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Sunset Beach, Koh Rong Sanloem: Cambodian island paradise endangered?

I recently had the pleasure of spending three days at a gorgeous beach on the island of Koh Rong Sanloem, just off the Cambodian coast near Sihanoukville. Sunset Beach is an isolated little slice of paradise which is currently only accessible via a somewhat hilly 20-30 minute footpath from the settlement of Saracen Bay, or by boat (but there’s no pier so it’s a wet landing!). But I assure you, once you’re there it’s totally worth it!

As its name suggests, west-facing Sunset Beach features gorgeous sunsets over the Gulf of Thailand. The golden sand beach is relatively small and most of the buildings are semi-hidden amongst large trees, providing lots of natural shade and an undeveloped feel. It’s like a tiny eco-friendly beach community where everything is off-grid (mostly solar powered) and the sole wifi connection (daytime only) is provided by a small coffee bar and activities desk. The water is clean and clear, and there’s no plastic anywhere in sight, hooray!!

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When it comes to dining, each of the four lodgings features something different – Khmer, Italian, French and Spanish cuisines are all represented, and you can get great seafood and wood-fired pizza. One day I saw an employee paddle out to a fishing boat just offshore, bringing back freshly caught seafood for the restaurant. It doesn’t get any fresher than that!

Activities include jungle hiking, snorkeling, diving and rock-climbing trips, kayaking, SUP, martial arts and yoga on purpose-built platforms, and nighttime excursions to view bioluminescent plankton. Oh, and let’s not forget beach lounging with cold drink in hand!

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Rooms are fairly basic and there’s no air conditioning or hot water, but there is 24-hour electricity, and all four lodgings are highly rated by travelers. I stayed in a very comfortable private bungalow at SUNBOO Beach Bungalows which, at 70 USD/night for two guests (Jan. 2024), is somewhat expensive by Cambodian standards.

I was very impressed by their sustainability efforts, however, and appreciating how isolated it is the slightly higher cost was perfectly understandable. For the more budget-minded there are dormitory options, as well as lower priced private rooms/tents with shared bathrooms. Another similar but less expensive lodging is KAMAKU Bungalows, with bungalows, rooms and dormitory facilities, all with shared bathrooms.

Basically, coming to Sunset Beach is all about switching off and enjoying the idyllic surroundings, not modern luxuries!

Sadly, all of this could be at risk. Large parts of the island are under development, particularly in Saracen Bay to the east. Jungle is being cleared, small tourism leaseholders evicted, and their establishments bulldozed to make way for larger scale resorts. The construction has created noise, dust, litter and pollution in the affected areas, including the bay’s (once) pristine beach.

None of these impacts have reached Sunset Beach, yet. It remains protected by a ridge separating it from the rest of the island, and I was told by an employee of one of the lodgings that they have a lease agreement to continue operating for at least four more years. Beyond that it remains to be seen.

Development can be a good thing when done sensitively, and certainly the people of Cambodia deserve opportunities to rebuild their economy and raise the standard of living, particularly after all they’ve been through. (Quick history: the Cambodian people have suffered for decades from bombings, war, a brutal Khmer Rouge regime, domination/exploitation by stronger powers, and still today a less-than-democratic political system). But from what I saw firsthand and have read about in the islands and other parts of the country, many recent development projects have unfortunately not been conducted in an environmentally or socially just manner.

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That said, according to the current plans large parts of the island are set to remain undeveloped, and once the initial construction is completed some of the problems it’s causing should hopefully improve. The island’s development plans also include the building of a health center and a school, as well as the construction of a wastewater treatment facility, which will be critical as tourism to the island grows. Basically, there is cause for hope and cautious optimism for Koh Rong Samloem’s future.

So, if you visit Cambodia and aren’t put off by the small challenge of getting there, I highly recommend a relaxing stay on Koh Rong Sanloem’s beautiful Sunset Beach!

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