Sunset Beach KRS

5 Incredible Cambodian Islands – Where Are They Now?

Once upon a time, we wrote an article about the best islands in Cambodia devoid of mass tourism. Published in 2013, it is fair to say that a lot has changed between then and now! 

While new infrastructure, investment and development have undoubtedly changed these Cambodian islands, that is not to say that they are no longer worth visiting. 

While some have hit the mainstream in a big way, others have (so far) continued to fly under the radar and offer travellers more of a castaway experience. In the interest of providing visitors with the most up-to-date information, we have updated the existing post to outline the evolution of each island and demonstrate why at least some of them should still be on your itinerary! 


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5 Cambodian Islands Still Worth the Trip 🏝️

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All of these islands are located in Southern Cambodia and most can be accessed from Sihanoukville. Once a famous backpacker hotspot, this coastal city has morphed into a Chinese casino hub over recent years and the once prominent hippie vibe has all but deserted the city.

Never fear though, there are several islands just a stone’s throw away and the increase in tourism means that some are now accessible via shiny new speedboats (not the vomit-inducing fishing boats of old)!

Cambodian Islands… Then vs. Now 🤔

In each of these Cambodian island entries, we’ve summarised our initial thoughts about each island from the first version of this article and combined it with firsthand experience from our most recent trip (post-pandemic). The future section is where we gather everything we’ve read or heard from people on the ground, gaze into our crystal balls and predict how things will change over the upcoming years…  

1. Koh Rong – Best for Hedonists 🎉

koh Rong cambodia
A photo of Koh Rong, taken in 2015.

Past: 

“Well worth the two-and-a-half-hour slow boat trip from Sihanoukville, one of the most beautiful things about this island is that most of the bungalow operations (bar one) are built on Sunrise Beach [now known as Koh Tuch Beach]. What could be better than waking up bleary-eyed, opening your bungalow door then settling straight into your hammock to watch the sun come up?

Sunrise Beach is the most popular spot for backpackers, with budget dorms to flashpacker resorts, even ‘sea view’ tents. If you stay on Sunrise Beach, it’s well worth doing the 45-minute trek over to the aptly named ‘Sunset Beach’ [now known as Long Set Beach] via the jungle. Word of warning though – it’s definitely more of a trek than a walk, so wear sturdy shoes (they’ll come in handy for the short periods you’ll be semi-abseiling down rocks). Also, don’t forget your torch for the journey back or you’ll have to opt for a taxi-boat back instead!

As the largest and most famous island off the coast of Cambodia, it’s feared that Koh Rong will be the first island to bite the dust in terms of Chinese development. Rumours of an airport and a golf course within the next five years threaten to destroy the traveller vibe. Backpacker beach bungalows have already been knocked down to make way for luxury resorts, clearly the type of tourism that the government of Cambodia is prioritising.”

Original author, 2013.

Present:

Much has changed in Koh Rong since the thoughts above were first published. Still the most famous of all the islands in Cambodia, Koh Rong has burst onto the travel trail and gone mainstream. A ring road around the island connects all the main spots and scooters are available to rent from pretty much every accommodation option going. 

Koh Rong now
The same beach as above in 2024!

The original backpacker hub of Koh Tuch has exploded and what was once a beachfront with a handful of hostels is now a bustling village which has spilled out onto the nearby beach. Did we mention you can zoom about on jet skis and ride an inflatable Pikachu here? These days, Koh Tuch Beach is kind of like Kavos in Greece, but filled with backpackers instead of lads on tour. 

Despite the obnoxiously loud music spilling out from Koh Tuch at all hours, there are still pockets of tranquillity to be found. The popular Long Beach, also known as Sok San Beach, has a few premium resort offerings and there are also family-friendly accommodations in the Palm Beach and Lonely Beach areas. While Koh Rong is undoubtedly a partier’s paradise, those looking for a more relaxing stay won’t be disappointed – if they choose their accommodation wisely. 

Future: 

The development in Koh Rong doesn’t look set to stop anytime soon. In September 2023, Preah Sihanouk Provincial Hall signed an agreement with Royal Group and Sinohydro Co Ltd to build a new 70km road across the island.

Motorbike
Travellers are split over the roads but they definitely make it easier to get around!

