Offbeat Cambodia: Koh Russei, The Idyllic Island

You know that one magical place you always picture? Where the sunshine warms your bones, soft sand crunches beneath your feet and where the smell of freshly caught fish with a side of fresh sweet coconut water beckons. The place where time is but a mere concept and the hammocks are always empty.

Well, I went looking for this idyllic island on my travels through Cambodia…and I found it.

What Island?

Koh Russei (or Bamboo Island as it’s commonly known) like most things in life, was just meant to be. I was in a speedboat en route to Ao Nang national park in Thailand, where I got talking to an English girl about my age. I was told how a certain Bamboo Island in Cambodia had been bought by the French on a 99-year lease and that they were soon going to flatten the island and build a resort. Therefore, I was informed, I must see it in all its natural splendor and glory before it became Palm Jumeirah II. The conversation stayed in my mind and I made a mental note of googling Bamboo Island (since I was heading to Cambodia anyway).

A getaway in every sense of the word. Photo Credit: Colin Grubbs

Are we there yet??

 

Once I was in Cambodia mapping out my travel plan, Bamboo Island kept nagging my subconscious. No one gives better travel advice than fellow travellers you meet along the way; in Bamboo Island’s case, however, this philosophy wasn’t helping. Most people had either not heard of it or had skipped it because they hadn’t heard much about it. I decided to go ahead anyway and reached the coastal town of Sinhoukville. From there Koh Russei or Bamboo Island was only a 4$ (Rs. 200) boat ride away. It is easy to buy the ticket at one of the hundreds of travel agencies in Sinhoukville, or just ask your hotel/hostel. I bought a one-way ticket to the island with no other information about it other than the fact that it was about to be flattened by the French.
  

The Koh Ru Cottages. Photo Credit: MekongMonkey, Flikr

 Anybody home?

I was not expecting much, and maybe it was for that reason alone that Bamboo Island had me astounded. Nothing had prepared me for calm and beauty of this magnitude. Most people visit the island as part of a package snorkeling trip and depart the island by mid-afternoon, which leaves behind just the ones staying on the island and that number is very small. After the maddening crowds and full moon parties of Thailand, this was a welcome change. Koh Russei is divided into two parts both connected by a brief 15- minute walk through the forest. One side had two shack style hotels with restaurants, while the other (more beautiful in my opinion) beach has only one hotel: Koh Ruh. For an easily-spooked individual like me, the walk was a little scary but I needn’t have worried because I later learnt that the island is also a military base.

Walking through the forests in Koh Ru from one beach to another. Photo Credit: Florian Eckert, Flikr
Koh Who?
Koh Ruh: The hotel/shack on the other side of Bamboo Island is perhaps as uncomplicated, no-nonsense and beautiful as the beach and island itself. If you hear that booking in Sinhoukville is mandatory then that’s incorrect. Though if you’re the sort who’s more comfortable booking in advance then there is no harm because the prices are the same. The best thing about Koh Ruh is that it caters to all budgets. For 15$ you can get a lovely little bungalow right in front of the beach with a tiny balcony complete with brightly-colored hammocks. There are two double beds in each bungalow and up to 4 individuals can be comfortably accommodated.
Approaching Koh Russei on the snorkelling boat. Photo Credit: Epidemiks, Flikr
Travelling solo and on a budget?

For 4$ you can get a bed in the dorm bungalow in Koh Russei, also with hammocks hanging in the balcony. I tend to give a lot of importance to hammocks; they’re just such an integral part of bumming by the beach. Watching the sun sink slowly behind the mountains, gazing at the sea trying to comprehend the pink, blue and orange of the skies and all the solitude and calm you need to lose (or find) yourself is was what made Koh Russei so special. The only place to eat on the Koh Ruh side of the beach is to eat at their in-house restaurant, which serves delicious Khmer or Cambodian food amongst other things; give the Amok Curry a shot. Keep in mind the helpings here are enormous! The electricity on the island is only between 6 pm to midnight and each hotel on the island has its own generator. At night, the restaurant plays from its eclectic collection of music that blends in perfectly with the surroundings. Once the lights are out at all you’re left with is the moonlight, the stars and the sound of the waves clashing against the midnight-black rocks. What was supposed to be a night on the island ended up becoming more than a week, and I didn’t even realize. 

Verdict:

Koh Ruh, Koh Russei and all of its gazillion charms as clichéd as it may sound, won my heart the moment I stepped off the snorkelling boa. I would recommend it without a doubt to anyone heading to Cambodia. Most people start and finish their Cambodian adventure at the Angkor Wat but do yourself a favor and get lost in the timelessness of Bamboo Island.
Rumour Has it:
I did google Bamboo Island to find out whether it’s really going to succumb to the modern standards of luxury but my search didn’t yield any results. Whether it’s really going to be flattened or not, I do not know. Maybe it was a figment of a very overactive and convincing imagination or maybe googling is just not research enough. What I do know is that I made one of my best decisions the day I decided to buy that one-way ticket.
The blissfully isolated beaches of Koh Russei were straight out of my imagination. Photo Credit: Travelfishery, Flikr

Update: It appears that Koh Ru has recently closed down but you can still stay on the other side of the island. However, the corporates seem to be winning the battle of Koh Russei because the island has been sold and this idyllic lifestyle is soon going to be extinct. Imagining a big Sharm El Sheikh style resort where I once lay in a lone cottage makes me very sad. Get there as soon as you can, while you have the chance.

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