First impressions of Koh Rong: Cambodia’s island paradise (maybe?)

You know that never-ending white sand beach with palm trees and brightly coloured local boats that you have seen 1000 times associated with South-East Asia? Well, if it wasn’t taken in Thailand (and it probably was) then it was most likely an image of Long Beach on Koh Rong, Cambodia.

To be honest, I didn’t have especially high hopes for the main Cambodian backpacker island of Koh Rong. After hitting up a highly acclaimed beach on the mainland coast (and running away less than 24 hours later) I was beginning to think that anything anyone “liked” in Cambodia was going to just be a tourist-saturated idyllic beach location totally devoid of any remnant local culture.

With my hopes set sufficiently low, and a Whatsapp message in hand from a fellow traveller reading “koh rong is weird. filthy accommodation đŸ˜„ ” I hopped onto the boat expecting pretty much a floating pile of drunkards and bed bugs, covered with a new layer of white sand with each successive tidal oscillation.

First glimpse of the island is promising!
First glimpse of the island is promising!

And this is why I love negative reviews: low, low, low expectations. It is why I loved the grey, concrete, post-Communist hole that is Sofia, Bulgaria, and it is why I like Koh Rong.

Now don’t get me wrong – the beach is just a line of bars blasting reggae or unmemorable ‘classics’ till the power is cut at 2 am, the sand is pretty nasty (you can’t wear flip flops in it… but trust me, you want to) and the main fare on offer is BBQ, not amok or loc lac – but it does have some quirks.

The town has been divided into the “Village” and the “tourist part”. In the Village it is frowned upon to walk around in a bikini, and the food is also way better and half the price. The redeeming quality of the tourist bit would be the occasional presence of wifi.

Walking the length of the beach, including both of these sections, will take about 10 minutes… if you dawdle. But despite this, it seems a good number of tourists don’t venture past the central dock and into the Village. Perhaps the strain of donning a shirt is just too much to face?

Thai food hidden in the Village

But those who do venture will be rewarded! On my second night I found “the Thai place”. This restaurant is actually more of an open-air kitchen surrounded by banks on three sides and bench chairs that take some minor acrobatics to mount.

The chef, a Chiang Mai native, is a veritable one-man show. He cooks like wild: two to three dishes at a time, while keeping a sly watch out of the corner of his eye, noting who arrived in what order. When your number is up he asks what you want, and preps it right then and there, after washing out the pan with a splash of water and a swirl of the bristle-wire broom.

He has no sous-chef, no dish washer and no waitress collecting the money. He spends all morning prepping: chopping and portioning out meats and noodles. If you want a drink he will nod in the direction of the cooler – it is a help yourself situation. And both times I’ve visited he has been too busy to fix the bill – we just left the notes folded under our empty plates.

Oh and did I mention that almost everything on the menu is $3? Though a couple items creep up to $4. My chicken pad see ewe (a thick-noodle dish not entirely dissimilar to pad thai) was the best I’ve ever had – and would have been off the charts had I seen his special spice mix on the table that I discovered the next night.

This has now left me with the unfortunate side-effect of very high expectations for Thailand. The circle continues…

Thai Place Koh Rong

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