Koh Rong Sanloem (alternatively spelled Koh Rong Samloem) is just the sort of place I could have easily stayed for weeks.

Alas, my trip was nearing its end. With just four days to spend on the Cambodian island, I tried to make the most of it. In this case, “making the most of it” meant spending as much time as possible lazing in hammocks and floating in the warm tropical waters.

Koh Ron Sanloem is just my kind of island. Only sporadically developed, it’s the perfect place to chill and get away from digital distractions.

I was staying at Clearwater Bay, alternately known as Driftwood Beach. At the time of my visit, this beach had just one place to stay: the Driftwood Hostel & Bungalows.

Oddly, it did have three separate locations: a restaurant and reception at the center of the bay, some bungalows at one far end, and several dorms at the other far end. It was as though the owners had desperately tried to call dibs on this entire stretch of still-very-wild beach.

The Driftwood hostel was — get this — built almost entirely from driftwood. It was a very rustic and mostly volunteer-run affair, which meant the level of service was fairly basic.

After check-in, I noticed my bed was without a pillow. “Uhhh, I think an Israeli couple took it,” one of the staff told me. It was then entirely up to me to track this couple down and claim back my rightful pillow.

But no matter. I was paying just $4 a night, which is practically for free. If that means I have to liberate my kidnapped pillow, that’s just a small price to pay.

Unlike other beaches on Koh Rong Sanloem there was no internet. Electricity was also limited to certain times of the day. I loved being free from modern distractions.

Oh hai! I developed a slight fascination with these little critters living on the beach, studying them intently. Yep, I was rapidly turning into a sort of Tom Hanks in Castaway.

At night, I saw a few locals with flashlights milling about. They were digging up the holes and grabbing crabs just with their hands and putting them in a bucket. They were planning a crab stew. So it goes. Goodbye, my little crab friends.

There was a real beachcomber’s vibe to the beach. I liked seeing these bottles, though I have no idea what is in them. Is this some mad collection of jellyfish?? We will never know.

I went for a hike to the northern tip of the island. A little rinky-dink town sits at M’Pay Bay, which is also known as M’Pai Bei and sometimes written as the number ’23’ (apparently this makes more sense in Khmer).

Once just a lonely fishing village, it now has numerous guesthouses, shops, and restaurants. It has an easy charm that’s easy to live, though the beaches adjacent aren’t as nice as elsewhere on the island.

Although M’pay Bay is a popular spot, if you’re looking for a place to stay on Koh Rong Sanloem, I’d say it’s probably better to stay on in one of the other bays. I did enjoy visiting it as it had a fair bit more life and activity than my Robinson Crusoe beach.

I don’t want to pretend the island is totally idyllic though. There is a lagoon on the edge of town  that totally seemed like a cesspool, filled with rubbish and old mattresses and who knows what else. Not very nice. While I don’t find it too difficult to look the other way, it does take away slightly from the town’s charm.

Outside of the sandy beaches, you’ll also find the usual soup sandwich of styrofoam and plastics. This is a problem afflicting any island anywhere, doubly so in Asia, so this is nothing against Koh Rong Sanloem in particular. Seeing so much rubbish does serve as a constant reminder of how poorly we treat the oceans.

The eco-resorts around M’Pai Bei employ cleaners to keep the beaches clear of rubbish, and the hostel on Clearwater Bay gives free beers for any bag of rubbish collected. As a result, the beaches are luckily spotlessly clean.

Ugh, let’s get back to pretty pictures! Please enjoy this other view of M’pai Bei, which is far more representative of Koh Rong Sanloem. The bay looks out onto a small uninhabited island called Koh Koun, seen on the right side.

I happened to be on Koh Rong Sanloem over the New Year’s period. I was hoping for a fun New Year’s Eve celebration, but nothing too wild or over-the-top, and that’s exactly what I got.

My hostel had a great mix of ages and I met a little gang of awesome people there. For New Year’s, our beach had a little dancefloor that was improvised with driftwood and fairy lights. At midnight, someone shot a few symbolic pieces of fireworks off into the sea. I loved the intimate and small-scale bonfire night-like celebration.

I hadn’t originally planned on being on Koh Rong Sanloem for New Year’s, but it worked out beautifully.

It was a fun time but also felt vaguely symbolic, as five years earlier I celebrated New Year’s in Sihanoukville just across the water from where I was standing now.

When I looked out to sea and saw distant fireworks over Sihanoukville, I reflected on where I was then and where I found myself now as an older (and hopefully slightly wiser) traveler. I kicked off the new year with a big grin on my face.

So long, Koh Rong.

Who knows… maybe I’ll be back in another five years, again as a different person.

For travel tips and top places to visit, don’t miss my Cambodia travel guide.

 

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