M’pai Bai, Koh Rong Sanloem. 19-23 January 2020.
No better way to end our travels in Cambodia than by laying low for a few days on the unspoilt, exotic Koh Rong Sanloem. Over the past few weeks we’ve gained a better understanding of the do’s and don’ts of local transport. Instead of involving the hotel, this time we book directly with a travel agent, a change in tactics that pays off in dividents: around mid-day a ferry lands us in the clear blue waters of M’pai Bai. Time to finally wash off all the dirt from the road!
Koh Rong Sanloem is the smaller of two inhabitated Cambodian islands in the Gulf of Thailand, the larger being Koh Rong. The place we stay is called M’pai Bai (meaning 23 in Khmer), a little village of about 150 people on the northern tip of the island. There’s no banks here, no ATM’s, no broadband, no electricity, we’re literally off-grid.
After evading the traffic of carts loaded with island supplies running up and down the pier, once the initial excitement of landing in a little slice of heaven has worn off, it’s quite impossible not to notice a certain hard-hitting prevalence of VCSO boys and girls on the island. Gap year douchebaggery is strong in this place serviced mainly by western volunteers, but once you look past all the duck faces, ‘loner’ tattoos and man-buns bragging about how wasted they got on red wine the night before, what remains is an utter and complete paradise.
The interior of the island is almost entirely covered in dense jungle. Though there used to be a basic road system linking up the two villages, this now completely overgrown with vegetation. Taxi boats and ferries connect the island’s seven beaches, along with the occasional rocky footpath. We follow the so-called driftwood path along the sandstone rock coastline to Clearwater Bay on the east coast. It lives up to its name.
One possible translation of Sanloem is far out. Some of the island’s inhabitants, such as Lookout‘s owner Benny, take this catchphrase from The Dude to the extreme by takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners. It doesn’t take a whole lot of effort to procure a good smoke here, at all. M’pai Bai appears to have just the one policeman, whom we see returning a grinder to the bartender at one of the beach bars..
Once you’re feeling totally relaxed, there are boats available to take you to marvel at the glowing plankton the two Koh Rongs are famous for. At nights, near the shores of the uninhabited island of Koh Koun just to north of Sanloem, when you stir the water the plankton flashes gold. Far out, man!
Another three beaches are accessible by taxi-boat. In the morning we’re brought to Saracen Bay, which got its name from a British survey brig, HMS Saracen, that charted the area in the late 19th century. This stretch of soft, white sand is the main tourist area on the island. From here we choose one of the paths that leads through the jungle to the other side of the island. A sign explains the wildlife we may encounter on the walk: Great hornbills, kingfishers, ospreys, macaques and various (poisonous) snakes. Sadly (or perhaps luckily) we encounter nothing of the sort, and soon arrive at stunning Sunset Beach.
We may not have seen any land animals on the way here, when we snorkel around in the clear water of Sunset Beach the marine life we find around the scattered rocks and corals makes more than up for it. We spot angel fish, parrot fish, leopard fish, and even a few we haven’t seen before: a puffer fish, sea cucumbers and a cuttlefish!
Originally we were thinking of heading to the bigger Koh Rong for a few days, but somehow never made it there.. The nice thing about a small village such as M’pai bai is that in just a few days you begin to get to know everyone. Inside the actual village behind the beachfront there are a few local food stalls. Niamh, one of the chefs there, was on Cambodian Masterchef and her food is delicious, best lok lak we’ve had so far.
We also meet ‘the Mexican on a horse’, who is a bit of an enigma around these parts. No one knows why or when exactly, but he just appeared here one day with his hat and his horse, offering horseback rides to tourists.
But then, there was a lot about it that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place so durned interestin’.