Koh Rong was so Right

After a ‘surprisingly’ not-so-restful night on our hotel bus we arrived in Sihanoukville, the harbor town that would lead us to Cambodia’s southern islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. The islands had not been on our original itinerary but much like the rest of our trip, we had heard from other travelers that they were like Thailand’s islands before tourists decided to turn them into playgrounds. After a very speedy and bumpy speedboat we arrived at Koh Rong, supposedly the more laid back and cheaper of the two islands. The four of us had decided to stay on the quieter side of the island where a private bungalow with beach access set us back a grand $15 USD. It was paradise but we had to figure out a way to get there. We had read that there were two options to reach our hotel – one by boat and the other was a 30 minute hike through jungles rumored to have both cougars (not the hot kind) and kidnapping locals. Being us, we read that the shuttle was free so that made our choice obvious, however, we had to find wifi to call the hotel so they could send the boat to us. We scoured the small town for free wifi and found it at a bar also conveniently selling dollar beers. All breakfasts should be served with beer or should just consist of beer. The shuttle was not due to arrive for another two hours so we waited with the wifi and continued to swap travel stories with our friends. 

Finally the boat arrived and we quickly made friends with the captain and the first mate, the only two people on the large fishing vessel. We grabbed two dollar beers for them and set sail for our beach bungalow. When we arrived, after a picturesque journey around the tip of the island, the first mate grabbed a rope attached to a small buoy floating in the ocean and began to pull the line towards us, before we knew it, a small platform made up of floating plastic puzzle pieces came floating towards us. Not really sure how we were meant to make it from the tall boat onto the small floating transportation device, we watched as the captain easily hopped from the boat to the small blue island of safety. With our sea legs full of dollar beer, we attempted with much less grace to copy his movements. Once all aboard with all of our luggage, the girls watched as the boys pulled the line with us in tow to get us back to the beach. Our bungalow was right on the sand and from our balcony (yes we had a balcony!) we could see our own private little beach. The room itself had everything you could want, a big shower, a mosquito net and big doors that opened up onto the beach. The only thing it was lacking was air conditioning and 24/7 power but that was a small price to pay for $15 USD a night, or so we thought then. We spent the rest of the day lazing in the sun and exploring our beach. For dinner we ventured to the far end of the beach to Nest, a hostel/restaurant and when we were there the team asked us if we wanted to go to an all night party (it started at 12am) on the other side of the island at Police Beach. We agreed among our group to go on the condition that we would leave early since we had missed all of the full moon parties in Thailand. After a nap, we had both decided that we weren’t going to go, it was both too much money ($7 USD pp) and too much effort for our old tired bones. Ross agreed to go tell Jake and Allie and when he arrived, to both of our surprises, they decided to bail as well. Win win for both and sleep for all. 

That night we spent a balmy night of trying to point the fan in the perfect direction towards our naked bodies to keep us remotely comfortable while we lay in pools of our own sweat. When we finally decided that getting up early meant that we wouldn’t have to spend another moment trying to stay cool as the sun heated our bungalow, we set out to explore the small neighboring beach town on the island and to book our excursion for the following day, an Adventure Adam tour, which we had been told was the number one thing to do on the island (and it was!). Instead of waiting for our free ferry-shuttle, we decided to tackle the forest route, plus we wanted to explore what we had missed out on the night before at Police Beach. The route between the two beaches was indeed through a forest and through a couple of small streams in high tide. Watching every step so we didn’t accidentally kick a rock, we managed to make it to the other side of the island to the main town. We looked for signs for Adventure Adam everywhere and finally followed a sign leading directly up, straight up. By the time we reached the top of the countless stairs to buy our tickets for the next day, we were both pouring in sweat. We vowed to hop in the water the second we arrived back at our beach, which was most likely going to be another good two hours of hiking away. After a quick detour to survey the damage from Police Beach we were happy that we chose to be old people instead of partying with the youngsters.

We spent the rest of the afternoon snorkeling and chatting to a couple who had recently moved to the island to open a dive shop; just six months prior they had sunk a small catamaran off the shore to create an artificial reef within walking distance from the shore for night dives and to increase the fish and coral population off shore. That night we found out how scary the walk between the two towns could be. Our stomaches decided that it was time to eat dinner so we ventured down our 4K Beach (so named but not actually 4 kilometers long) to the jungle trail. We ate at a seafood restaurant with tables on the beach. The waves tickled our toes as we chowed down on Pad Thai and fish fillets. Halfway through dinner we realized that we only had one headlamp to make the journey back to our bungalow. Ross armed himself with the functioning headlamp and Natalie followed closely behind. The forest was pitch dark and we could only see a couple steps in front of us. We were convinced that every rustle of leaves behind us was a wild puma. We took each step hand in hand and Nat held onto Ross’ hand with the grip for a professional arm wrestler. As we made our way through a particularly dark section Nat jumped about two feet in the air as her whole body was vibrated by an inhuman sound. Convinced that the island was sinking or that a snake was about to strike, Natalie grabbed Ross and he met her utter terror with uncontrollable laughter, the sound was what Ross has nicknamed “barking spiders”, aka he farted. After both of us finished crying from laughter, we continued on into the dark, shortly after, we heard the sound of a large animal barreling towards us, from the corner of our eyes, we both saw a dark figure. We shined our lights below to find a friendly lab dog who had decided that we were good companions for the night. He followed us all the way home and slept on our patio for the night. 