Plans for an international airport have recently been given the go-ahead and Cambodia is set to launch seaplane services to its most exclusive resorts. At present, there is one 5* resort on Koh Rong, Royal Sands. However, it is hoped that these seaplane services will make the island more accessible to high-spend luxury tourists.

More and more accommodation is being built on Koh Rong, however, according to Alexandre Rebibo, the owner of Anaya Resort, it is not aimed at backpackers and budget travellers. How long this idyllic island has left on the Banana Pancake trail remains to be seen but these new developments are certainly cause for concern. 

🏠 Where to Stay in Koh Rong:

You should choose your accommodation in Koh Rong based on what you want to get out of the experience. Those looking to party will love the banging atmosphere at Mad Monkey, located on Long Set Beach. There is an on-site volleyball court and generous happy hour. 

Palm Beach Bungalow
One of the bungalows at Palm Beach.

Old-school backpackers will love the local vibe at Firefly Guesthouse, located in Prek Svay Village. Away from the majority of tourists, this spot allows visitors to peek at a side of the island that few see. 

For resort accommodation while still on a budget, Palm Beach Bungalows and Lonely Beach Resort are great options, showcased by beautiful backdrops. 


2. Koh Rong Samloem – Best for R&R 😶‍🌫

Koh Rong Samloem
Koh Rong Samloem in 2015.

Past:

“The smaller island of Koh Rong Samloem (also spelt Koh Rong Sanloem), is fast becoming a backpacker paradise with cheap dorm-room accommodation and all-night parties, as well as a Full Moon Party! A party boat leaves Koh Rong for Samloem at 4.30 pm and gets back at 8 am the following day. No doubt there’s a similar trip from Sihanoukville itself.

Koh Rong Samloem is tiny. Just 9km by 4km and 1km at its widest point, it really has the feel of a lost paradise (for now). Don’t miss walking along the shoreline while your footsteps trigger the bioluminescence as the waves lap around your feet. It’s one of the most magical experiences in Southeast Asia!”

Original author, 2013.

Present:

Koh Rong Samloem is much changed from the castaway island it used to be, however, it has managed to avoid the slide into a party island. As Koh Rong has well and truly claimed that title, offering everything from cage dancing to fire rope jumping, there is less need for boatloads of backpackers to hoss it over to Samloem every time they want to let loose. 

Sunset Beach, Koh Rong Samloem
The same beach as above in 2024!

Despite this, the island has seen plenty of development over recent years. When we first visited KRS back in 2015, there were no roads anywhere on the island. However, on my return trip after the pandemic, there are now countless gravel roads carved through the jungle, connecting the most notable beaches.

Despite the development, the island has largely managed to maintain its laidback vibe, becoming somewhat of a relaxing hippie haven and a great alternative to neighbouring Koh Rong. Burgeoning areas such as M’Pai Bay and Lazy Beach both offer accommodation but at present, are pretty self-contained and cater to a range of budgets. 

Future:

Much of Koh Rong Samloem, in particular, large swathes of Saracen Bay, has long been owned by Japanese investors. While most of this land was left largely untouched, there has been a lot of development since the pandemic with resort-style accommodation in various stages of completion. 

Roads on Koh Rong Samloem
The installation of roads are a huge ongoing infrastructre project.

Rumours swirling around the island say that further development is planned along Saracen Bay and locals think it won’t be long until the budget hostels are pushed out. M’Pai Bay, a backpacker favourite, is arguably the safest from developers right now as the Cambodian government have recently ruled that the community here is too big to relocate. 

Over the coming years, it looks like more and more of Saracen Bay will be lost to swanky resorts, potentially pushing budget accommodation chains into other areas. Whether this will be existing areas like M’Pai Bay remains to be seen – there are plenty of swathes of jungle that can easily be felled if the new roads are anything to go by. 

🏠 Where to Stay in Koh Rong Samloem:

There are two main areas to stay in Koh Rong Samloem. The first is Saracen Bay, where the popular backpacker hostel Onederz is located. You’ll never be lonely here – expect loads of travellers, nightly events and a billiards table.

M'Pai Bay
M’Pai Bay is a popular area among backpackers on Koh Rong Samloem.

