Paradise Unplugged

The more we slow travel the more we’ve come to appreciate the importance of finding places that match our rhythms. We crave those spots that attract interesting fellow travellers (as opposed to tourists), while at the same time fulfilling our desire for a sense of separation from the madness that all-too-often characterizes the world these days. We don’t want solitude per se; we do enjoy places that open a space for us to meet fascinating people, to contemplate life, and to appreciate the beauty that our world has to offer.

It’s increasingly challenging to satisfy these desires as more places are “discovered” and inundated with too many people wanting “recreation” and “adventure” (zip lines, river rafting, ATV trails, just to name a few), all of which comes at the expense of connections, contemplation and peace.

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Sunset is always a special time here

We experienced just such a loss about a decade ago when Sayulita, Mexico was well and truly discovered. The rapid development to service the flood of tourists shattered the amazing sense of connection we had with the jungle, with the ocean, and with the people of the town. We’ve been trying to find a suitable replacement ever since. And after almost ten years looking we think we’ve found it on our most recent trip to SouthEast Asia.

Koh Rong Sanloem is located 38 km (24 miles) off the south coast of Cambodia. You can reach the island by fast ferry in about 45 minutes (or even closer to 30 minutes if the ocean is calm and your ferry driver is young and rammy 😂). When you first arrive at any one of the three jetties on Saracen Bay you’ll probably wonder about our judgement. The string of small guesthouses and somewhat larger resorts, the water taxis and beach tractors moving about, and loads of people sitting in bars drinking inexpensive Cambodian beer doesn’t make a good first impression if you’re looking for that special place.

There's even a fitness area. We wanted to stay forever.

But don’t be discouraged. There is a 2 km hike across the narrowest part of the island that takes you to Sunset Beach. Here you’ll find an absolute gem of a place called Robinson Bungalows. This is an amazing environment and a fantastic, off-the-grid experience.

Sunset Beach is far less developed than Saracen Bay, and it attracts a very different crowd. Most of the people we met were what we call “deep travellers”. Almost everyone was in the region for at least three months, with several doing a six month stint like us. A number of the guests had booked a few days and then extended for a few weeks. And the people living there and running businesses there were the “Fuck it, I’m out” folks; people who splashed ashore on Sunset Beach intending to stay for a few days or weeks – only to be here twelve years later!

Our simple but comfy bungalow

And the reasons for this are manifest the moment you arrive at Robinson Bungalows and soak everything in. The people – both staff and guests – are warm and open. The Khmer food in the restaurant is outstanding and reasonably priced (particularly when one considers the huge portions). The bungalows and tents are the perfect blend of simplicity and comfort, and the commitment to an eco-friendly space warms your heart almost as much as the sun and the ocean breezes rustling the jungle palms.

And, perhaps most special in this manic, hyper-connected age, you’re pretty much off-the-grid here. There is no data, and the wifi is at best a vague notion. And that’s perfect for us. Putting the phone down forces you to engage with other people, with your environment, and with yourself. It’s very much central to the charm here. 

There are bungalows with private toilets and showers, but they were sold out. We booked the last available basic bungalow which did not have its own washroom. While there is a collection of toilets separate showers adjacent to the restaurant, we chose to use the toilet in a small hut with a toilet near our bungalow, this also has a shower built into it (aka: a “prison shower”). Thee is no hot water, but it didn’t take long to figure out that a room temperature shower is available in the mid- to late-afternoon.

And don’t worry about getting a good sleep. The nights here are gloriously quiet, the whole area shuts down by 10pm. Each bungalow (or tent) is a stand alone spot, spaced just enough away from others to give you a delicious sense of privacy. The tranquillity slowly seeps into your bones until the outside world seems to fade into a vague memory. Sleep comes easily here.

Teuk Mahek

The restaurant is a beautiful open air spot with lovely views of the ocean. There are big comfortable chairs where you can relax with a cocktail after your evening meal. The floor tables with cozy mats were our morning seating choice. After all, who doesn’t want to lie down as they wait for their breakfast to arrive and have another lie down immediately afterward? The food in the onsite restaurant is top notch, and be aware: the portion sizes are huge!  We often ordered a vegetarian dish and one protein dish and shared that for dinner. Lunch was generally a shared main with a fruit salad or dessert. They have a range of breakfast-specific options but almost the whole menu is available in the morning. We often chose to have one of their delicious noodle soups for breakfast.

The idyllic Sunset Beach location is one the best parts of staying here. Soft sand, lots of comfy, shaded seating just back from the beach, and clear, warm water for swimming.

If you’re so inclined there is a nice little beach bar near the water with cheap beerand reasonably priced, strong cocktails. We often wandered down toward the bar right after breakfast. It has a number of cozy spaces set up with the world’s most comfortable bean bag chairs. The bar doesn’t open until around 2:30 – 3pm, which meant there were no people and there was no music playing. We’d grab some bean bag chairs near the water and enjoy the rhythmic hum of the ocean as we did some morning reading.  The bar gets busier around sunset but it’s never busy. This makes for a great social vibe where you can meet some very interesting people.

But if you’ve had enough lounging there is opportunity for snorkelling, hiking the jungle, standup paddle boarding, kayaking and rock climbing just up the beach through Sunset Adventures. We went for a night kayak with a small group to witness the awe inspiring beauty of bioluminescent plankton as we swam.  

