Where: Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia
Spot(s): M’Pay Bay
Cost: $30- 210
Spotted: Sea Urchins, Parrot Fish, Bioluminescent Plankton
The overnight bus halts to a stop, stirring us awake to greet the morning sun. It’s just past 6 in the morning, and the 10-hour bus journey has finally made it to its destination. Slowly, I muster the energy to gather my bags, still half-asleep from the few hours of rest on the bumpy ride. Before I know it I am in a tuk-tuk, whizzing past loud construction sites, weaving in and out of traffic. We have arrived in Sihanoukville, a coastal city located on the southern end of Cambodia. Though the town was once a relaxing place for backpackers and locals, it has more recently been turned into a major construction site, making way for Chinese infrastructure and flashy casinos.
Instead of sticking around, we make our way to our final destination, the little island of Koh Rong Samloem. As soon as the speed ferry arrives on the white sandy shores, I know the long and tiring journey is over, and paradise awaits.
Koh Rong Samloem is one of several small islands off the southern coast of Cambodia, known for its white sand beaches and relaxed atmosphere. There are two main areas, Saracen Bay and M’Pay Bay. After hearing that Saracen Bay mainly consisted of big resorts that had lots of tourists, we opted for the quieter, more local side at M’Pay. After finding a cheap hostel, we settled in for the next few days of beaches, cocktails, and sunsets.
Below the Surface
Koh Rong Samloem offers several options for divers and snorkelers, ranging from intro dives starting at $30 USD to full open water courses at $445 USD. Cambodia Dive Group and Eco Sea Dive were the main companies offering these services. Combined, they offered everything from intro dives from the beach to full diving tours by boat around the island.
Though tours on Koh Rong Samloem offer the convenience of gear hire and transport to several spots, there are actually plenty of dive spots that can be reached without the tours if you rent gear from the local shops. We made our way to a spot we had heard had the best snorkeling and diving conditions on the island. Located just below the cliffside restaurant, aptly named “The Cliff,” we climbed down the rickety staircase leading from the restaurant to the rocky edge. Gearing up, we made our way to explore the underwater world.
Immediately we noticed an array of curious fish, weaving through the impressive myriad of brain corals, which are typically found in shallow warm-water coral reefs like these. Surprisingly, it was not the colorful sea life that caught our attention, but the hundreds of spikey sea urchins lining the ocean floor and surrounding rocks. This was very unexpected, and being that the water was only about five meters deep, I felt myself constantly avoiding these sinister little creatures!
Back on the Mainland
After our experience in the water, it was time for a relaxing evening on the beach. Along M’Pay Bay we found a string of cheap restaurants selling both the local Cambodian cuisine as well as western favorites, not to mention cheap drinks! Beer as low as $1 and most cocktails starting at $2.50 during happy hours. Once the sun goes down, you will find the beach bars alive with music, games, and even a fire dancer or two.
For being such a small beach, we did not expect to have such fun and unique things to do every night! The biggest surprise came when we decided to eat at a quiet local place located just behind the beach bars. It was a quaint restaurant with no name run by a local family. As we ate, we began chatting with the father of the group, a local fisherman. After a few minutes, he offered to take us out on his fishing boat to see the bioluminescent plankton just off the shore of a nearby uninhabited island! Seeing an offer we couldn’t refuse, we each grabbed a beer and made our way to the boat.
A Sea of Stars
It was now pitch-black on the water, perfect conditions for spotting the little creatures. After about 20 minutes of riding out to sea, our driver anchored the little fishing boat just off the shore of an island called Koh Koun. At first, we thought we had missed them, as the water around us was jet black with no plankton to be seen. Then, the fisherman sat on the edge of the boat, motioning us to come to have a look. He dipped his hand into the water, stirring it around, and all of a sudden the area lit up like stars in the water. Thousands of little blue lights swimming all around us, leaving a trail of bioluminescence wherever we touched. At times they would join together, creating a glow-worm-like appearance snaking its way along the surface of the water. It was truly a magical experience and one that I had not expected to have so spontaneously.
Koh Rong Samloem is an absolutely gorgeous little island with so much to offer. However, from a diver’s perspective, the reef was not the most impressive I have come across, especially since the sea urchins were very hard to ignore and I found myself more focused on trying to avoid them rather than actually seeing much else. I would recommend this island for people looking for cheap intro dives off a beach, but for more experienced divers it is more worth it to grab a snorkel mask and explore on your own.
The last thing that caught my attention on Koh Rong Samloem was an amazing conservation and beach clean up efforts by the locals! You will find the beaches on this island mostly plastic free, something that is unfortunately very rare for many beaches in Southeast Asia. Signs around the island state things like “this is a beach, not an ashtray” and “say no to straws.” You will also find locals of Koh Rong Samloem crushing bottles and cans for recycling.
If you find yourself wanting to explore the Cambodian coast, I’d absolutely say “do it!” I would recommend coming to Koh Rong for its stunning beaches, beautiful sunsets, friendly locals, and cheap cocktails. In the end, these things, along with our little night excursion, will stick in my memory more than the actual dive experience.