Sunset Beach is the place for hippies and while there has been development, there are only a handful of businesses currently operating there. Sleeping Trees is undoubtedly the coolest place to stay with beachfront bell tents.

M’Pai Bay, located in the north of the island, is where you’ll find the most budget-friendly accommodation. There are countless cracking places to stay here from everybody’s favourite Bong’s to more upmarket digs like The Azure


3. Koh Ta Kiev – Best for Castaway Vibes 🌴

Koh Ta Kiev is little known among travellers and locals!

Past: 

“Another breathtaking island that’s yet to be destroyed by foreign investment, Koh Ta Kiev is just half an hour away from Sihanoukville by boat and close to Ream National Park. 

It’s delightfully unspoilt and even though it’s the closest Cambodian island to the mainland, it retains that castaway island feel. At the moment, there are no ATMs so make sure you stock up on cash before you leave the mainland if you want to spend the night here.”

Original author, 2013.

Present:

Similar to Koh Rong Samloem in its early days of tourism, this island has retained its hippie charm and is firmly off the tourist radar…for now at least. Accommodation options are limited, however those that do exist, provide the chance to experience paradise in rustic luxury. 

Koh Ta Kiev
The beautiful isolated beaches of Koh Ta Kiev.

Development has been limited by water supply in the past – all the water comes from wells on the island – which has stalled plans to build large resorts and other accommodations. As such, there are no roads on the island, giving Koh Ta Kiev a castaway vibe. 

While the beaches are probably not quite as nice as on either of the Rong islands, the fact that they are so empty and largely devoid of infrastructure is undoubtedly their selling point. There is also the chance to experience the bioluminescence here. 

Future:

There is a Cambodian military base on the island and while there are no current plans to expand its holding zone, this could be a possibility in the future. 

Koh Ta Kiev sign
We hope that Koh Ta Kiev doens’t change too much!

For a long time, developers have planned to construct a luxury resort on Koh Ta Kiev and have even bought the land, however, the costs associated with deepening the wells to sustain the new infrastructure would require very deep pockets. For this reason, the current business owners are not too concerned about large-scale construction. 

It is fair to say that Koh Ta Kiev has been an off-the-beaten-track destination, however, secrets don’t stay quiet forever! We are predicting that more people will begin to visit this island paradise. Due to its proximity to Sihanoukville, there could be an increase in local Cambodians plus Chinese expats, many of whom own businesses in the city. 

🏠 Where to Stay in Koh Ta Kiev:

There are only a few accommodation options available in Koh Ta Kiev. Kactus is absolutely the place to go if you are looking for hippie vibes, there are daily yoga classes, macrame classes, western food and happy hour.

Kactus accommdation koh ta kiev
Your rustic jungle paradise awaits!

Crusoe Koh Ta Kiev is another popular option, famous for its warm Khmer welcome. Guests can relax in comfort on the northern side of the island and enjoy a tasty barracuda barbecue in the evening! 


4. Koh Russei (Bamboo Island) – Best for Luxury ⭐

Bamboo Island, Cambodia
Bamboo Island before the resort bought it.

Past:

“A tiny little gem, you can visit Bamboo Island from Sihanoukville as part of the three-island trip. It’s less than an hour away from Sihanoukville, and after visiting three of Cambodia’s southern islands, you’ll arrive back on the mainland at around 4 pm. 

It’s a pleasant boat trip, but we’d heartily recommend staying at least one night on Koh Russei [also spelt Koh Russey] – at the only bungalow operation on the island!”

Original author, 2013.

Present: 

Bamboo Island has changed a lot since this article was written. While it used to be included on the three island trip from Sihanoukville, it has since been bought by Alila Villas who have opened a resort there. As such, Koh Russei is now a private island and can only be visited by those staying at the resort. 

As Koh Russey Resort is a luxury offering, we’ll be honest, it was out of our price range. Despite talking to lots of travellers and business owners in neighbouring Koh Ta Kiev, we couldn’t find anyone who had visited in the last five years.

Future:

Now that Bamboo Island is privately owned, it is unlikely to ever return to backpacking itineraries. Instead, it may appeal to honeymooners who are looking for a special experience without the hefty price tag of other popular destinations such as the Maldives. As Sihanoukville is seeing more and more foreign investment, there is every chance that the island will become more popular among wealthy local business owners too.

