KOH RONG SANLOEM: A mounting pile of suitcases and backpacks lands on the wooden pier at Koh Rong Sanloem’s M’Pai Bay as the 12pm speedboat from the mainland docks. They’re followed by a crowd of tourists who have filled the boat’s 20-odd seats.
This is a very different sight to that at Saracen Bay on the other side of the island. Famed for its handful of upmarket boutique resorts that dot the beach, eight of the bay’s business owners recently found themselves turfed out to pave the way for two large-scale tourism developments.
Resort owners previously told Kiripost they were served with a letter from Preah Sihanouk provincial administration late last year informing them that the government has leased 1,124 hectares of the crescent-shaped bay to Emario Shonan Marine Corporation Ltd, and another 1,066 hectares to Koh Rong Sanloem Island Resort Co Ltd, for development.
The deadline for evictions was extended until March 5, with bulldozers moving in towards the end of February. The majority of impacted businesses have already relocated to the mainland and other areas - many without receiving any or adequate compensation, they claimed.
However, it’s business as usual on M’Pai Bay, where the village chief and business owners are keen to quash any rumours that the entire island is currently slated for development. “M'Pai Bay is paradise,” said village chief Lay Thay. “We are encouraging travellers to discover this exclusive enclave.”
While visitor levels still sit below those enjoyed pre-pandemic, village businesses are noting an uptick since Cambodia’s borders reopened to international tourists. And high hopes are being pinned on a busy high season later this year. “It looks like the difficult period is finally behind us,” Lay added.
In fact, confidence is so strong that new businesses are mushrooming as development creeps further up the hill that overlooks the bay, adding to the village’s more than 25 existing businesses that take in guesthouses, restaurants, cafes, and bars.
“It will be more developed in the future,” added Lay. “We welcome all foreigners to visit here, it will help many businesses in this village. Locals and expats are living there together as an eco-friendly community who care very much for their little-known paradise.”
From the moment you step off the boat, it’s easy to see why this small enclave on the island’s northern coast has captured the hearts of residents and visitors alike.
Still serving as a fishing village, home to about 180 families, M’pai Bay - with m’pai bei translating as 23 from Khmer - is called 23 Villages. This serves as a nod to its past, referencing the size of the 23-pound cannon balls used to protect the island during the war, said the village chief.
Soft golden sands are licked by translucent waters brimming with tiny darting fish that tickle the toes. A gentle fresh breeze carries the laughter of local kids along the beach, which is flanked by an unobtrusive stretch of rustic guesthouses, eateries and bars amid wafting palms.
Famed for its vibrant underwater world, the waters of M’Pai Bay attract divers from across the globe to swim among colourful schools of fish, squid and octopus that congregate at the shallow coral reef that sits off the island.
With the island’s heart consisting mainly of tropical jungle, there are several easy walking trails that take visitors from M’Pai Bay to various dazzling beaches that are also accessible by boat. While M’Pai Bay is far from bustling, a five-minute walk along a beach trail leads to Long Beach, a lonely stretch of dazzling white sands and warm shallow waters that you can enjoy mostly by yourself.
A further, 1.5-hour trek along a beach and jungle trail leads to Clear Water Bay, a secluded paradise with soft powder white sands lapped by azure waters - the scenes postcards are made of. It’s worth noting there are a few spots on M’Pai Bay that will exchange a free beer for a bag of trash collected from the beach and jungle.
If you prefer being on the water, then there are plenty of kayaks to hire. Thanks to the location of the bay, the waters are generally calm meaning minimum effort is required. A popular loop is around the small jungle-hugged isle of Koh Koun, which sits opposite M’Pai Bay.
Boat trips are another popular activity, with many of the village’s fishermen earning additional income from taking tourists around the island – a great way to discover hidden coves and a bounty of breathtaking beaches. Night tours are also available and, if you’re lucky, you can be spellbound by magical bioluminescent plankton illuminating the waters as you pass through.
“There are a million reasons that make M’Pai Bay so exceptional and I hope that many more people will go there very soon,” said Lay.
The GTVC speedboat service connects the island with Sihanoukville three times a day at 9am, 12pm and 3pm, at the time of publication. A return ticket costs $25 and the journey takes about 45 minutes, stopping off at Koh Rong or other parts of Koh Rong Samleom before M’Pai bay.
Where to stay:
We stayed at Lost & Found, a charming beachfront guesthouse with rooms that overlook the sea, equipped with AC and a hot water shower. Other friends stayed at neighbouring My Way M’Pai Bay, a bright and breezy guesthouse with deluxe and double rooms. Away from the beach, Dragonfly Cambodia comes well recommended, with plenty of other accommodation to choose from in the village.
Where to eat & drink:
Bar Bok Bowie is a top spot for sunset from its decks perched over the water and gin and tonics that are given a refreshingly contemporary twist. Two Ducks boasts a great beer garden and pub vibe, with juicy burgers on the menu, while Seapony Cafe serves healthy breakfasts, bowls and other tasty goods.
Best place for underwater adventures:
Bubble Up Dive Centre