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Why you should visit one of these Cambodian islands now before it’s too late

Silhouette of wooden jetty at sunrise, Koh Rong island, Cambodia, Southeast Asia

Where is it still possible to laze about for a few days on a tropical island paradise? Nothing behind you but jungle and palms, the squeaky white sand crunching between your toes as you stroll over to swim in the clear turquoise water.

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Thailand has long been the favourite destination for beach bums in Southeast Asia, and for good reason – it’s blessed with some of the world’s finest stretches of sand. This is no secret, and in many places the rustic beach shack life is a memory long ago shattered by rampant development. However, just across the border in Cambodia, although the islands have definitely been ‘discovered’, you can still find the kind of serenity and simplicity people raved about in Thailand twenty years ago.

But not for long. More than 180,000 hectares on 28 of Cambodia’s islands has been sold off to foreign companies and it is just a matter of time before the jungle gets cleared to make way for the mega resorts, golf courses and casinos.

It’s not only the islands. In 2008 45% of the country was bought by land speculators in just 15 months, eager to grab cheap deals in the hope that once tourism booms, like neighbouring Thailand, the prices will soar. This is the only place in the world which allows investors to form 100% foreign-owned companies that can buy land and real estate outright.

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As for the Cambodian people, many of whom moved to the coasts after the devastation of the Khmer Rouge, this has caused massive displacement and loss of livelihood. Perhaps the super resorts will create much needed employment but that won’t help the people being evicted from their homes right now.

So get here while you can, while the tiny shack restaurants and rickety beach bungalows still exist. While you can enjoy empty, unsanitised beaches in the day and swim in bio luminescent plankton at night. Give your money to the locals before the whole place changes beyond recognition into the next Koh Samui.

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Koh Rong

This 78-square-kilometre island is truly stunning, with white sand beaches and cystal clear blue water. Plenty of development plans are slowly being put into motion, but for now most construction consists of basic rooms and bungalows on the island’s main tourist hub, Koh Touch.

This beach and village has earnt itself a reputation as a fabled party stop on the overland route, and the huge increase in numbers is putting a strain on limited local resources. Generators are constantly on the go to charge traveller’s phones, sewage leaks into the ocean and the beach gets trashed during all night parties.

However, the rest of the island is largely untouched and inaccessible, apart from a few scattered resorts. Narrow jungle paths wind their way across the interior and it is still possible to find a pristine stretch of sand all to yourself, including on the 7km, aptly named, ‘Long beach.’

Koh Rong Samloem

This is one of the most popular islands in the area, being an easy hop from Sihanoukville and boasting gorgeous beaches like Saracen bay with it’s wide stretch of blinding white sand. It is also the most developed and has a range of accommodation options from tents to luxury bungalows.

The western side of the island has three lovely yellow sand beaches, two of which offer basic accommodation, Lazy and Sunset beaches. As the name suggests, this shore faces the setting sun and are perfect for relaxing in a hammock with a cocktail.

If you fancy getting an insight into island life amongst local people, you can also stay at M’Pai on the northern tip of the island. Here some budget friendly digs have opened up within the fishing community that is based here.

Koh Ta Kiev

Situated much closer to the mainland than its Koh Rong brothers, it is surprising Ko Ta Kiev doesn’t get more attention. Here you will find three beautiful yellow sand beaches that are backed by pines, fronted by coral reefs and almost entirely devoid of tourists. There is also excellent hiking and wildlife-spotting in the jungle clad interior.

The sand is not as shiny white as some beaches and the pines outnumber palms, but the draw here is the rustic living of the ‘good old days’ older travellers go on about. There are only a handful of accommodation options on the island, all straddling the west and south west shores. These offer cheap and cheerful nights of sleeping under the stars in a hammock or communal beach bum dorms.

A main road has recently been sliced through the thick jungle to enable work to start on a luxury resort on the north shore, but as always the construction is taking a long time to materialise.

Koh Thmei

This has to be the most pristine of all the islands listed here, mainly because it is part of Ream National Park. This hasn’t stopped the government selling off large chunks of the land to a Malaysian firm who are slowly starting to build a 2000-hectare resort town here with a bridge to the mainland.

The island is almost uninhabited, with no real villages and just a few families calling it home. The only place to stay is the ecologically minded, 8 bungalow operation known as Ko Thmei resort, who use solar panels and a natural water filtration system. Thankfully there is no Wi-Fi.

The island is a nature lover’s paradise that boasts many different habitats, including mangrove forests, coral reefs and dense jungle. Over 150 types of bird make their home here as well as plenty of colourful bugs. The snorkelling is also first rate and plenty of exotic shells get washed up on the beach just waiting to be found.

Koh Totang

This tiny island is only 1.3 km long by 500 m wide and rises out of the ocean along with the 12 others that make up the Koh S’Dach Archipelago. Until recently it was quite difficult to get here, and this relative isolation has led to it remaining a quiet island paradise.

Like Koh Thmei there is only one place to stay and that is the trendy off grid haven of Nomad’s land which opened in 2009 and offers just five colourfully decorated bungalows. Apart from those and two other families and their dogs, the island is uninhabited.

The island boasts soft sand beaches and rocky outcrops, although take care of your feet on the coral. There are no roads, just a few very basic tracks. No restaurants, no ATMS, no Wi-Fi and not even a natural water source – the lodge uses rainwater- so getting away from it all is easy here.

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