Hippie’s Paradise – Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem

Cambodia isn’t well known for its beaches. Thailand has its world-famous Phuket and ultra sleazy Pattaya, while Indonesia has Bali and Lombok. Cambodia is still known as the land of Indiana Jones temples. Angkor Wat is so majestic that it attracts so much attention around it, leaving other parts of the country relatively unknown to most tourists.

When AirAsia started flying to Sihanoukville, I jumped on the chance to explore Cambodia’s beach offerings. While Sihanoukville itself isn’t a remarkable place (no joke, it’s hideous and tacky), I had the best experience at Koh Rong Samloem, a small island 40 minutes off the mainland.

Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem

The two islands of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem are only accessible via speedboats from Sihanoukville. A return trip to either of the islands is priced at about USD20, which isn’t very cheap for Southeast Asian standard. Good thing is, you can get on a bus right at the Sihanoukville jetty to Battambang and Phnom Penh, which means that you don’t have to spend so much time at the port city before or after your island excursion.

My speed boat took me right to a jetty at Koh Rong Samloem – from there, the staff led a few of us on the boat to a catamaran that took us to Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem.

The boat ride!

The resort is owned by the Mad Monkey group, which operates a string of hostels in Cambodia. I’ve been to their hostels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and had a really good time, so my expectation was quite high.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

Upon arrival, our group was greeted by the friendly staff who walked us to the registration area at the bar. It’s really sandy, so bring your crocs or plastic thongs! The bar is really hippie and a very social place, with music playing until late. The frontline staff are mainly locals, managed by some Australians.

I booked a private bungalow. There’s no air-conditioning, but at least the place is clean. The bed is alright, with some basic pillows – it’s not 5-star hotel quality but for USD25 per night, you really get what you paid for here. I wish there was a chair though, it’d be nice to lounge at the spacious balcony that faces the beach. The bungalow is a wooden structure, with many small cracks and holes on the floor and the wall, and its location right next to a tropical jungle means that there are many bugs and insects. Fortunately the mosquito net does its job well.

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There’s no wifi or mobile phone reception on the island, and there’s no restaurants, shops, not even a village nearby, so you’re basically stuck in Mad Monkey throughout your stay – which is not a bad thing, since the quiet, unspoilt beach will keep you occupied. There are beach hammocks and swings that you can use.

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The remoteness of the place gave rise to a friendly culture. While it felt a little awkward at first since I came alone, I ended up making new friends throughout the three days I was there. Everyone’s friendly, so as long as you’re open-minded, non judgmental and friendly too, you’ll have a really good time there.

The bar is where the socialising is most of the time. Drinks are quite cheap there, for Malaysian standard, and there are happy hour prices too. The restaurant, which shares its space with the bar, serves alright food. It’s a hit-or-miss. The menu is rather extensive, covering western, Thai and Khmer cuisines. Throughout my 3-day stay, the food ranged from the delicious creamy seafood tomyum and yummy fish amok to the passable breakfast of omelette and terrible Khmer-style fried noodle. The morning coffee is good though!

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Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem shares the space on the tiny island with the military, so the bar stopped playing music at midnight. However, after the music ended, everyone headed to the beach for a tipsy dip. The water was surprisingly warm, considering that it was past midnight, and it was a perfect opportunity to see luminous planktons. These planktons are only visible underwater, and there’s snorkelling equipment that you can borrow.

After three days, when it was time to leave, I felt like I wasn’t ready to. I had a massively good time, and left with no regrets – except for one. I should’ve applied insect repellent on my body more frequently than twice a day. Sandfly bites aren’t cool; my whole body felt so itchy for three days after I got back in KL!

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Some travel advice:

  1. Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem is a party hostel, so if you’re looking for a very quiet destination, this place is probably not for you
  2. Bring coconut oil – it works better than normal insect repellant in protecting you from Cambodian sandfly bites and I learnt this trick too late
  3. Bring USD – the island has no ATM or the internet connection needed for the credit card machine to function. The tab system works here, and you’re expected to settle everything before you leave
  4. Be friendly and kind to the staff – and they’ll be extra nice to you, which helps!
  5. If your budget allows for some splurging, choose the bungalows. Dorms are much cheaper, but facilities are really basic there. The whole resort is sandy, so it’s nice to have your own ensuite bathroom and a little bit of personal space in the bungalow

Speak soon!

FH

Sihanoukville – a city that’s hard to like

Hello from Sihanoukville!

The city is my base this week, from which I went to explore Koh Rong Samloem, an island known for its hippie accommodation offerings and quiet, unspoilt beaches.

Anyway, let’s talk about Sihanoukville first.

Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s only significant harbour city and the industrial centre of the country, which doesn’t say much, since Cambodia’s industry is still at its infancy. Angkor Beer (one of Cambodia’s most recognisable brands) is produced in the city. Sihanoukville is also one of the newest cities in Cambodia, with a relatively recent history that dates back to the 1950s. Therefore, it doesn’t have the long, French-style avenues of Phnom Penh or the rows of charming mustard yellow shophouses that make Siem Reap’s town centre look very charming.

To be honest, the city’s rather dreary. Hygiene is a real issue in Sihanoukville, and even the most touristic parts of the city are very unkempt, with piles of garbage taking over the limited space for pedestrians.

