Writer Steve Noble joins the steady stream of expats seeking a quick-fix break on Koh Dach, which sits a short ferry ride away from the hustle and bustle of capital life. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
No tooting horns, reverberations from earth-shattering drills or the constant call of, “Tuk tuk, Sir”; escaping Phnom Penh has become a regular pursuit of those who work in the increasingly congested capital. And the neighbouring intimate islands of Koh Dach, or Silk Island, and adjoining Koh Okhna Tey are enjoying a transformation to cater to the trend of those seeking a convenient weekend getaway out of the city.
A badly marked sign states “turn off”, indicating a dusty ferry crossing at the Mekong River at Preak Lip and onto Koh Dach. Costing a mere 500 riel per person and 500 riel for a motorbike, or 4,000 riel for a tuk tuk and 6000 riel for a car, it’s a brisk, no-frills journey that passes by the fast-changing Chroy Chongvar peninsular and onto Koh Dach.
Once ashore the island, a short trip over a recently renovated steel bridge takes visitors onto the smaller isle of Koh Oknha Tey. The island takes a few steps back in time and is dotted with holdings, farms, stilted homes and hints of new development with the Silk Island Restaurant and Guesthouse (077 696 444) opening late last year by Australian Bob Wiltshire.
“I wanted a break from the increasingly busy city, and love it here on the island”, says Wiltshire. He gestures towards the laid-back lifestyle he enjoys just a stone’s throw from Phnom Penh. Hammocks swing above manicured lawns that look out across the river and the wafts of Khmer cooking from the kitchen are seductive.
He points to two nearby renovated pagodas, exposing their fresh coats of paint. They also house the elegant and well decorated wooden longboats used by locals for the boat races during Water Festival. “Seeing the village band together to heave the heavy boats towards the water some 50 metres away is quite a sight.
A lazy bike ride along dirt tracks to the north of the island hits a privately-owned area, but on the grounds are the relics of a former zoo and theme park, with the only remaining relics being an ant-ridden apsara stage and decaying buildings. The park shut its doors about a decade ago, and, oddly, a skeleton crew still maintains the grounds.
With an estimated population of 20,000 people living in seven villages, the island’s main economy is agriculture, from farming corn, cassava, ginger, tomatoes and taro. This gives it a real rural feeling, right on the footsteps of the Kingdom’s busy capital. Villagers wash cows in rivers, pony carts lug supplies around and the visible use of traditional medicines all indicate a traditional way of life.
Evidence sits in the fact that electricity from the city only reached the island last year, with power previously serviced by two diesel run generators, which have been kept as backup.
The quiet country roads make the destination an ideal cyclist getaway and companies, such as Grasshopper Tours, run half-day rides along trails that run by small farming communities, schools, pagodas and silk shops. The roads are flat, although bumpy, and the recent paving of the coastal roads on the southwest side marks the start of a project that will see more roads takes shape.
Popular on Koh Dach are the silk weaving and silk farms. It costs $1 for foreigners to enter the silk village – be wary of buying cheap Chinese silk copies elsewhere on the island. An original handmade silk dress takes a couple weeks to craft and can cost up to $200. The weaving village is a typical rural Cambodian village, with Khmers operating hand looms underneath stilted houses, while others dye and spin silk.
Along the south coast, Red House is another new addition to the accommodation scene and the nicely designed space is run by a charming French owner and his Cambodian family. The location marks the finishing point for the annual Mekong River Swim fundraiser, which takes place on Apr. 24. They also know some real gems for exploring the island; among the seven pagodas on Koh Dach, one is home to a beautiful painting on wood, which villagers hid during the Khmer Rouge, saving it from destruction.
Silk Island also boasts a seasonal river beach, which only puts in an appearance when water levels are low. An array of wooden floating bungalows and inflatable tyres congest the shoreline and are available to hire, with bungalows costing $5 and the tubes 5,000 riel. The food stalls on the beach sell drinks and Khmer food with some basic toilets and changing rooms also available on the sandy beach.
On the northern shores of Silk Island, Hotel Le Kroma Villa offers six varied rooms ($9 to $23), with a large terrace and courtyard garden. The new Villa Koh Dach ($35 to $75).offers a pool, restaurant with Khmer cuisine prepared using local products, a shaded patio area and terrace. The only market on the island, Psar Samaki, is close to these French-run guesthouses.
As Phnom Penh continues to encroach outwards and upwards, the peaceful getaway experience of Silk Island may well be disrupted in the future but, for now, remains a beautifully tranquil and largely untouched treasure that is there to be enjoyed.