Location: Koh Rong, Cambodia
Koh Rong is the kind of mythical destination that you only hear about from travelers who’ve heard about it from other travelers. It’s not on any “top places to see in 2015” lists by The New York Times or Buzzfeed. It’s not a cruise destination, there isn’t an airport, the island is only about fifteen square miles (most of which is jungle), and there isn’t a single car in sight. But it’s the kind of place wanderers of the world flock to, fall in love with, and never leave (or stay as long as their visas permit).
And after 36 hours of traveling, I was exhausted. But I now know a sure-fire remedy for jet lag, sore feet, and a post-motion-sickness queasy stomach: sipping a frosty beer, digging my toes into ivory sands, and regarding a perfect stretch of iconically-clear, transparent-crystal-blue sea in front of me. I don’t know a greater joy than when I stepped off that ferry, tugged my backpack off my shoulders, tossed my socks and Converses into a lumpy pile in the corner of the hostel room, replaced my tank top and shorts with swimmers, and breathed a sigh of happy knowledge that I wouldn’t be wearing real shoes or lugging around my stuff for at least two weeks.
The lifestyle in Koh Rong is defined by a simple ideal that all visitors respect: re-fucking-lax. It’s easy to fall into the island ways when you’re so far from the mainland, where there’s barely any Internet, electricity for only a few hours a day, and you could count the number of televisions on the whole island on one hand. Dates slip by, answering simple emails becomes a chore. There’s so much hanging out to be done! Visiting Koh Rong is, as one of my friends put it, like becoming part of a society separate from the world.
The main strip is a stretch of hostels/bars, more bars, mini-marts, Khmer restaurants, some more bars, and bungalows. Everything is right on the beach and nobody wears shoes. The local Khmer community mixes with young tourists from all over the world. Most people are white, in their mid-twenties, and taking advantage of the tokens for three free beers a day each hostel guest gets. It’s an island without rules; I’m not really sure there’s any Cambodian government anywhere. There’s a few police who wander along the shoreline every once in a while, but there doesn’t seem to be a need for much reinforcement.
This is most obvious in the lackadaisical attitude toward drugs. You can buy pot and beer from the same bartender. Most hostels have frisbees they lend out to customers to chop weed on and use as a flat surface for rolling. There’s even one hostel with an English-style breakfast special for the extra-lazy that comes with a pre-made joint. Marijuana is cheap, food is cheap, beer is cheap, liquor is cheap.
There are happy hour specials like two-for-one cocktails before noon, one dollar shots, and even a much-recommended THC-infused cocktail called The Happy Russian. The bartenders also run the hostels; they’re all young nomads who work for free accommodation, food, and drinks. Everyone here is in a stasis of happy drunkenness, stoned joy, or is just high-on-life. And how can you not be? You’re in paradise.
There are the downsides to living in this small world: the community only has power for a few hours every day, no hot showers, no flushing toilets, no television, barely any Internet, lice outbreaks, and bed bugs. But you forget about all of those things as soon as you step out onto the shoreline. It actually gives you a kind of freedom you can’t realize on the mainland; every day is unscripted. You could lay in a hammock for twelve hours if you wanted to or spearfish for your dinner or, if you’re feeling energetic, go for a hike or kayak to one of the islands on the horizon.
I doubt that this paradise will stay mellow for too long, though - even in the past six months the buildup of hostels, restaurants, and bars has tripled, food is more expensive and so is accommodation. People are swarming the island, enticed by the chill vibe and bringing with their large numbers a party attitude. The word is spreading.
- Cambodian 1-Month Tourist Visa: $30
- 1 GB Data Sim Card: $3
- Food: $1-4 per meal
- Beer: $ .50-1 per drink
- Water: $ .50 refills (or free depending on which hostel you stay at)
- Hostel per Night: $6-8
- Tuk Tuk from Airport -> Bus Station: $1
- Bus Ticket Phnom Penh -> Sinhaoukville: $8
- Ferry Sinhaoukville-> Koh Rong: $10 (round trip)
- Motion sickness sucks. Don’t drink alcohol before you get on a ferry (one of my buddies learned this the hard way). Puking for forty-five minutes straight isn’t a good start to a vacation.
- Never just settle on the first price you get - always haggle, whether it’s for a tuktuk or a token at the marketplace. And if you’re looking for accommodations, never just settle on the first place you find. There’s plenty of competition for Western money out there and you’ll always find a cheap price if you’re willing to forfeit a few luxuries.
- You’ll always spend more money on travel days than any other days. Things come up and you need to get from place to place. Be prepared when you make your budget.
- You’re going to lose a lot of money during currency exchange if you do it at the airport or go to a bank or a corporation. Find a small exchange center on a side street; they will often have a fairer exchange rate (we got the exact price for AUD -> USD).
- Be prepared to squat when you use the toilet. Always bring hand sanitizer and toilet paper absolutely everywhere. You never know when you’re going to get sick and you never want to unprepared.