool villas, occasional golf carts, a gorgeous all-day restaurant which prepares the best fish tacos this side of Tijuana and a roaring bonfire for sublime sunset appetizers (the beach faces west).

Apart from Royal Sands, there are a couple of timid and mediocre resorts, and the rest is pure mountain jungle, or whispering mangroves (ideal for kayaking in calm Zen), or completely unspoilt sandy coves, or gruesome roads that end in villages of fishermen on stilts. where locals sleep in hammocks all day after a hard night fishing for sea urchins. It’s fabulous.

There is a “town” on Koh Rong (and this is where you would stay if you want a budget trip, as many do) it is called Koh Toch and if there is such a thing as a “real” backpacker village built from Alex’s The Beach Pages Garland, this is it.

Expect pleasantly tipsy Westerners, languidly tipsy locals, jovially tipsy cops, Nutella pancakes, delicious mullets roasted in the surf, and Danish girls with dreadlocks and ankle bracelets making out with Norwegian guitarists. There are occasional power outages. Nobody cares; almost no one notices. They light candles and lanterns and throw another lobster at the Barbie. Sexy, sighing, barefoot bohemian Koh Toch is a vibrant $15 (£11.78) tuk-tuk ride from the immaculate opulence of Royal Sands, and long may the contrast continue.

Koh Rong is as dreamy as everyone says, as a particularly charming and unspoiled Thai island, like Koh Samui, circa 1993 (and I went to Koh Samui in 1993), but I’m told that just on the other side of the hectic turquoise waters there is an even more remotely perfect island, even less developed, but equally attractive, in a different way. Koh Rong Samloem. Additionally, this island apparently offers good snorkeling, which is not the case on Koh Rong (thanks to fishing and coral bleaching, not development).

I take the long tail boat from Koh Toch. My pilot turns out to be the only other passenger. He’s not sure where I’m going, and as the sun sets over the island’s jungle hills, he drops me off at the wrong dock. Since Koh Rong Samloem, like Koh Rong, is cheerfully lacking in proper roads, I have to persuade another Khmer fisherman with a speedboat to abandon his whiskey-soaked seaside card game and take me, drunk, to the right place. before night falls. He shrugs and charges me five dollars, very affably. Almost everyone is friendly in Cambodia, especially on the islands.

My final destination is a small town called M’Pai. It consists of a pier, a nearly comatose boardwalk, half a dozen beautiful beaches in the surrounding area, a strangely elegant wine bar, more Khmer fishing families, about 50 expats (some backpackers, some older poets), and about 300 inhabitants in total . There are a couple of decent hotels at the back; All the action happens on the street in front of the beach, where the bars consist of school desks in the waves. I get a room at Bongs. It has a cold shower, a brilliant sea view and a wooden balcony. It’s $10 a night, and downstairs they make remarkable cheese and pesto sandwiches with cold Singapore pilsener.

In sweet, sleepy and distant M’pai, the hours merge into afternoons that, in my opinion, could easily turn into entire lives. Music floats under the palm trees, divers occasionally board boats, at night people run laughing towards the sea because the local plankton is wonderfully bioluminescent: as you move, the krill lights up in swirls of silvery tornadoes and blue, as if you were the source of underwater fireworks.

Cambodia.  Koh RongCambodia.  Koh Rong

Hours turn into days in the quiet towns of the island – Alamy

How long will these glorious, paradise-like islands withstand the roads, resorts and 7 Elevens that have devastated virtually every island in Thailand and beyond? Three years? Six? Ten? Who knows, but for now they remain in that sweet spot where they are 94 percent pristine but you can buy a good sauvignon blanc. Go now.


Sean Thomas traveled with Experience Travel Group (020 7924 7133; experiencetravelgroup.com). They offer 11 days/10 nights, FB and HB: three nights at Shinta Mani Wild, five nights at Royal Sands and a boutique hotel in Phnom Penh, for £8,450 per person, including all private transfers and flights from the UK.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *