Preah rumkal commune, Stung Treng province – Arguably one of Cambodia’s most breathtaking islands lies not on the coast, but several hundred kilometers inland. Its name is Koh Lungo, a sandy Shangri-La just a few kilometers past the Laotian border crossing on the Mekong River, in a sparsely populated region of Stung Treng province’s Thala Barivat district.
Koh Lungo is more of a sandbank than an island, about 100 meters long and 40 meters wide at its center, with a small Laotian town bracing the east bank and a Cambodian fishing village slightly south west.
The Cambodian authorities have established a small military presence on Koh Lungo. A group of about half a dozen RCAF soldiers stationed here eagerly welcome visitors. They bare bright smiles and have an icebox full of beer and soft drinks, and are happy to cook up some fish and rice for anyone who cares to spend the day idling on their island.
Every day, about two dozen foreign tourists make their way here. Most just rush through on boats that race down the Mekong at tremendous speeds, stopping only long enough to catch a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy dolphins that inhabit the clear green waters surrounding Koh Lungo.
On a recent visit, 25 dolphins were spotted here, their sleek grey bodies sailing around the island periodically throughout the day. But even when out of sight, the dolphins’ eerie exhalations echo through the air.
Late in the afternoon, drums sound from a nearby Laotian temple, as Cambodian fishermen cast their nets and paddle silently around the island. Culturally and socially very little separates these people, and they conduct a modest trade of staples using dugout canoes.
To get to Koh Lungo, visitors can catch a boat from the Stung Treng jetty at 7:30 am. Drivers are constantly ferrying cargo and passengers up to the border, and will gladly squeeze another bum on a seat for a $5 one-way fare. Otherwise, an entire boat may cost $30 to $40 a day.
Koh Lungo lies 3 km past the Cambodian customs checkpoint at Koh Chhoeuteal Thom, which is located opposite the Lao the border crossing. Visitors might be asked to leave their passport before going upriver, but there is no official fee and a visa is not necessary for those seeking a hot meal at the small Laotian village on the opposite bank.
Returning to Stung Treng at dusk is an exhilarating experience. The sky opens up in a panoramic fresco of lime, gold and a thousand shades of red, as sunlight dances along the forested hillside and wide sweeping stretches of swirling Mekong water. The journey takes an hour, can be cramped and the engine noise is deafening. But it’s the scenery that promises to leave an impression.