From Sihanoukville to Koh Rong Sanloem

The end of our time in Angkor inevitably arrived, and with it, an emotional goodbye to our two fine men, to Alberto and to Bumper/Dad: we had had such an unforgettable time together, immersed in the power of travel. To be apart again was so terribly unfair. BUT, it was time once again for girl power, which was also not the end of the world 💛.

An incongruous Starbucks Frappucino outside Siem Reap airport later, and the four of us boarded a JCC airlines plane south to Sihanoukville, in order to reach Koh Rong Sanloem, and more precisely, a little beach touted by National Geographic not too long ago as one of the most beautiful in the world. This, we had to see.

Sihanoukville is not a place I feel I’d like to linger too long. It’s something of a Wild West; dirty, dusty, boiling hot. Fermented eggs and curry jostle for space alongside dried fish and plastic bowls in the roadside markets, alongside Angkor beer distilleries and piles of rocks on the road. Rubbish is quite literally everywhere. Building work of hotels and tourist apartments is inescapable. We arrange our boat tickets and walk to the pier, where more rubbish, tourists and street vendors await. Well known in backpacking circles, I think there are a few decent beaches still here, to be fair, but we felt no inclination to explore any further and hopped straight into our bright blue boat for a date two hours further south.

There was a big swell, and with but a bottle of water and a pack of Pringles to sustain us, those hours felt rather longer than two. After such a schlep, I was praying that this place would be worth the effort, quite frankly, not an easy task for anywhere after El Nido.

Thankfully, we finally cruised around a promontory and there ahead lay our beach, with just 20 huts for guests, a communal bar and restaurant, a charming wooden jetty, and that’s it. Set up by two enterprising English with a Cambodian partner, Lazy Beach resort, while lacking poetry in its name, is something special. Expect no luxury in material terms: this is simple, impeccably clean, bamboo hut living, with a fan, mosquito net, terrace with a hammock, cold water, privacy, peace, and a perfect sea view. Expect wilder friends if you leave food in your room for any length of time, and certainly a fair few flying and eight legged companions at night, that come creeping up through the floor through all number of gaps to say hello. More than once after supper upon our return to the hut I had to be the brave mumma (no Laotian concierges here to help me in my bug distress), send the girls into the bathroom to do their teeth with an airy smile, before grabbing the bug spray and trying to coax them away- no killing, to my credit. After all, it was pointless- there must have been loads of them. But as long as I didn’t see them and they didn’t share our beds, I could more or less deal with them. We had one day of a dramatic tropical downpour: afterwards, butterflies the size of bats came out to dry their wings, along with mammoth wasps and other unidentified marvels.

Ours was one of the huts furthest down the beach, a good thing as few other guests ventured down there for very long. There’s hardly anything to ‘do’, if you are one of those who are desperate to of ‘do’ things. Which we are not. Bar a few paddle boards, this is a place where you need no shoes, hardly any clothes and has no wifi. You just sit in the warm, clear water all day and marvel at how easy it is to sit in the warm, clear, water all day. The food is decent and portions are mega, and we spent many a happy hour between swimming and pootling around playing cards, scrabble, and exploding kittens in the bar area, sipping lime sodas and thinking how very lucky we were to be so very far away from the rain, snow and dark winter days. The snorkelling isn’t as good as El Nido, but there is enough to see for a relaxed swim on either side of the beach. Sadly, rubbish is a problem. Every morning brought a wave of debris that the lovely staff did their utmost to clean, but it is quite simply, a depressing, never-ending business. Straws, toothbrushes, bottles, bottle tops, fishing paraphernalia, plastic sandals with barnacles for good measure, plastic stirrers, blister packs, packaging of all shapes and sizes, and then infinite amounts of tiny plastic pieces, ground down ready for their eventual demise inside some poor turtles stomach. This is not just from the nearest coast: they can get waste from all over Asia arriving on their sandy doorstep. Apparently some days the currents literally bring in small mountains….. it’s such a terrible business. Of course, you ask, where does all the collected rubbish then go? And the answer is that as much as possible gets recycled, but much is just burnt. All that said, we had many perfect days of clear water with not a speck along the main beach: but venture to the far end, and the story changes. Fish nibble on plastic bags and coral gets choked by our repulsive, murderous crap. No other way to describe it.

On a brighter note, another super fun thing to do is swim with the luminescent plankton at night. It’s quite scary at first, getting into the water in the pitch dark, wondering what might touch your foot or arm at any moment. Armed with masks and holding hands, we braved the waves to put our heads underwater and watched as plankton sparkled like an electromagnetic field surrounding our moving arms or legs. It was rather magical.

Then on another day, we managed to drag ourselves the 1.5 km to the other side of the island, along a path through the jungle. It sounds rather more adventurous than reality: people do it all the time and it is an ́easy walk. The other side of Koh Rong Sanloem, Saracen Bay, is a very different place indeed. What was just 6 years ago quite literally a paradise of endless sand lapped gently by crystalline water and jungle is now prey to a string of beach bars, boats, hotels and huts, vying for the custom of mostly a backpacker type crowd, although with a few notable exceptions. The beach is still very beautiful, but we vastly preferred our secluded beach through jungle, despite (or because of) the pizzas, wifi, selfie sticks, hammocks in the sea for more selfies and cocktails. We never felt the need to go back. Or to do anything else at all. We were together, we swam, we read, ate pancakes, wrote diaries, did some work, swam again, watched the sunset, had a Lao beer or two, played outside our hut and swam some more, before a round of exploding kittens, again. After 6 nights of this heaven, it was very difficult indeed to put a shoe on, and walk out final walk down the beach, the sun rising, to take the blue boat back to the airport and our last stop, Sri Lanka.

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