Caught between the darkness of its infamous past and the promise of a lucky future, the only thing certain about Cambodia’s wild Koh Rong Archipelago is that the life and the islands will never be the same.
Dawn is breaking over the Gulf of Thailand as the boat drops me off at Prek Svay, a small fishing village on Koh Rong island. About the size of St. Thomas, it’s the largest of the 15 islands in Cambodia’s Koh Rong Archipelago, and the second largest island in the country.
Tucked inside my pocket is an unusual map. I won’t need it to navigate — there are no roads here, only a few bush trails that lead into the forested interior — but it might help me understand what the future holds for one of Indochina’s last untouched archipelagos.
Prek Svay is a traditional Khmer village. Plank-board houses sit atop stilts to ward off floodwaters during monsoon season and cobras during dry season. There are no guesthouses or tourist bars here, and nobody really notices as I wander the town’s sandy lanes. Mothers stoke their morning fires, rock babies in fishnet hammocks and call out to one another in singsong tones. The air is pungent with the smell of drying tuna and dung, softened only by the aroma of sandalwood incense wafting from the spirit houses.
It’s been 29 years since I was in Cambodia, and these sounds and smells bring back memories. But this is not the country I remember.
Cambodia in 1987 was reeling from the deadliest genocide since World War II. The country was occupied by Vietnamese troops fighting the Khmer Rouge. I was a young journalist on the Thai border, and my glimpses into Cambodia came from the crowded refugee centers and Khmer Rouge camps.
The villages I saw on patrols were ghost towns; tree roots spilled over abandoned houses like candle wax, and rusted cars sat in the vine-choked streets like so many gargantuan beetle shells. I couldn’t have imagined that somewhere beyond this ruin was a lost archipelago rimmed in white-sand beaches.
“Joom reab sour.” The monk’s voice brings me back to the present. I lower my gaze, press my palms together and touch my fingertips to my brow in a Sampeah, a respectful greeting. I don’t have any papaya or rice to offer as alms, but he smiles anyway, and I watch him pass down a trail until his orange robe fades in the trees.
Turning back to the village, I take my map out, unfolding Koh Rong’s future: the airport, the golf course, the marina, and the acres and acres of luxury residences.
In Cambodia, a land enjoying its first postwar breath of peace in more than half a century, the only thing certain is that the country is poised for momentous change.
“Tourists know Cambodia for two things only: Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields,” Sokheang says. “So I’m really glad you will be telling the world about our beautiful islands.” The former soldier-turned-tour-guide with Abercrombie & Kent is leading me down a trail to a remote 12th-century temple complex near Angkor Wat. We’ve left the tour-bus crowds behind.
I might be bound for Cambodia’s islands, but it makes sense for me to start my journey at Angkor Wat. After all, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the only stop most tourists make in the country, thanks in part to its role as a Hollywood set in the film Tomb Raider.
Sokheang says the government was fighting the Khmer Rouge out here up until about 10 years ago. At one temple, he points to lichen-crusted Buddha statues, their facial features pecked away. “They had no respect for tradition,” he says of the Khmer Rouge. “They used Buddha for target practice, and they placed mines everywhere.”
“This area is mined?” I stop walking. We’re a half- mile into the forest on a faint braided trail.
“Oh yes, many mines, mines everywhere” he says. He sees my face. “Oh, do not worry. We found most of them. I’ve walked this trail many, many times,” he adds. “Now let me take you to a temple tourists never get to.” Once we’re there, we drink cold Cokes and watch the steady flow of tourists, budget backpackers in tuk-tuks and middle-aged couples in air-conditioned minivans. “It’s good you’re going to Koh Rong,” Sokheang says. “It’s time for Cambodia to be known for something more than war.” What does he think of all the changes underway? Siem Reap’s skyline is full of construction cranes and signs heralding new five-star resorts. “Change is good. Starbucks is coming this year, so we’ll have some good coffee.”
I leave behind the bustle of Siem Reap that afternoon and catch a turbo-prop flight to the coastal city of Sihanoukville, packed with traffic and boisterous casino crowds. Sam, my taxi driver, points out his favorite strip bars but warns me to beware the Russian mafia.
When I tell him I’m not lingering here, I’m headed to the offshore islands, he sighs. “Before the revolution, the islands were beautiful, and you could go swimming off the beaches. Nobody lived there. It was all wild. But that all ended with the Khmer Rouge. They took the islands, and nobody wanted to go out there. If you did, you never came back.”
After spending a night in a small guesthouse outside Sihanoukville, I return to the port and board the ferry to Koh Rong Samloem. The hourlong journey in the air-conditioned boat costs $6. A group of Dutch kids are bound for the main island of Koh Rong, so I’m the only visitor to get off on Koh Rong Samloem’s long pier, jutting into Saracen Bay.
It’s a gorgeous bay. Except for a narrow gun slot facing the sea, the bay is almost completely enclosed by forested ridges. The bay is so shallow, I’ll discover later, that you can wade out for a quarter-mile and still keep your bellybutton dry.
Losing track of time is easy on Koh Rong Samloem. Living is cheap. Beers are under $1, and you can find a rustic bed for less than $10, probably $5 if you searched hard. The 2-mile-long arc of beach is backed by casuarina trees and speckled with guesthouses and restaurants. Traditional meals like sweet amok — fish curry — cost only a buck or two.
