Discover Cambodias Best Beaches & Islands in the South

Beyond Sihanoukville you’ll find water that shimmers with bioluminescent plankton, and islands with beach huts and the promise of solitude. Monica shares her insider tips after seven months living in Otres Beach.

Photo © Getty Images/Sunil Chaturvedi

Cambodia is a magical country best known for its crumbling templescharismatic cities and enchanting landscapes. Since the end of the dark and tragic reign of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, the country has become a symbol of strength, triumph, and determination.

Cambodia’s lesser-known destinations are waiting for you in the south, where you can enjoy solitude on deserted beaches and swim in crystal-clear water.

Getting Around Cambodia's South

The bus system in Cambodia is affordable and efficient. Luxury buses and minivans connect most of the major cities, while domestic flights tend to be quite expensive. Ferries to and from the islands in the south run daily during high season. It’s wise to check schedules during the monsoon season (May to November) when the waves are rough or avoid traveling to the islands altogether.

Sihanoukville and Surrounds

There are 22 islands in Sihanoukville’s province, a few of which are privately owned. What was once a small, lively beach town is now a casino and resort hotspot. The unique and relaxed atmosphere of Sihanoukville is long gone; it now caters to a specific type of visitor looking for the glitz and glam you’d find in many beachside resort cities. 

However, just outside Sihanoukville, you’ll find Otres Village and Otres Beach, hippie havens on a stretch of white sand flanked by beach bars with live music. On Saturday evenings you can check out the live music at the night market, which sells handcrafted jewelry and used clothing.

The locals own many of the restaurants, offering good western and local food like amok curry and lok lak. During the three-day Khmer New Year, in the middle of April, locals flock to nearby temples to give thanks to Buddha and cleanse their sins, and then to the beach for seafood barbecues. On the second and third day of the New Year, the locals run around the islands and village with talcum powder and water pistols and spray each other – and love when the visitors join in with the fun.

Sunset from Otres Beach. Photo credit: Getty Images/cesareantonio

Occasionally, Otres Village can go without water for hours, even days, because the water reservoirs run dry. This tends to happen during the dry season from December to May, when Cambodia goes long stretches without any rain. Be conscious of how much water you’re using while you’re here.

Ko Ta Kiev Island

An hour longtail boat ride from Otres, Ko Ta Kiev Island is a great place to experience local island life. There's barely any electricity, no WiFi, and just a handful of guesthouses. Eat delicious seafood at the Fisherman’s Village, and watch the spectacular sunrise from a local guesthouse.

Koh Rong Island

About an hour’s ferry ride away from Sihanoukville, Koh Rong is the second-largest island in Cambodia. It’s a great place to start your scuba diving adventure, as many of the dive sites are nearby, where you’ll have the chance to see stingrays and whale sharks.

You might want to avoid Koh Touch, the touristy section, however, it does have bar shacks that offer good food and affordable but basic accommodation.

Instead, head for Lonely Beach, which lives up to its name. It’s an isolated area of Koh Rong in a serene setting undisturbed by visitors, and offering beautiful sunsets and fluorescent plankton that light up the dark sea. Close by, Palm Beach and Sok San Beach offer accommodation ranging from cheap guesthouses to luxurious high-end resorts.

Relaxing on Koh Rong Island. Photo credit: Getty Images/Michael Roberts

Long Set Beach

Located on Koh Rong Island, about an hour’s ferry ride away from Sihanoukville, Long Set Beach (also known as 4k beach) is an inviting white sand beach with clear water and an awning of jungle. It’s a wonderful place to snorkel, sip on a coconut, and watch the slow island life pass by, as wooden boats cruise through the water in the distance and locals stroll along the clean stretch of sand. One side of the beach is slowly developing, with a few restaurants and hotels, while the other side remains untouched.

Koh Rong Sanloem

Thirty minutes by speedboat, and two hours on the slow boat from Sihanoukville’s ferry port, Koh Rong Sanloem is a 6 mi (9km) long horseshoe-shaped island with beach huts dotting the white sand, and sprawling jungle just a few steps from the shore. You can also reach Koh Rong Sanloem via 20-minute ferry from Koh Rong.