Where to Stay in Koh Russei:

The only accommodation in Koh Russei is the luxury Koh Russey Resort. Offering a range of bougie villas, complete with spa and gym access, this is a great place to get away from it all – if you can afford it. 


5. Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) – Best for Authenticity 🥥

Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) Cambodia
A photo of Koh Tonsay from years gone by.

Past:

“Just a 25-minute boat ride from the old colonial beach town of Kep, close to Kampot, lies Koh Tonsay, also known as Rabbit Island. 

The sight of the island as your longtail boat approaches, fringed with palm trees swaying in the breeze and speckled with hammocks on the shoreline, is sure to be a highlight of your trip to Cambodia. 

Picture-perfect with warm, gentle waters, Koh Tonsay is usually pretty secluded – you shouldn’t expect any mad parties here like on Koh Rong!”

Original author, 2013.

Present: 

Koh Tonsay has retained its chilled vibe despite becoming an incredibly popular day trip destination from Kep. When we visited recently, there was no WiFi, no paved roads and electricity was only available between the hours of 6 pm-10 pm (maybe an hour or two later if you are lucky). It is a quiet place and pretty much all the businesses are Cambodian operated. 

Beachfront Rabbit Island
The main beachfront at Rabbit Island in 2024.

The majority of the island’s activity happens along the main drag where the boats dock and this is where all the accommodation options are. While the bamboo shacks have been upgraded to wooden bungalows over recent years, accommodation is still very basic. 

According to the locals we spoke to, around seven families live outside of this main beach area. Their predominant trade is in seaweed, which is exported to Vietnam and China. 

While the island has yet to change on a big scale, the Koh Tonsay pier in Kep was replaced in 2022 to accommodate larger vessels. It is hoped this will increase tourism to the island. 

Future:

Permission for a pier to be constructed on Koh Tonsay has been granted and the initial building works are underway. It is estimated that the work will take 15 months to complete

Koh Tonsay pier
A new pier is in construction on Rabbit Island.

The construction of this pier means that arrivals to Koh Tonsay will no longer have to dismount in the water, making it easier to bring larger luggage like suitcases. This development aims to make it straightforward for large vessels to dock on the island but may potentially also encourage more high-yield tourists. While we haven’t seen this in news sources anywhere, there are whispers that once the pier is built, boats may visit the island from the nearby Phu Quoc Island in Vietnam. 

🏠 Where to Stay on Koh Tonsay:

Accommodation-wise, expect a choice of basic bungalows on stilts for anything between $8-20USD per night for a double. There are only two accommodation options that can be booked in advance, Khim Vouch Iay Bungalows and Fat Rabbit Beach Resort. We can vouch personally for the first (see what I did there?) but both have great reviews.

Khim Vouch ay Bungalows, koh tonsay
Our wee bungalow on Koh Tonsay.

If you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants, drop in at all the options on the beachfront and compare lodgings and prices. You may even be able to haggle a dollar or two off. 

Have you visited any of Cambodia’s islands? We’d love to hear about your recent experiences or your predictions about how they’ll continue to evolve!

Sheree Hooker | Editor @ South East Asia Backpacker + Winging The World

Sheree is the awkward British wanderluster behind Winging The World, a blog designed to show that even the most useless of us can travel. Follow Sheree’s adventures as she blunders around the globe, falling into squat toilets, getting into cars with machete men and running away from angry peacocks. In recent years, Sheree has also taken on the role of editor at South East Asia Backpacker.

Find her on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest

2 thoughts on “5 Incredible Cambodian Islands – Where Are They Now?”

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I visited all of those islands except Koh Russei between 2012 and 2013 and loved them all. Interesting, also a bit sad, to see how some of them have developed. I especially loved Koh Ta Kiev, because back then there was a lovely couple renting beach huts at the only accommodation of the island. It was very calm, had great snorkeling, just amazing. Great to hear at least this island is still a bit like back then 😊

    1. Sheree Hooker

      Hi Andrea! So glad you enjoyed reading and thanks for sharing your experience. I’ll admit I was very nervous to return to a couple of these islands after falling in love with them the first time around but there is still plenty to enjoy. Maybe a return visit to KTK should be on the cards..? 😉

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