Koh Rong, Cambodia’s Survivor Island

Cambodia’s islands are a place of mystery. In comparison to the Thai islands, they’re pretty much distant specks on the map. As I’ve said before, Cambodia is most famous for Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields. But once you’ve visited the Cambodian islands, it’s tough to stay away.

The most popular port for getting to most of the islands is the city of Sihanoukville, or “Kampong Som” in Khmer. If you look at the map below, you’ll see that Cambodia has two tiny peninsulas that jut out along the coast.  The left peninsula consists of Koh Kong and Botum Sakor National Park. The right peninsula has Sihanoukville and Ream National Park. This past January, we took a long weekend and headed down to the coast for a dip in the Gulf of Thailand.

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 6.35.07 PM

The town of Sihanoukville isn’t much in itself; the layout is rather disjointed and scattered across a series of hills. The beauty of the area reveals itself when you step onto the sprawling white sand beaches.

We arrived at the port in the morning, and were planning on catching a boat out to Koh Rong at around noon.

In the meantime, I snapped a photo of the ephemeral graffiti scene that seems to be making its way across Cambodia…

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Our destination was the island of Koh Rong. Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 6.44.28 PM

The journey to Koh Rong used to take a minimum of two hours. As you’d imagine, this greatly dissuaded us from visiting; there’s nothing worse than spending two hours leap-frogging over waves with an outboard motor under the penetrating sunshine.

Luckily, Koh Rong has a speedboat business now that cuts the trip down to forty-five minutes.

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Packed full of Khmer and foreigners alike, we held onto our lifejackets and started our journey.

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Now, a bit about the title of this post. To those who read local news, I like to think that Koh Rong is known as “Cambodia’s Survivor Island”. In 2013, the French version of Survivor, titled “Koh Lanta”, was filmed on Koh Rong. (Koh Lanta is actually an island in Thailand, but it wasn’t filmed there. Perhaps the producers thought that Koh Lanta sounded more romantic than Koh Rong?)

Here’s where it gets eerie. First, one of the contestants died from a heart attack during the filming of the show. Then, the television show’s resident doctor was found dead ten days later, having committed suicide in his bungalow. He left a note expressing his guilt over the heart attack of the contestant days prior. (To read more, click here.)

As if that’s not enough, the American television show Survivor is currently being filmed on the island as we speak. No joke. As stated in The Cambodia Daily, filming began this spring and is expected to conclude in July.

But to be clear, Koh Rong is not as remote as primetime television may lead you to believe.

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It is one of the more touristy islands of Cambodia. From the snorkeling and dive companies to new restaurants that pop up daily with fried rice and banana pancakes, some say that Koh Rong is a backpacker’s paradise.

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We did expect it to be full of tourists, but I didn’t quite anticipate how crowded the little stretch of beach would be. Since there’s no roads on Koh Rong, all the shops and bungalows open right onto the beach. This leads for a continual stream of bikini-clad tourists and pounding bass long into the night.

They’ve even got a pharmacy for tourists right at the pier once you get off the boat. Need some stitches? They’ve got you covered. What about typhoid? Ear cleaning? Or how about just some basic “cleaning stuff”? And while you’re at it, why not a blood test?

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We didn’t want to stay on this part of the island. Luckily, we didn’t have to.

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I booked our time at Pura Vita resort, a tiny series of bungalows on a secluded stretch of the island. Pura Vita means “pure life” in Italian, and is well-reviewed for being a clean and comfortable place far away from the hustle and decadence of the main part of the island. We were picked up by our hotel and jetted off across the bay and around the corner, to a truly quiet stretch of the island.

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And it was perfect.

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There was no one here except for some morning joggers, the other guests at our hotel, and our lovely host, Vanny. In her mid fifties, Vanny is a Cambodian woman who fled the country during the Khmer Rouge and grew up in Canada with her family. She ran a restaurant for most of her life, but had a dream to return to where she was born. So, with her kids enrolled in college, she bought a patch of land on the island, and started pursuing her dream. If you ever visit Koh Rong, definitely stay at Pura Vita and have a cup of coffee with Vanny. She’s great.

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We spent our days watching the waves, swimming, and walking along the gorgeous 7 kilometer long beach.

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And, sometimes, I did feel like we were on the set of Survivor. 13

As idyllic as it was, we were curious about that rag-tag stretch of restaurants by the pier. So, we spent one afternoon walking from our stretch of beach across the island over to the main area.

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Even though it got a bit more touristy, it was still equally as beautiful.

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As we settled into lunch, we ordered our meals and some smoothies to quench our thirst. Little did we know that you got “One free beer with every meal.” (You can actually see the chalkboard advertisement behind my sister in the above photo.) It was definitely one of those “Only in Southeast Asia…” moments.

And of course, a trip to an island isn’t complete without some swimming.

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The water was perfect. The sand was soft. The sun was warm. The air was clean. The palms were swaying. And we were in love.

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Will I go back to Koh Rong? Absolutely. But not to stay at the main port, nor as a contestant on a reality television show. I think I like the “pura vita” just fine. 

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