The south coast of Cambodia made us wish we had a few more days to kill. The sand was white, the water aquamarine, the fish beautiful in the water and even more amazing on our plates. A week is hardly enough time.
See and Do
The gateway to the islands of Cambodia is Sihanoukville, which is a town that probably used to be nice about a decade ago. Nowadays, the water is murky, the sand is rocky, the beach is filled with hawkers, and the bars with older white men and the local ladies who interest them. There's really no reason to linger, though the BBQ on the beach is delicious and cheap.
What you should do instead is hop on a boat and head over to either Koh Rong Samloem or Koh Rong. A round trip boat to the latter is $5 (possibly the best deal in Cambodia). To Koh Rong Samloem, expect to pay $10 each way for the two-hour trip.
Because we had a few extra days before meeting a friend in Vietnam, we decided to get our open water scuba diving certification. We've never dived before, but have always wanted to learn, especially since we knew that we'd be visiting some major dive sites later on in the trip.
We chose EcoSea Dive Center with surprisingly little research and are really glad we did! We experience was great - for $320 each, we received round trip boat transfers, two nights in a beautiful bungalow with sea views, three lunches, two breakfasts, all instructional material, and five dives. We decided to do an SSI certification instead of PADI because it was a bit cheaper and you didn't need to purchase the materials - good news for our backpacks!
Diving was a lot harder than I anticipated, and it took me an extra dive to actually get certified because I panicked every time I had to do the drill where you take your mask off underwater, breathe without it for 30 seconds, and then put it back on. Rob, calm and collected as always, was great at it from the start. We had an amazing instructor, Andy, for our second full day of diving (and my +1 dive). Unfortunately, he's leaving EcoSea in a few weeks and heading to Honduras. A word of warning when this happens - many of the local "dive masters" aren't actually certified so if you're planning to dive with EcoSea, or any other Cambodian company, make sure you push for an expat with certification.
Even if you're not diving, I would suggest checking Koh Rong Samloem out for a couple of nights. The bungalows connected to EcoSea (Koh Rong Samloem Villas) were really beautiful and had a nice stretch of beach out in front with spectacular sunsets.
You can also go swimming at night amongst the phosphorescent algae, which makes you feel like you have beams of light shooting out of your fingertips. We couldn't get any good shots, but I promise you'll feel like a superhero!
In addition to Koh Rong Samloem Villas, the island has a few other bungalow resorts and offers a more secluded feel than our next stop, Koh Rong, which was everything Samloem was not. Tons of selection, tons of partying, and tons of loud music.
The biggest reason to go to Koh Rong is just to chill out on the beaches, and we have to say that the beaches are among the best we've seen. While the sand in front of the main stretch of guesthouses isn't impressive, you just have to walk down the beach to get sand that literally squeaks with cleanliness under your feet. Our favorite beaches were the one in front of Treehouse Resort (you can sit in their chairs and they don't care), the beach 10 minutes away from Treehouse through a path in the jungle, and Long Beach, which is about a 40 minute hike over the top of the island. Long Beach is where you need to head for sunsets since the main stretch on Koh Rong faces east. Bad for cocktails, and for sleeping in the morning.
Our last stop in the south was the beachside town of Kep. Mostly, we came for the crab, though the random monuments all over town were also fun to explore by bicycle. Our favorite was the "White Lady," which some locals had dressed so as to not excite their teenagers, and perhaps husbands.
In Sihanoukville, we stayed at New Sea View Villa right off Serendipity Beach. They had good wifi, free book exchange, and pool tables. They didn't have an AC room our first night so we had to stay in a fan room ($12). The room was fine but leaving the window open meant we heard loud music until 3am. It was pretty bad. Coming back from the islands, we stayed here again, this time in an AC room for $18. With the windows closed, you could hardly hear the music and we slept like rocks.
Koh Rong Samloem Villas, the bungalows associated with EcoSea Dive, go for $25/night and are beautiful. They have full glass doors opening out to the ocean, which means nice views, though hot mornings. If you're looking to save money, you can also pay $5 for a bed in a huge canvas tent. They call it dorms, but it's really more like a tented bungalow, porch and all. We stayed in one of these our last night since all the bungalows were full and were the only ones in our huge tent.
In Koh Rong, we stayed at Rising Sun Guesthouse for $7.50/night (minimum two night stay). They didn't have fans so sleeping was a bit hot and, the first night, incredibly loud. There are better options farther down the beach such as Monkey Island and Treehouse, though they're a lot more expensive. The nicest bungalows, AC and all, are at Paradise, and go up to $65/night.
In Kep, we stayed at Tree Top Bungalows for $15/night in a bungalow with an ocean view. Mostly, we picked the place for the sunset, but unfortunately, all we got were clouds :o(
Eat and Drink
The south coast of Cambodia might very well have some of the best and cheapest seafood of your life. At night, all the beach guesthouses and restaurants pop up BBQ grills and fire up the catch that the fisherman just brought it. It's literally so fresh that you can't order it for lunch because the boat hasn't arrived yet!
Some of our favorite deals were the $2.50 squid and mussel plates in Sihanoukville, the $6 barracuda platter at Frank's in Koh Rong, and the $3.50 squid and shrimp at Elephant in Koh Rong. In general, Elephant on Koh Rong had the best deals for both food and beers.
In Kep, the crab is worth the hype! The Kampot green pepper sauce seemed to be made of magic. It was so good that we literally licked our fingers clean. The crab meat was delicate and took little effort to extract, and for $7.50 for a huge plate, we wished we had an extra night!
Sihanoukville had the best drink specials we've ever seen. Our first night, we had $0.50 draft beers that were buy 1, get 2 free! We can't remember the name of the place, but it had beautiful Grecian decor and looked like it would cost a lot more. That was also the restaurant with the $2.50 BBQ.
The worst part about staying on Koh Rong Samloem is the lack of eating choices since you're pretty much stuck at your resort. Since our package included most meals, it wasn't a problem, but it does make it harder to eat on a budget if you're paying out of pocket.
Our bus from Phnom Penh cost $5 each and, as usual, arrived later than anticipated. Motorbike taxis from the bus station to town cost $3 all together but would have been more as a single. If you're alone, join a group to bargain.
For the islands, do the $5 roundtrip ticket if you're only heading to/from Koh Rong. If you're island hopping, it gets a bit more difficult. Our tickets were included in our package, but are usually $10 each way. If you plan to go to Koh Rong after Samloem, just buy a one way ticket. It should then be a $5 boat ride between the islands and a $5 ride back from Koh Rong to the mainland.
Our minivan from Sihanoukville to Kep cost $6 each and arrived 30 minutes early! We were in shock! Book at the office across from EcoSea as they have the best price.
Crossing the border to Vietnam was remarkably easy. Our $7 minivan took us to Ha Tien in less than two hours. From there, we caught a bus to Can Tho.
More Coastal Cambodia
Interested in seeing the food and beaches of Cambodia without paying for a plane ticket? Check out our coastal Cambodia photo tour.
Have any tips for backpacking coastal Cambodia? Let us know in the comments!