The pristine islands off the coast of Sihanoukville have long been unknown to all but the most intrepid of travelers. There is certainly no convenient place to host, say, 120 French tourists.
So the folks at a Phnom Penh travel agency built these out-of-town travelers their own resort for a night.
“They wanted to go to a beach in Thailand,” said George Erlich-Adams, operations manager at Exotissimo Travel. “But we said, why not just stay here? [Their representatives] had a look around and said, why not build a camp?”
So on Monday morning, three planeloads of tourists landed at the Sihanoukville airstrip, having flown straight from Siem Reap. Their bewildered expressions turned to smiles as they were loaded onto dozens of remorques, then driven to the nearby navy base.
A gunship barreled through the Bay of Kompong Som for about two-and-a-half hours before arriving at Koh Rong, a 10-km long island offering jungle vistas, emerald waters and a seemingly endless strip of alabaster beach.
The beach was lined with about 40 new thatch huts—a new village about the same size as the real fishing village perhaps 500 meters down the beach.
There was no dock. The tourists hopped onto four smaller wooden longtail boats that pulled up close to the beach. Without a peep of complaint, they stripped down to their bathing suits and hopped in the water. Clearly, these were no ordinary package tourists. The tour was sponsored by Nego Bois, an association of French companies that sells building material. Each year its send the top sales performers on a free trip to an exclusive destination.
In previous years, they have stayed at jungle camps in the south of India, spent the night in a Burmese monastery, watched the sun rise over Mount Sinai in Egypt and explored the Mayan ruins of Macchu Picchu in Peru by army helicopter. Before coming to Sihanoukville, they had arranged to see an Angkorian temple near the Bayon that is not yet open to the public.
“We aren’t really adventurous. We just learn to be,” traveler Adeline Boutin said.
The friendships formed on the tours are also good for business, according to tourist Vincent Lapouge. “It’s good for sharing ideas,” he said. “We do the same job, but not in the same way.”
After landing, the travelers dined on fresh seafood. “It’s like paradise here,” said Michael Langrand of Paris. “There’s white sand, blue-green water and no pollution. There’s still places like this to discover before the tourists get here.”
After the tourists leave, the little village will be dismantled and the materials donated to the villagers, said Exotissimo Managing Director Meng Hieng. But the larger huts used as restaurants will stay, and trips to the island may become a regular stop for luxury incentive travelers, he said. The total cost of Monday’s one-night stay was about $25,000.
With no communication lines or infrastructure on the islands, a full-time resort may still be a long time coming, Meng Hieng said. But the trip could hint to a future when Cambodia becomes a complete destination for international travelers, rather than an add-on to travels to Thailand or Vietnam, Erlich-Adams said.
That would please Novarin Duong, an Exotissimo manager who grew up in Sihanoukville and remembers visiting the islands as a small child.
“People know about Angkor, but they don’t know about these beaches,” he said. “This will be good publicity for Cambodia.”