Koh Rong Sanloem island is 16 miles off the coast of Sihanoukville in Cambodia. The word Sanloem translates to a) drowsiness and b) far out and hard to discern. It is approximately 6 miles long and 2 miles wide. The terrain is hilly with a few small mountains and the interior is dense jungle. The coastline is a mix of rich sandstone formations and beautiful sandy beaches. On the large western coast there are three beautiful yellow sand beaches. On the eastern side, which faces the mainland and is less exposed to weather and monsoons, sits the popular crescent shaped Saracen Beach Bay. There isn’t much to do, but people come to relax and eat at the different resorts that line the bay.
On the northern tip is M’pai bay, which besides a small fishers hamlet, is one of the two villages on the island. M’pai has several different guesthouses, businesses and several options for food. They have a toastie shop, vegan friendly café, traditional Khmer, and all kinds of western food. There is even a tattoo shop on the island! They have several little shops that sell basic goods, fruits and vegetables, baking supplies, canned goods and beer. They have a supply boat delivering new stuff daily. They are rapidly growing, so there is a lot of construction, which creates noise. They have several village dogs, some have owners others are just strays, fed here and there by locals or ex-pats, keeping them happy and healthy. Cats are fewer in number but all look very loved. Roosters, hens and baby chics are everywhere. There is one horse on the island and its in M’pai. This is the tropics so of course there are mosquitos, geckos, flies, insects, snakes and all kinds of other critters.
Arriving in Koh Rong Sanloem island in Cambodia was like an answer to prayers. At my time of arrival I had been traveling for 16 weeks. I was feeling a bit run down and wasn’t enjoying Cambodia like I enjoyed the other countries I had visited. Don’t get me wrong here, it’s a beautiful country full of amazing people and culture. The truth is, it can be exhausting traveling long term. I hadn’t met or made any friends since arriving in Cambodia, which is weird for me. This was probably mostly due to the hostels I was staying in. I was tired of all the same 5 outfits I had been wearing since I left home. The heat and humidity was making me want to hide in a dark corner of any room that offered AC. I felt dirty, like nothing I had was clean anymore. I was aching to do something productive for myself. When you travel, someone else does everything for you. Someone else washes my clothes, makes my food, cleans my room and bathroom, arranges my transportation. I didn’t feel like myself anymore.
My plan was to stay for 3 nights in M’pai and then head to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. I bought my round trip boat ticket from my hostel in Sihanoukville. It cost $20 USD, which is a lot to me and I almost forfeit the whole idea of going to Koh Rong Sanloem because of the cost. I’m so glad I spent the money and found myself in this beautiful island oasis. When I first arrived at the pier it was hard not to stare in awe at the stunning aqua blue water, the boats parked along the beach, the cute wooden signs directing you to accommodations and food, the bungalow style businesses and so many swings and hammocks to lounge in.
There are no vehicles and no more than 5 motorbikes in the village. All streets that lead through the island are sand, there is no pavement or solid walkways, which truly makes you feel the island vibe. Many people, locals, expats and tourists walk barefoot. I did not, because I’m scared to death of infections and insects. Every sign and board is hand painted which gives the village an adorable laid back artsy feel. You can arrange boat rides, diving, snorkeling and trekking at many of the shops and guesthouses that line the roads. You can play beach volleyball or catch a local match of volleyball, which is always a treat, and there are frequently kids around, playing together or causing a raucous.
The first thing I did was find Longvek guesthouse where I would be staying. It has fantastic reviews most of which are due to the owner (Andrew) for being a fantastic host. When I first walked up I was greeted by three other travelers who invited me in and showed me around. Andrew had left the island to do some shopping on the mainland for the day. The guesthouse was an adorable open air home converted into guesthouse. There are a total of three rooms. One being Andrews, which doubles as the laundry room because he has his own washing machine. The other two rooms had two bunk beds each, hand made by Andrew, with some of the most comfortable mattresses I have ever slept on. Each bed has its own mosquito/ critter net, which is an absolute must here. Andrew also built a kitchen with a 2 burner camp stove on propane and 2 sinks with running water for washing. He also has a rain water tank for fresh drinking water, the only one on the island actually. Lastly, he has a beautiful tiled bathroom that he keeps very clean.
I felt a little weird hanging out at the guesthouse without even meeting the owner, so I dropped my things off and headed out to explore. Feeling weightless from losing my heavy backpacks, I headed back down to the main beach and walked the entire stretch that makes up M’pai bay. I stopped to check out each guesthouse, all of which have their own personality and character. Most of the guesthouses have pieces of beach that are meant for their guests and they decorate their beaches with their own personal touch of beach friendly chairs and hanging lights for ambiance at night. There is a lot of art and creative repurposing of items that can be found on the island. On the western coastline there is a stretch of secluded bungalows that offer great views. I decided to stop and have a beer and chat with some expats.
I ended up staying for a few hours chatting and getting to know people. Everyone seems to have the same story here, they came for a few nights and then never left. That is the reason why there are so many ex pats on the island and English is widely spoken because of it. I got tons of info on what to do and some secret local spots, as well as where to go out at night and where the best food is. Just before dark, I headed back to Longvek for dinner and to see if Andrew was back.
Since Andrew has a kitchen, he opens it up to his guests, and allows them to cook family meals. When I got back dinner was already in the works. I asked if I could help but was kindly told to just hang out and relax because they had it taken care of. Shortly before dinner Andrew arrived home from his day off the island and I had the pleasure of meeting him. He gave me another tour and we settled down to eat. A few of the other travelers were vegetarian, so we had a veggie pasta with a tomato based sauce, which was fantastic. It was the first time I was having a home cooked meal since leaving home. It was so nice to sit down with others and eat dinner as a family would. Everyone swapped stories and we laughed and had a great time getting to know each other.
After dinner and dishes were done I sat outside with Andrew and chatted for a few hours. The others were all leaving in the morning, so they had gone to bed early. We talked about his life on the island and what he did before he came to live here. He is an extremely fascinating man who has traveled to many places and has lived in several different countries. He is smart, funny, cultured and has endless entertaining stories about his life and travels. I found him instantly likeable and he makes the guesthouse feel like nothing less than being at home.
As I laid down in bed that night I felt a calm I hadn’t felt for a long time. I didn’t feel rushed with plans or places I wanted to see. I wasn’t uncomfortable with the people around me because I didn’t feel like I was surrounded by strangers. I felt like I could lay down carefree and let all my anxieties and discomforts from traveling float away. I felt happily healthy from an amazing fresh cooked meal. I felt like I was at home. And that was when I decided I would stay on the island for the remaining two weeks of my Cambodia visa.
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