Two golden lion statues mark the centre of the town – right next to the statues are tourist traps like casinos, bars and souvenir shops.

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The roads in Sihanoukville aren’t as developed as those in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – and only main avenues are equipped with street lights, so expect the ride from your hotel to town to be quite rough, as most of the boutique-style accommodations in Sihanoukville aren’t located on the main roads.

I’m staying at Deluxx Boutique Hotel (4 star), which is an amazing oasis of calm and comfort in the middle of the chaotic and unpredictable Sihanouvkville. The hotel isn’t large – it’s a 3-storey building, with rooms orientated to face a nice pool, enveloped in a verdant little garden. I opted for the smallest room, which is actually quite large, with a really comfy queen sized bed and a sofa bed. There’s a flat screen TV, mini bar, and best of all, the bathroom works perfectly, with reliable hot shower (something that you really appreciate when you’re in Cambodia).

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There are several popular beaches in Sihanoukville – Ochheuteal, Otres and Sokha. Ochheuteal is the tackiness of Phuket’s Patpong, magnified. Also known as the Serendipity Beach, Ochheuteal is anything but serene. Rows and rows of cheap bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and massage parlours line the beach. Street children walk from a table to another, selling trinkets. Stray dogs forage for food in piles and piles of garbage that are scattered around the beach area – this happened right next to where you eat.

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Backpackers and hippies frequent some of the bars nearby Ochheuteal. Monkey Republic is my favourite – it’s fairly cheap, with really nice music. There are also some decent spas too, that are doing legitimate business and not at all dodgy. These places are staffed by professionally trained therapists. The staff at Monkey Republic recommended Ocean Spa. Following their advice was a right decision; I had an amazing 60-minute full body massage for USD12. Worth every single sen.

While Ochheuteal is where most of the tourists are eating and partying, for the best traditional Khmer dining experience, head to Sandan, about 5 minutes from the Golden Lions. The restaurant is a social enterprise, which employs young Cambodians from high-risk communities. It also acts as an on-the-job training centre for underprivileged Cambodians to prepare them for jobs in the nation’s growing tourism industry.

I ordered seafood amok and a Khmer seafood salad. Both were excellent, especially the seafood salad. The ingredients were fresh;  the prawns and squids were served juicy and succulent. To wash them down, you can also try Sandan’s inventive cocktails and juices – a tomyam mojito, anyone? I ended up paying USD18 for one salad, one main and two drinks – not cheap compared to other restaurants in Cambodia, but you’re paying for the nice ambiance, great service, fair wages and nicely presented, freshly prepared local cuisine. So it was worth it.

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Safety is a main issue in Sihanoukville. The city, with its casinos and seedy bars, has a rough reputation. Make sure you don’t leave your bags unattended at Ochheuteal Beach as petty theft is rampant there. Practise common sense and general caution, especially at night. The city’s streets are really dark at night, so it probably helps to know your route first before taking a motorbike taxi or Uber – just in case.

While Sihanoukville doesn’t have much to offer, the surrounding islands off its coasts are stunning. The city is therefore an important stopover/transit point for tourists, and since Cambodia’s islands aren’t as popular as those in Thailand, tourists who come to visit are mainly adventurous backpackers or hippies.

However, Sihanoukville won’t be so much of a niche destination anymore in the future. Massive Chinese investments have created several large construction sites across Sihanoukville. New hotels and resorts are coming up. AirAsia has also started plying the Kuala Lumpur-Sihanoukville route, putting the city on the map.

Sihanoukville’s skyline is evolving

Change is coming.

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I’ll write about my experience staying at Mad Monkey Koh Rong Samloem, soon. Stay tuned!

Living it up, in Cambodia!

My case against haggling

Imagine coming to a country where the majority of the population earns less than USD150 per month. You earn 10–20 times more than them.

You start your morning at one of Phnom Penh’s only Costa Coffee branches. You gladly pay USD3 for your coffee.

Then you go to a market. A crowded, poorly lit, stuffy place. Single mothers ply their trade, taking their small kids along. Children have their lunch of rice and tiny pieces of pork and chicken next to a small radio that plays western Top 40 music from 3 years ago.

After browsing for a few minutes, you encounter an exquisite handmade local craft. A small wooden statue. You saw something that looked similar at one of the “hipster” art shops near your office before. It was sold for USD100, and while the price was quite steep, you knew that it was reasonable – especially for something that beautiful.

But at this Cambodian market, the statue, that probably took a day or two to make, costs you USD15.

85 percent cheaper. But here’s a thing. You’re a backpacker who tries to save every single cent so you get to splash out on more booze tonight, so you haggle and bargain really hard.

So you tell the trader, “7 dollars or nothing”.

Desperate for cash, the trader agrees to sell you the wooden statue for USD7.


Because you want to save USD8, which is equivalent to 2–3 cups of coffee at home, the trader takes home USD8 less today.

She has USD8 less to spend on her children’s education.

She has USD8 less to spend on providing nutritious diet of fish and meat for her family.

She has USD8 less to spend on buying medicine for her children when they fall sick.


This is the kind of unhealthy attitude that is sadly very prevalent amongst backpackers in Asia.

Respect the locals and their trade, and the locals will respect you.

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This post was originally uploaded on Quora. Feel free to follow Faizal Hamssin on Quora if you want to subscribe directly to my answers there.