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Beach-bumming in Cambodia

With 60 pristine tropical islands nestling in sapphire waters easily reached from Phnom Penh, Cambodia is the place to island-hop while enjoying sand, surf and traditional village life.

TRUSSED between two huge palm trunks, my hammock sways in a gentle breeze as Heng brings me a Mojito packed with ice and fresh mint.

Stretching out a lazy hand to clutch the ice cold glass, I bless the owner of Sihanoukville’s Snake House ? a quirky Russian food restaurant where you eat surrounded by crocs and snakes ? who told me about the 60-plus islands studding the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Thailand along Cambodia’s southern coast.

Far from the (sometimes maddening) full-moon parties and kitsch bungalow accommodation cramming Thailand’s coastal resorts, Cambodia’s beaches ? because they were undiscovered for years due to the upheavals of the Khmer Rouge regime ? are largely deserted, a fact that tempted me immensely.

“It’s no tourist guide’s junket,” Ivor of the Snakehouse told me. “Not many of these islands have decent transportation links, so if you want to discover the best of what’s out there, you’ll probably need to hire a boat.”

That night in Sihanoukville, as my feet were nibbled free of calloused skin by fish in a tank, I decided to get a first-taster and booked a ticket for Koh Tang. Ivor had warned me to bring plenty of camping gear.

“Not many of the islands have proper tourist facilities or accommodation, so you’ll need to be prepared and, if you need diving gear, it’s probably better to arrange it all ahead of time from the mainland,” he warned.

Dragging my heavy pack on and off boats and along sandy beaches and jungle paths was a bit of a nuisance, but I was soon glad I heeded his advice.

A breezy five-hour trip from the mainland, Koh Tang became a battle ground in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge captured the crew of SS Mayaguez, a US-flagged container ship, and US marines launched an abortive rescue operation.

Later in 1978, this uninhabited island some 40km south of the Cambodian mainland again hit the headlines when Englishman John Dewhirst and New Zealander Kerry Hamill were captured here and later executed at the Khmer Rouge’s notorious S21 prison in Phnom Penh.

Deserted, apart from a small military presence, Koh Tang today has a happier reputation as one of the best dive sites in Cambodia.

Along with five other deep sea fans who’d come here, with Scuba Nation Diving Centre (two days’ “room”-and-board from US$220 (RM668), we set up tents in a shady spot behind the long, sandy beach, then headed out to dive.

Over the next few days, we explored the wonderland of multicoloured shoals of fish that live in the staghorn coral of Explosion reef and frolicked with the barracudas, jacks and cobias along Three Bears reef, then returned to the campfire every evening and ate fresh fish, and drank punch-packing palm wine under a brilliant canopy of stars.

However, with my hair matted from washing in briny water and skin stinging from sunburn, the romance of roughing it Robinson Crusoe-style began to wear thin, so I was more than ready for my next stop at Koh Rong Saloem a few days later. Hailed as the next Ko Samui, Rong Saloem island is breathtakingly beautiful with endless stretches of chalk-white sand and a dense jungle interior where I hiked with a guide the following day and glimpsed a big-fanged black cobra.

Most of the time, however, I spent in the aptly named Lazy Beach Bungalows (US$40/RM121 a night) chilling out in one of half a dozen thatched-roofed huts scattered along a sandy beach nursed by a gentle curve of turquoise sea, then cooling off in the phosphorescent waters at night.

Seeking stimulation on the last day of my stay, I hired a long-tail boat powered by an outboard motor that looked like a hedge trimmer, and headed round the coast to Mai Pei Bei to do some volunteer work.

“If you’re staying for a while, you can teach at the school, but if you’re only here for the day, we’d love it if you help out with our beach clean-up operation,” said Nhean, who runs volunteer operations in this friendly little fishing village.

Along with Nhean and some other volunteers, we combed the beaches all day for litter and felt pleasantly meritorious as we relaxed our tired legs and aching backs that evening in one of the local food shacks sipping ice-cold Angkor beer and supping on tasty chunks of fresh-caught squid.

Back at Sihanoukville and surrounded by revelling crowds, I was soon feeling agoraphobic, so I decided to head for the islands on the other side of this lively Cambodian resort. Catching the Coasters boat which leaves every morning at 9.30 from Ochheuteal beach, I was soon leaping from the high prow of the boat into the soft sand of Koh Russei.

An hour’s ride from the mainland, Bamboo island is just two long sandy beaches linked across the middle by a jungle path that buzzes with cicadas. Friends had recommended Bimbamboo Bungalows on the busy side of the island which attracts all the daytrippers, but I opted for the more peaceful Koh Ru Bungalows (from US$15/RM45) on the southern side.

Enjoying the serenity in the Koh Ru bungalow

Painted in vivid colours, these bungalows are fairly basic, with shared showers and toilets, but the gently shelving sandy beach strewn with seashells makes it ideal for kids, giving a laidback, family feel to this side of the island. After a few days lazing on the beach and supping on prahok-flavoured fish soup, samlor machu and a grilled-fish-and-pickle dish called trik kreoung pahok at the beach restaurant, I headed back to Sihanoukville.

Up early the next day, I headed a few kilometres out of town and caught the passenger boat which travels along the mangrove-lined Prek Toeuk Sap River into Ream National Park.

Created in 1995, the park, which extends over 15,000ha of land and 6,000ha of marine habitat, is home to a host of endangered wildlife, including king cobras, pythons, great hornbills and leopard cats.

During my six-hour trip along this river which empties into the Gulf of Thailand, I saw coffee-coloured Rhesus monkeys grooming each other in the sun, rare Irrawady dolphins that popped their strange lumpy heads out from under our boat and dozens of flying fish leaping out of the water around us like rainbow-coloured spinners.

Apart from a few budget rooming places, the only accommodation inside the park is the Ream Beach Guesthouse (room from US$15/RM45 a night), a basic-but-friendly sleepery right on the beach where I spent the night.

The Ream Beach Guesthouse is the only accommodation available inside the Ream National Park

Early the next day, a small boat whisked me on the 30-minute ride across the glittering gulf to Koh Thmei, a pristine island where I’d reserved a room at the eco-friendly Koh Thmei Resort (room from US$15 a night).

Sitting on the balcony of one of the resort’s wooden bungalows overlooking a long sandy beach fringed by casuarina trees, I ordered another mojito and toasted the sun setting in streaks of fiery crimson over the gulf of Thailand. – Heidi Fuller-Love

Map: Bizarre Museums

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