But it’s more than the paradisal setting responsible for this. It’s being truly unplugged

The trail in has a somewhat challenging last bit

The spirit starts to be primed for the off-the-grid experience by the simple fact that there is no road to Sunset beach. As noted earlier, guests must hike for about 25 minutes into the property from Saracen Bay. The trail starts at Sunny Bungalow, with a dirt path that passes a worker encampment, then continues along an abandoned road. We followed signs to Sunset Beach and Robinson Bungalows, taking us off the road toward a jungle path. Don’t worry; you won’t get lost! However, be aware that as you near Sunset Beach there is a short part of the path that is rugged and rocky. If you have serious mobility issues that will be a challenge. That said, there are guide ropes on that stretch so anyone with even just reasonable fitness will be safe. 

The hike in means you can’t over burden yourself with “stuff”.  The ferry to the island will leave you at a dock where you will be taken along the beach by tractor (or in our case two scooters!) to Sunny Bungalows.  If you have excess baggage – we had two large suitcases – you can check them here for USD $1 a day each where they are locked away for the length of your stay. We took a moment here to repack the things we would need for our four-night stay into two small backpacks that we strapped to the front of our bodies, and had two day packs on our backs carrying our valuables (laptops, camera gear, etc…). This paring down of worldly goods is a wonderful first step in “getting back to basics” and reassessing your attachment to stuff.

And this reassessment manifest in a number of ways, some obvious, some less so.

One of the most obvious is a forced shift in our relationship to power and gadgets. All power on the property is solar. This generates enough power to light your room (our bungalow had one bulb on the ceiling), but not enough to provide air conditioning. The placement of the resort means there is a constant cooling breeze coming off the water, so we slept with our door wide open (no sense of insecurity here!). Other huts have windows and the tents have mesh panels to provide airflow. 

It also means that there are no outlets in your personal space to charge your electronics. There is a central charging station with plenty of plugs open to all guests from 7am to 10pm.  Suddenly you become aware that electricity is a resource, and one that isn’t actually infinite. We found this a very healthy psychological reset of values. It also made sure we weren’t just fiddling with our phones all day, needlessly draining our batteries.

A less obvious aspect of reassessment involved something as mundane as mirrors. There is only one small mirror on the whole property, each restroom being fitted with beauty affirming slogans instead. Sure enough, the femmes on property spent little time at the mirror worrying about their hair and makeup with each day that passed, enjoying the pleasure of being their natural selves and feeling beautiful just as they were. It was extraordinarily affirming.

About the connectivity issue (as mentioned, there is no data, and the wifi is sluggish and sometimes comatose. Don’t fret too much about this. If you absolutely must connect to the internet you can take a short walk (like 3 minutes short) up the beach to Sunset Adventures.  There you can sip one of their outstanding smoothies or fruit juices while you jump onto their wifi for a bit. But be aware that if you’re there a while you’ll be part of a fascinating socio-cultural experiment. 

The first day we were among the other guests who migrated down the beach for their daily dose of digital dopamine hits, spending a good hour catching up and scrolling our feeds. It only took two full days for a change to happen. We settled with a delicious French press coffee – the Frenchman who runs Sunset Adventures makes killer French press coffee – and logged onto our wifi. And for the life of us we couldn’t think of anything we wanted to do online. We checked our messages, responded to a few things, sent out some notes to friends and family, put our phones down and went right back to being present in the moment. It was like 1990 all over again, and by God it felt good! 

If you want a taste of paradise and bliss, it’s a little resort in Cambodia where you can’t use your phone.

Getting There

To get to Koh Rong Sonloem, you have to first get to Preah Sihanouk (Sihanoukville).  Before this, we were in Kampot Cambodia, and booked a train using 12Go. We also booked a ferry using 12Go.  Try to book Buva as your ferry company. They are the ones that will take you to the jetty closest to Sunny Bungalows so you can just walk off with your gear.

If Buva doesn’t work for you then your best alternative is GTVC, which comes to a jetty about 500 meters to the north of Sunny. From the GTVC dock you’ll need to take a water taxi or a tractor “tuk tuk” to Sunny Bungalows. Cost: USD $10 pp).   

Why are we talking about Sunny Bungalows? It’s because if you have more stuff than you can realistically carry on the 20 – 30 minute hike along the trail to the Robinson, you can check a bag here. They will charge you USD $1 a day for every day they hold it. They do this all the time for folks so they know the drill; all you need do is ask.

The trail to the Robinson starts by walking through Sunny Bungalows, the staff will point you the right way. At first you’ll walk along a path which goes passed a worker encampment.  Then you’ll reach a cleared and abandoned dirt road.  Just keep going straight ahead and eventually you’ll see signs that point off the road along a jungle path. 

GTCV Ferry
The trail starts here. You can also leave baggage behind.
The Jungle Path
The Abandoned Road
Some Rougher Trail

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Just Follow The Signs!

If you're looking for things to do:

A short walk down the beach you’ll find Sunset Adveantures. They make great coffee and fresh juices. And they also have a stable wifi connection. They’ve got lots of ways to keep your days active and interesting.  Do the Plankton Night Kayak/Snorkelling Trip; trust us, it’ll take your breath away.

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