This is where to go to escape, swim with bioluminescent plankton, and feast on some of the freshest seafood you’ll find. Search online for cozy family-run guesthouses, rent a paddleboard or stay in a beach hut nestled into the jungle.

Where to Go Scuba Diving and Snorkeling

Enjoy the vibrant marine life that Cambodia has to offer by snorkeling and scuba diving. You’ll discover coral reefs and an abundance of sea life on islands such as Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. Some scuba diving sites include Back Door, Khmer Garden, and Budda Reef, where you might see lionfish, pipefish, cuttlefish, and parrotfish.

National Parks in Cambodia's South

Ream National Park

Established in 1993, Ream National Park is just over 11mi (17km) from Sihanoukville and has colorful flora and fauna, an immaculate coastline, islands, mangroves, and forests that shelter endangered animals, including pileated gibbons and sun bears.

If it’s solitude you’re after, spend a night under the stars at one of the few guesthouses, letting the soft breeze and the sound of crickets lull you to sleep. There are well-marked trekking trails that take you along the north side of the park, through estuaries and jungle. You can take a riverboat tour with Ream Yacht Club where you’ll pass through mangroves and possibly see the Mekong freshwater dolphin between the months of December and April.

Botum Sakor National Park

The largest national park in Cambodia, Botum Sakor National Park has grasslands, deep jungles, and swamps. You’ll find otters, sun bears, and many species of birds by kayaking on the river or hiking through the National Park. You can camp at the Cardamom Eco-Camp and sleep under the canopy of trees in a safari-style tent to the trumpet of elephant calls in the distance.

Many of Cambodia’s endangered animals live here, including the Malayan tapir, pileated gibbon, and clouded leopard, as well as the largest population of Asian elephants. The Cardamom Tented Camp offers trekker and explorer package tours lasting three or four days.

Bokor National Park

Visit an abandoned casino, the Popokvil Waterfall, and Catholic Church ruins in Bokor National Park, and support the local community by eating at Epic Arts Café – a café that employs people with disabilities.

Kep National Park

A village in Kep National Park. Photo credit: Getty Images/photoaliona

Nearby, Kep National Park offers spectacular hiking opportunities to points such as Sunset Rock, Little Buddha, and Stairway to Heaven where you can watch the sunset from the lookout in the jungle.

On nearby Kep Beach, you can munch on crab caught and cooked straight from the water at a local restaurant, or visit one of the many local huts selling trinkets and jewelry along the water.

Cardamom Mountains

The Khmer Rouge fighters called this mountain range home, and untouched burial jars, that contain human remains, are scattered across the mountains, and giving some insight into ancient burial rituals. Wildlife such as tigers, elephants, monkeys, crocodiles and bears roam the mountains, rivers, and forests. Wildlife Alliance rescues these animals from traffickers, where they are then rehabilitated in Phnom Penh. You can help the rangers in their release when they are brought back to wildlife release stations in the Cardamom Mountains by helping feed the wildlife and observe their release by setting up camera traps.

The peaks are unremarkable, reaching no higher than 6,000ft (1,800m), but the forests and mysterious history of the mountains draw many visitors for the numerous trekking opportunities to Chi Phat, Osoam, and Mount Aral.

This area is also home to some of the Khmer ethnic groups of Cambodia, it’s possible to enjoy a homestay in Chi Phat to experience something of local Cambodian life in the south.

Landscapes near Kep and Kampot, Cambodia. Photo credit: Getty Images/Yarygin

Traveling Responsibly

Plastic waste is a massive problem in Cambodia. Driving from Sihanoukville to Otres Beach, you’ll see tons of water bottles, beer cans, and plastic wrappers thrown onto the side of the road, which have now turned into massive mounds of trash.

During high season, expats and locals living in Otres get together to help clean up the waste. Unfortunately, there’s no efficient garbage disposal process to conquer the exponentially growing plastic crisis, so trash tends to make its way into the ocean.

To help reduce the plastic problem, use reusable water bottles – many restaurants and guesthouses in Sihanoukville and the islands offer cheap refills of water. Avoid drinking from cans and using plastic straws, as well as single-use plastic. Carry a reusable bag with you when you travel.

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