Koh Rong Sanloem (alternatively spelled Samloem) is the sort of place where, had I been traveling long-term, I could have easily stayed for many weeks. Alas, I had just four days on the Cambodian island, but I tried to make the most of them. In this case, “making the most of it” just meant spending as much time as possible lazing in hammocks and enjoying the warm tropical waters.

As with my previous post on Phnom Penh, I’ll just be sharing some quick photos here along with some casual commentary.

I was staying at Clearwater Bay, alternately known as the Driftwood Beach.

At the time of my visit in 2018, it 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 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 going to be quite basic. For example, 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 up to me to track down this couple myself and claim back my rightful pillow.

I wouldn’t dream of complaining though. I was paying just $4 a night, which is practically free. The hostel was absolutely perfect for what it was aiming to be.

Unlike other beaches on Koh Rong Sanloem there was no internet here, and only electricity during certain times of the day. I loved being free from modern distractions for a while.

Oh hai! I developed a slight fascination with these little critters living on the beach. I captured this image by lying down flat on my stomach and staying extremely still so that the crab wouldn’t flee into its little hole.

Later that 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.

When I showed this photo to a friend he asked me what’s in these bottles. I… have no idea actually. I noticed nothing inside the bottles when I took this pic, but now I’m not sure. Is this some mad collection of jellyfish??

I went for a little 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’ (this apparently 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 I like, though the beaches directly adjacent perhaps aren’t quite as good as elsewhere on the island. 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. But it was nice to visit M’pay Bay as it has a lot more activity.

Look at how cute this little shop is! M’pai Bei is just my kind of place.

I don’t want to pretend the island is totally idyllic though. There is a lagoon on the edge of town for instance 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, so this is nothing against Koh Rong Sanloem in particular, but seeing so much rubbish does constantly remind you of how poorly us humans are treating 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. Outside of the clean-up zones though, it can be a bit of a mess at times.

Ugh, anyway, back to pretty pictures! Please enjoy this other view of M’pai Bei, which is fortunately 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 was 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.

The hostel had a great mix of ages and I met some really awesome people there. For New Year’s, our beach had a little dancefloor that was totally improvised with driftwood and some fairy lights. At midnight, someone shot a few symbolic pieces of fireworks off into the sea. It was all very small-scale and intimate and I loved every bit of it.

I hadn’t originally planned on being on Koh Rong Sanloem for New Year’s, but it worked out beautifully. It was fun but also felt vaguely symbolic, as five years earlier I celebrated New Year’s in Sihanoukville just across the water from where I was now. When I looked out to sea and saw the distant fireworks over Sihanoukville, I reflected on where I was then and where I find myself now as an older (and hopefully slightly wiser) traveler. I kicked off the new year with a smile 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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