Ever travelled to a tropical island and wondered what it was like to visit say, 20 years ago? How would it have looked without the hordes of tourists, the high rise developments, the glitzy bars, the McDonalds or KFC, the free wi-fi signs on every corner and the beach which no longer resembles a beach? Sigh. What amazing tropical daydreams they would have been.
Psst; we’ll let you on a secret. Though they’re a rare breed these days, islands completely unaffected by mass tourism do still exist. Yep, islands that resemble the ones you’ve been dreaming about; so beautiful, so pristine and so utterly perfect that your jaw will drop in awe when you witness them for the first time.
Where are they, you ask? These islands are situated off the coast Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand. But – and we don’t want to ruin your day here guys – the sad news is that you need to visit quickly as some of what’s here today on the tourism landscape will be gone tomorrow.
The Cambodian islands have been discovered, not just by backpackers, but by global development companies and their time is limited before things change, for the absolute worst.
CAMBODIAN ISLANDS: WHY YOU NEED TO VISIT BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE
We recently visited Koh Ta Kiev, a small undeveloped island off the coast of Sihanoukville, for 10 days of Island life. Our motivation was simple; get away from it all. You see, Koh Ta Kiev, along with many Cambodian islands, has no electricity, no phone reception and no mod cons; nothing at all really.
We arrived by boat from Sihanoukville, instantly enchanted by this beacon of awesomeness just 30mins from the hustle and bustle party vibe of that stretch of mainland. Siren-like calls of cicadas summoned us through the dense jungle to our treehouse bungalow, and after settling in we headed straight for a swim in the turquoise waters of the aptly named ‘Long Beach’ (it’s the longest on the Island). Had we entered the real life version of Alex Garland’s acclaimed “The Beach”? It seemed so.
Our routine each day was simple; wake up with sunrise, swim, eat, read, relax, nap, go for another swim and join the small group of other travellers for dinner each night. Everyone we met seemed to live by a similar beat. The island motto was to do less each day than we did on the previous, and we lived by it religiously.
One day, fearing we’d become human sloths, we decided to explore the island, hiking through the jungle to the beaches on the south east side. Ten minutes into our hike we came across a massive clearing in the jungle straight through the heart of the island. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Who would do this to our island home? And why?
Upon returning to our accommodation, we sought out the owner of Ten103 Bungalows, Joel who’s lived on Koh Ta Kiev for 8 years now, and asked him what the hell was going on.
His simple reply stung, “it’s the French, the Chinese and the Russians, they’ve bought them all”. We couldn’t help but stew on this fact; had they really bought all the islands in Cambodia? And what would this mean for places as perfect as Koh Ta Kiev?
The more questions we asked the more we didn’t like what we heard. It turns out that Koh Ta Kiev has been purchased on 99-year leases by French, Chinese and Russian companies who are planning to build a bridge to the mainland and develop the island into a resort. Not just any resort, but one complete with golf courses, casinos and condos. Devastating.
We wondered if this was the case on all the Islands, such as Koh Rong, Koh Rong Samloem, Koh Russei and others.
Sure enough, it is. In 2008, the Cambodian Government realised what assets they had in their midst, and decided to divide up their pristine coastline to local and foreign investors – granting these 99 year leases like they were going out of fashion.
CAMBODIA INSPIRATION: 30 PHOTOS THAT WILL MAKE YOU WANT TO VISIT
Corporations like Cambodia’s own Royal Group cashed in and purchased large land concessions. Their 20 year plan for the largest (and some say most beautiful) of the islands, Koh Rong have already been drawn up and groundbreaking commenced in late 2015. Once completed, the island will resemble Thailand’s Ko Samui, a former pristine island arguably ruined by large-scale development. Airport, golf courses, casinos, Condo’s, bars; you name it, they’ll have it. One only needs to look at the mainland ‘resorts’ of Sihanoukville, or the islands of Koh Puos to understand that this change and development is not cool.
Dubbed the “Indochina Riviera”; the islands are just an hour flight from Singapore and close to mainland China – their number 1 asset, in the eyes of developers. Package tourists will be able to fly in and out with ease and the development will cater almost exclusively for the nouveau riche of Asia.
THOU SHALT RELAX! OUR CAMBODIAN ISLAND COMMANDMENTS
As hard as it is to admit, it does kind of make sense for these pieces of paradise to be developed; tourism dollars contribute over 28% of Cambodia’s annual GDP currently and if Cambodia is to build economic prosperity to similar to neighbouring countries Thailand and Vietnam, tourism is an obvious sector for growth. Indeed, in 2015 the Sihanoukville/ Kampot area saw a 15% increase in tourist arrivals.
And just as we’re probably guilty of impacting the islands ourselves while we follow an ever-trodden path to find paradise, who are we to begrudge developing nations like Cambodia the opportunity economic prosperity? It’s just a real shame that the major loser here is the laidback atmosphere and lush surroundings of the islands as they are now.
After watching the sunset over from our quiet, secluded paradise Koh Ta Kiev, we made our way into the pristine waters of long beach to watch the nightly magic of the bioluminescent plankton. We stopped, looked back at the thick jungle and pondered how different the skyline of our island home would look like in 20 years time.
It’s pretty simple guys; if you want to enjoy these islands in their current pristine state – the state which made our jaws drop when arriving on Koh Ta Kiev – you have no choice but to get here. Now.
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This post originally appeared on the Geckos Tales blog.