This post is a couple of weeks late, but I definitely want it recorded for future reference. We were only there for two short days but our stay at Koh Ru was one of the highlights of my entire trip – not just Cambodia.
And it came about by accident. Our original choice of Lazy Beach was booked solid for three weeks, so we were forced to find an alternative. The only thing we were sure of was that we wanted to spend at least a couple of days chillin’ on an island off the coast of Cambodia; that was the reason behind our urgency in earlier days tearing around Battambang, Phnom Penh and Kampot. In hindsight – wonderful hindsight – we should have ditched Kampot entirely and spent an extra day or two on Koh Ru…
We were hoping for a perfect tropical island getaway, and Koh Ru fitted the bill more perfectly than we could have dreamed. Nestled on Koh Russei, an island about an hour from Sihanoukville by slow boat, Koh Ru the resort is named for its owner Ru. Though I use the term “resort” advisedly: a cluster of ramshackle beach huts is more accurate. In some ways it is more basic than the shacks on Si Phan Don (at least they had fans), with each hut containing only two double beds and a light. Our bungalow even shed some of its roof onto our mosquito net during the daytime, and you could put a deck of cards between some of the floorboards. A single scoop-flush toilet and a cold-water shower is shared by all nine bungalows, though the dormitory has a couple more shower/toilets if you’re prepared to walk a bit further.
But you don’t go to Koh Ru for creature comforts: you go for the feeling of blissful isolation on a sublime stretch of beach that is shared with just a handful of like-minded travellers. It takes about ten minutes to walk from one end of the palm-fringed beach to the other, and at the eastern end beyond some dead coral rocks is a tiny secluded bay hidden amongst the trees. The water is as warm as a bath (that may sound like a cliche but like all durable cliches it is absolutely true), and the beach slopes just right so you gently but easily get to your desired water depth. Our hut was just twenty steps from the water at high tide, perhaps thirty steps at low tide, and you slept to the sound of crashing waves and geckos. Most magically of all: there is phosphorescence in the water at night. Wade into the shallows well after dark and wave your hands around and the water illuminates your trail with twinkling microscopic creatures glowing at your movement. Giggling with the wonder of it is most certainly acceptable (it was with us and the people we were with, anyway!). And the sunsets are better than I’ve seen anywhere, with the sun getting larger and larger as it approaches the sea until it is a giant red orb melting into the sea. Another cliche perhaps, but breathtakingly beautiful.
Like all great destinations, though, natural wonders are just part of the story. The people there – both travellers and staff – were so completely in the same frame of mind as us that it was like being on a camping trip with good new friends. In fact Kristen said that if money were no object gathering a bunch of twenty mates and spending a week or two on Koh Ru would be a brilliant idea (I agreed wholeheartedly). Particularly memorable amongst the guests was Melvin the Norwegian, whole real name is actually Marius but he uses Melvin when travelling because otherwise he has to spell his name over and over. A hulking giant with wild beard and mischevious eyes, all he needed was a horned helmet and a bear skin to look like the archetypal Viking. Loud, smart, funny and endlessly inventive, he spent a considerable amount of time teaching us some choice phrases in Swedish. Completely unrepeatable in polite company, but hilarious nonetheless! We even got the meet the owner Ru, who had come over for our first night on the island. A thirty-ish Englishman with a very colourful past, he was an entertaining character and is still clearly the driving force behind the place even though he now lives in Sihanoukville.
Ru chooses the staff that keep the place humming, all travellers themselves who take advantage of the generous working conditions to spend a few weeks or more behind the bar. Free food, free drinks (including alcohol), free cigarettes, and free accomodation, plus a stipend of around US$100 a month to cover visa renewal fees and pocket money. In other words, by working there a young and budget-challenged backpacker could live cost-free on a beautiful island with plenty of time for swimming, sunbaking, relaxing and more. As far as I could tell most of the half-dozen or so western staff were people who had come as guests and stayed and stayed and stayed, eventually being offered jobs because they clearly fitted into the place so well. Most memorable was young English guy Tom, who on our first night drank more than any of the people he was serving and for a time rested on the floor behind the bar. Asleep for several minutes, he suddenly awoke on the ground with a start and yelled “shave the cunt!” before leaping up to resume his bartender activities. When the power got cut off around 11.30pm candles were brought out so festivities could continue unabated. That first night was utterly classic and apparently was special even for the staff, from what we heard the next day…
And it’s cheap: bungalows are just $15 a night and a dorm bed for long-stayers is only $4. Food and drinks are cheap as well (it’s Cambodia after all) so it’s no surprise that some spend a few weeks there. We certainly would have stayed longer if Kristen didn’t have to get back to Australia! I’ve evangelised the place ever since, and I think I turned at least three other couples in the direction of Koh Ru during my last days in Cambodia. It’s currently not mentioned in Lonely Planet, so I urge anyone who’s interested to get there before it is 😀