One morning, two fishermen greet me in English. Up until the revolution, the second language here was colonial French. But the Khmer Rouge, in their effort to erase all traces of Cambodia’s past, killed most of the older generation. Recently, returning refugees have brought back English learned in the refugee camps.
The men are hauling in nets left overnight on the beach. Only a few small minnows flicker among the filaments. “It’s the Vietnamese fishing boats offshore,” one of the men complains. “They’re not supposed to be here. But this is Cambodia, and here, money is everything. They bribe the navy so they can take our fish back to Vietnam.” His friend brightens. “No matter. We’ll be rich soon. The Chinese just bought Koh Rong island, and they want to buy us too. The Vietnamese and the Chinese are buying land to build resorts. Our beaches are much prettier than theirs. I’ll be happy to take their money.”
If Koh Rong Samloem is an easy island to lose track of time on, then my next stop, the exclusive Song Saa Private Island resort, makes telling time even tougher. Cambodia’s only five-star island resort, opened in 2012, is in a self-created time zone, which is one hour ahead of the rest of the country.
“We try to make it easier for our guests,” the concierge explains when their private launch delivers me to Song Saa’s pier after a 30-minute ride. “This way, you don’t need to wake up so early to see the sunrise, and the sun waits for a civilized time until after dinner to set.”
Song Saa has created a new, luxury vision for Cambodia. The island — technically two small islets connected by a wooden bridge — is located several miles north of Koh Rong Samloem and only a half-mile off the coast of much larger Koh Rong island. But it’s worlds apart from the other islands’ backpacker beaches and fishing villages.
Overwater bungalows with infinity plunge pools gaze out at the shallow sea, while ocean-view villas climb the island’s low hill. It’s a self-contained private-island resort. The pools, the restaurants and bars, the spa — everything exists right here. I soon find, however, that while Song Saa is its own world, the owners have made efforts to build bridges with the surrounding communities.
Filippo, the onsite director of the Song Saa Foundation, guides me around on local village walks and hikes. “We work closely with the villages to reduce trash through recycling, reusing and education,” he says while showing me a new water system they built in Prek Svay.
“And recently, we established the largest marine sanctuary in all of Cambodia. We’ll work closely with locals to protect and preserve the area.”
My two-bedroom villa sits on the crown of Song Saa. In the evenings while I cool off in the plunge pool, pairs of hornbills wing over and land in the surrounding trees to feed on fruit. Everything I see from the pool is an ancient, untouched Cambodia, nothing but wild coast and endless forest.
But the future of these islands and Cambodia is up in the air. Hun Sen, the prime minister for the past quarter century, was himself Khmer Rouge. When I speak with locals about politics, the conversations are whispered. One guide only speaks to me about it when he discovers I speak Spanish, a language our driver doesn’t understand. “The government still kills anyone who is against them,” he says. “The Khmer Rouge never left Cambodia. They only changed their uniforms.”
That fear, however, is balanced with a hopeful optimism about the future. Wedged between the economic powers of Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is seeing a huge influx of money, and tourism is starting to boom. Everyone I speak with dreams of development and easy money. They want to sell their homes, their beaches, their islands. And who can blame them?
My futuristic map of Koh Rong island on which golf courses and luxury villas replace wild forest? I downloaded it from the website of a company that had recently secured a 99-year lease of the island.
Near the end of my stay on Song Saa, I head back to Prek Svay village. The resort has arranged for me to receive a blessing from the monks before I leave. In their simple wooden temple, I sit cross-legged before the same monk I greeted earlier on my visit. lie is wrapped in his flame-orange robe and has a distant, peaceful smile. Together with two younger monks, he begins to chant in Sanskrit.
The head monk picks up a hammered tin bowl and mixes lotus petals into the water. He dips a bundle of sticks and sprinkles me with a cool mist. Then he ties a red yarn around my right wrist.
“To keep you safe and happy in the future,” the translator explains.
I close my eyes, make the Sampeah and quietly wish the same for these monks and their beloved country.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Abercrombie & Kent is a luxury outfitter exploring Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Its two-week Images of Indochina & Angkor Wat departures from September through April include Phnom Penh and the Angkor Wat complex at Siem Reap ($6,500 per person). A&K can also arrange a custom journey to include other parts of Cambodia, such as the Koh Rong Archipelago. Song Saa Private Island resort is the only five-star island property in Cambodia and has both overwater bungalows and hillside villas; all-inclusive packages start at $1,440 per night. The resort offers plenty of opportunities to explore the culture and landscapes of the surrounding islands. Neighboring islands in the Koh Rong Archipelago have a wide range of guesthouses and small resort accommodations. Visas for U.S. citizens are available on arrival at the airport.
WHEN TO GO
Dry season is November through February. The weather gets unbearably hot from March through May, and much of the countryside takes on a dry, brown appearance. Rainy season, from June to October, brings lower prices and less sunshine, but the country’s jade rice paddies and jungles are the most photogenic.
Remove shoes and hats before entering a temple (or home), and be sure to cover your arms and legs out of respect. Learn to do the Sompeoh (hands pressed together in prayer form) when saying hello and goodbye; when greeting an equal, keep your hands at chest level; raise them to your lips when greeting an older person; raise them to your brow when greeting a revered person (like a monk).
U.S. dollars are widely accepted. Credit cards are fine in the tourist centers of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but bring cash for the islands.