The next morning we headed to the town to meet up with our Adventure Adam group. The group was a mix of about 12 people who were lured to the tour by the same rumors of excellence we had found asking around the island. Our two travel companions made a last minute decision to skip their boat off the island and join our boat around the island. The Adventure Adam tour is a small operation run by a man unsurprisingly named Adam which had been growing steadily since its inception. The tour company started with Adam visiting the island of Koh Rong and falling in love with it so much he stayed. He wanted to know everything about the island so he began searching around it everyday. Eventually he took some visitors to the island he befriended at a bar one night on one of his journeys. They were so impressed they told everyone they met on the mainland about him and insisted they find him and ask him to give them a tour of the island. By sheer word of mouth people began arriving to Koh Rong and seeking out Adam for his increasingly famous tours. In the beginning you literally had to ask around at the bars and with the locals to find him and personally arrange a tour. Luckily for us he had gained enough notoriety and money through the tours to set up an official operation by the time we were looking for him.  

Adam was still personally leading his tours with the help of two employees from the island who operated the boat. Adam is an energetic man whose knowledge of the island and excitement to share it made it no wonder how this tour started from scratch. The tour itself promised to be exciting and fun. On the agenda was fishing, visiting a local town on the island, meals, and night swimming with bioluminescent plankton. Included in the tour price was two beers and a couple of bottles of whiskey on the boat to be shared among the passengers on the honor system. Adam himself was a good fit for a tour guide. He spoke loudly and clearly, covering all the safety materials first and managing our expectations with our plans versus what unpredictable weather might allow. He always made sure we had the right number of people between all the entering and exiting of the boat and made sure everyone was listening to the best of his ability. On top of all this he was a true philanthropist. He explained he made more than enough money to live well on the island from the base price of the tickets to his tour, so all tips went toward a school fund and other island charities which he personally supervised along with the islanders to make sure it was being spent well. He was also in the process of organizing a charity swim to further raise money for the school on the island. We got to feel all warm and fuzzy not just from the beers but also from knowing we were supporting a good cause.

The tour began with a lot of the information described above, the safety, how his tour got started, and the philanthropy. We were treated to an amazing view of the island as we set off. He explained many other things about the island, about its founding, development, and the direction it was heading. Currently there are large developments in the works for gigantic and fancy tourist hotels which are receiving huge funding from several large corporations including KFC. Indeed the reason this island was recommended to us, that it wasn’t an overdeveloped tourist trap, was being eroded away before our very eyes. Fortunately for us and anyone who is thinking of visiting the island soon the completion of the mega hotels are a long way off. For at least a while longer the island will maintain the charm that brought us there in the first place. After the first round of information we were able to relax as the boat headed towards the first destination. Ross took front seat at the head of the boat with a beer in hand enjoying the weather and the view. We finally arrived to no where in particular when the captain and crew began distributing gigantic spools wrapped in fishing line. After a brief introduction to knowing when a fish was on the line and baiting the hooks, we began trying to get dinner. We were both unsuccessful for the first portion, feeling little tugs on the line and pulling up the line to find either an empty hook or untouched bait. But then finally Ross got lucky and got the biggest fish you have ever seen. He could not have been happier with his first catch.

After the fishing we continued on to a remote village on the island where the indigenous people made a living repairing and building boats from scratch. The children were all excited to see foreigners and would approach us asking to play or simply lift them off the ground. Adam explained this village was one of the reasons he had fallen in love with the island and he made sure his tours were helping to bring education to the children and greater access to medicine for the villagers. They were selling home made coconut oil and if we weren’t being so cheap we might have bought some. We crossed an incomplete bridge in the village which was being worked on to replace the old one which had fallen away in a storm. This new one would have concrete and rebar. It was actually a donation by one of Adam’s previous tour goers. After buying some cheap beers from the local stores we settled near a courtyard of sorts where Adam continued to explain about the village and the island. We had a small break where one of the little girls on the island pulled a rusty razor blade out of her hair and cut one of our tour buddies with it. We are pretty sure she was just trying to shave off some arm air on him and not trying to go Laurena Bobbit on him. The guy was bleeding quite bad though and English wasn’t his first language so we weren’t sure our warnings about tetanus were understood. 
We left the village a little less charmed than we could have after that and continued on to lunch. We were able to feast on the fish we had caught earlier that day as well as satiate Natalie’s instagram desires with a swing on the beach. Unfortunately all the fish had been mixed together so Ross couldn’t be sure he was eating his catch but it tasted good all the same. After lunch we headed to a shore with shallow waters and threw a frisbee around while sipping on more beers. Ross was able to impart his legendary ultimate frisbee techniques on the group before the sun disappeared and we began heading home.

Before finally reaching our starting point there was one last stop. Again it was just in the middle of the water but within view of the beach we were staying at. By this point it was pitch black except for the few lights you could see on the shore. We were about to dive in the water to see the glowing plankton. After the supremely underwhelming time we had with it at Koh Pi Pi we were considering not even jumping into the water. That would have been a huge mistake as this was nothing like Koh Pi Pi. There you had to swipe your hand as hard as you could to maybe see one tiny blue dot spark up. Here just moving your hand lit up the water in a swirl of dazzling blue. If magic existed in this world conjuring mana would look like this. We stayed in the water enjoying our self made light shows until we were finally called back. We headed into shore and bid Adam and ours new friends farewell. After dinner we headed back through the dark woods to our beach bungalow for one last night before heading on to our next destination.

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