No less than sixty Cambodian islands dot the azure Gulf of Thailand. Easily accessible from Sihanoukville, Kep and Koh Kong, a growing number house rustic bungalows for overnight stays. They may not have roads, cashpoints or mains electricity, but this is a small price to pay for squeaky-white beaches, warm translucent seas and an escapist, easy-going vibe. Controversially, a number of these islands have been leased to developers, mooted for super luxury resorts, so it’s anyone’s guess as to how long this rustic tranquility will remain. Time is of the essence if you wish to see them in their humblest form. Here are the best of Cambodia's islands:
Best for escapism: Koh Totang
Koh Totang, a tiny dolphin-shaped island in the Koh S’Dach archipelago, is an escapist’s fantasy. Just seven people, plus a handful of roosters and dogs, live permanently on this wooded 650,000 square metre isle along with the owners and guests of the Crusoe-esque Nomads Land, an idyllic, five-bungalow retreat set on its sand-swept eastern shores. If what you’re looking for is complete tranquility, a chance to channel your inner yogi, time for beach-combing on deserted sands or a perch to explore neighbouring islands, few can beat this little gem.
Best for volunteering: Koh S’Dach
With over 2000 inhabitants, this small island houses the largest community across the Koh S’Dach archipelago. Fishing is king here and the authentic, yet surprisingly prosperous village is unaffected by tourism. Shallow Waters, a British marine NGO, has a base on the island and encourages wannabe marine conservationists to volunteer their services surveying coral reefs, collecting data and getting involved in community projects. You stay in over-water dorms, and non-divers learn the ropes on arrival.
Best for beachcombing: Koh Rong
The paradisiacal snow-white beaches (all 43 kilometres of them), aqua-hued ocean and twilight phosphorescence make this a favourite island for many. Its southeastern shores are the go-to place for young party-loving backpackers, however with 78 square kilometres to explore – most of which is undeveloped – it’s easy to find your own patch of paradise (we love Long Set Beach’s striking alabaster shores). The verdant interior is also ripe for trekking; Gil at Paradise Resort is always discovering new species on his guided nature walks.
Best for full moon parties: Koh Rong Samloem
Although Samloem has long been Koh Rong’s quieter sister island, and is – for the most part – laid back, sunrise-facing Saracen Bay’s full moon parties are fast putting the island on the backpacker map. Party boats leave Sihanoukville pier at 5.30pm on the day (shuttles operate from Koh Rong) for the all-night beach rave. The next day, nurse your hangover in one of the many bungalows scattered between the island’s striking, deserted beaches, including the idyllic Lazy Beach resort, and newcomer Huba Huba on Samloem’s only sunset-facing shore.
Best for camping: Koh Ta Kiev
With a journey time of less than an hour from the mainland, Koh Ta Kiev is one of Cambodia’s most easily accessible islands. Given that you can turn up at Crusoe Island, a rustic campground, and pitch your own tent or hammock on the beach for just a few dollars (or have someone else do all the hard work for you), it’s mighty popular, but don’t let this put you off. The jungly island is large and for those looking for more than a mahogany skin tone, activities range from jungle trekking and snorkelling to Khmer cooking and spear fishing classes.
Best for bird-watching: Koh Thmei
Located within Ream National Park, this serene mangrove-ringed island is home to just one very low-key eco-conscious venture, the Koh Thmei Resort, set on the island’s northwest beach. It’s a useful place to base yourself if you’re interested in sighting some of the island’s 155 bird species, including the endangered Brahminy kite. Alternatively, there are shell-sprayed beaches to stroll, a coral reef to snorkel, and nearby, the uninhabited Koh Ses Island, within a kayak’s reach.
Best for day trips: Rabbit Island
A popular day trip from sleepy Kep is to Koh Tonsay or Rabbit Island, a 30-minute longtail ride from the mainland. Home to three pale sand beaches framed by spidery coconut palms, the impetus is on beachcombing, jungle trekking and snorkelling or simply feasting on fresh crab cooked up at the local restaurants. The same also have simple timber huts if you’re tempted to stay the night.
Best for diving: Koh Tang & Koh Prins
Situated between five to eight hours from shore, these two islands – accessible on overnight or multi-day liveaboard diving expeditions from the mainland – boast the clearest and deepest waters for diving in Cambodia. Divers come here to get up close and personal with the stunning variety of corals, the rocky reefs and wrecks, where you might encounter octopus, barracuda and batfish.
Explore more of Cambodia with the Rough Guide to Cambodia, or see more of this region with the Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget.
Book hostels for your trip, and don't forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.