Speaking of Cambodian tourism, surely everyone thinks of Angkor Wat, the largest temple complex in the world, recognized by Unesco as the World Heritage and has become a iconic symbol in Cambodia’s national flag. However, saying so is just like saying Vietnam only has Ha Long Bay, or Son Doong Cave recently.
Of course, Cambodia also has many other spectacular natural attractions. However for a country whose border is mostly surrounded by land, I was truly surprised to discover the wild beauty of Cambodia’s islands. With a short south-west coast facing the Gulf of Thailand, two islands named Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem are the natural hidden gems with white sandy beaches and as-calm-as-the lake, clear blue sea. Their beauty have been described as a rustic “Maldive” of Indochina. It sounds ridiculous and overstated, but after coming there twice with quite different experiences, I shared the view with that comparison.
I had been in Cambodia many times, but mainly on short business trips to Phnom Penh and a few times to Siem Riep to admire Angkor Wat. In my mind, there was no impression about its coast and islands. Therefore, when my friends decided to hang out on Koh Rong Samloem island for the first time in 2014, my first question was “Oh, does Cambodia have an island?”. And for that first time, I felt in love with the unspoiled and speechless tranquility of this island.
As soon as the boat docked at the jetty, I was amazed at the clear blue water and white sandy beach. The beach was quiet and deserted in the sunny afternoon. The sea surface was as calm as a lake with tiny waves. Clean and smooth sandy beach without a pile of trash. The water was so clear that we could see the bottom. All exuded a wild beauty and simplicity.At that time (2014) there were not many resorts on this island. Most were small and ordinary hotels or motels but beautifully decorated with environmentally friendly materials such as rattan, wood, bamboo and leaves. I especially liked the way they designed tree-huts for resting which were cool and offered a great view of the sea. Swinging on the colorful swings or relaxing on the hammock on the tree-huts was the perfect way to enjoy this peaceful scenery. We had a day exploring every corner of Koh Rong Samloem Island as well as playing with the waves. Bright blue was the dominant color in all of our pictures. The sunrise next morning on Koh Rong Samloem island was the most beautiful sunrise of my life when the sea and the sky harmonized in a color blending of purple and red. The quiet calmness of the beach at dawn seemed to be the perfect contrast to that warm and fiery color. I had seen the purple sunset, also melted with the pink sunrise, but this magical color with the blend of orange, red, purple and pink, I was lucky to admire once in this island, on that day only.
Back at Koh Rong Samloem island after 3 years, everything seemed to have a different look and feel. The sea was still blue, but the calmness was replaced by strong whitecap waves. The sandy shore was still white, still clean and rubbish-free but not as deserted as before.
The wharf was full of small boats carrying passengers to the hotels (instead of walking on the shore like before). Countless accommodations from luxurious resorts to affordable guesthouses were close to each other along the coast, together with restaurants and bars. It seemed that the little-known tranquility was transformed to the bustle of a tourist destination accordingly to the level of its famousness.
I had been looking forward to seeing the splendor of the one of a kind sunrise again. However, in both days I was there, the sun was hidden from cloudy sky, making the breathtaking scenery that I had been waiting for remained a moment of nostalgia.Seeing the rapid change of a small island in 3 years, it is clear how fiercely human being impact on nature. Yet, I had high appreciation for local people to preserve the cleanliness of the island. Vietnam has more islands than Cambodia, and many of them are beautiful. However, to find such a clean public beach is not that easy.