With Sihanoukville’s shores quickly becoming crowded, finding a hidden coastal escape can be hard. Editor Marissa Carruthers and photographer Charles Fox head to a secluded spot in nearby Ream National Park in search of the ultimate chill-cation.
Standing in the shade of the towering trees that skirt desolate white sands, it’s hard to believe you’re still in Sihanoukville. In fact, it feels a million miles away from the hedonistic Serendipity strip or the increasing bustling beach of Otres. On one of the nearby deserted islands, maybe, but certainly not a mere 20km from the town centre.
Here, the only sounds are the waves gently crashing on the pristine shores, birdsong ringing through the air, the chorus of insects and odd call of a monkey from the heart of the looming jungle. Ream National Park remains untouched to the masses – for now – and that is, undoubtedly, its allure.
Spread across 210 square kilometres of land and water, the scenery is a stunning kaleidoscope of colour and terrain, taking in the turquoise coast, white beaches, lush green forests, coastal mangrove swamps and marshes, gushing waterfalls, and the islands of Koh Tmei and Koh Ses.
Its diverse landscape also makes it a haven for wildlife, with monkeys often spotted swinging through treetops and more than 155 species of birds calling it home. Colourful Kingfishers, milky storks and fishing eagles can often be seen nestled in the mangrove-lined banks of the Prek Toeuk Sap River. And the tropical jungle houses a collection of endangered birds, such as the Brahminy kite and white-bellied sea eagle. Dolphins also put in an appearance, and can sometimes be spotted swimming close to shore in the early morning.
Now, thanks to the latest addition to the Monkey brand, Ream National Park and this small slice of solitude is even more accessible. A few months ago, Monkey Maya opened its doors in the form of a tucked-away, tranquil paradise where simplicity rules, with a wooden lodge and five wooden bungalows smoothly blending into their natural habitat.
Nestled at the foot of a gentle hill hugged by trees, each of the stilted homes overlooks Ream Beach, a small, untouched stretch of sand at the base of the forest. This is the perfect spot for swimming in the clear, warm waters, where the seemingly endless shallow depths make wading towards the horizon an enjoyable task. The small rocky alcoves also make a good snorkelling spot, attracting shawls of tiny translucent fish.
The cliff top bar and restaurant boasts a fully-equipped kitchen serving up a mix of well-cooked Western and regional dishes. The spacious balcony area is scattered with cushions, hammocks and other laid-back seating – the perfect setting to kick back and take in the captivating views across Ream Beach and the glistening Gulf of Thailand. A stone’s throw away sits a 16-bed dorm with a shared toilet and shower block to cater for the more budget-minded traveller. Despite its isolated location, electricity runs until midnight, when the site plunges into a peaceful dark.
Save for the odd villager talking a walk through the woods or a fisherman cautiously riding his beaten motorbike along the thin bumpy path that cuts through the trees, it is easy to laze the day away on the beach or strolling through the forest with not a sole in sight.
The beauty of Ream National Park is also its seaside location, making it the perfect hidden gateway to the islands. Boats run to and from nearby Koh Ta Kiev, where the soft powder-like sand slips through your toes, Otres and Serendipity beach in Sihanoukville. From here, it’s easy to hop on board one of the speedboats, which will ship you to Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samleon – unfortunately with the masses – in less than an hour.
However, despite the park’s protected status, the looming threat of development is ever-present, even here in this seemingly forgotten corner of Cambodia. The drive to Monkey Maya, via a toughened up, converted tuk tuk to cope with the rough terrain, reveals the ugly face of mass development.
As we clung to the bulky metal rails that held us in our transport, jolting sharply from left to right as we negotiated the clumps of dry land that sat in our path, the thick woods gave way to acres of scarred, open land. “It’s like a scene out of Mad Max,” one of my travelling companions noted, as we passed dead knotted tree trunks stabbing out of masses of bulldozed ground.
While destructive development is earmarked for the area, this is some time away, making it all the more imperative that those in search of a piece of paradise don’t wait too long.
For more information, visit monkeymayaream.com.