Writer Robert Carry discovers more about chartered sailing off the Kingdom’s stunning south coast. Photo by Charles Fox. 

Endless arcs of white sand, jungle-clad limestone islands, neon fish darting among banks of rainbow-coloured coral. Cambodia’s coastline has everything you would expect to find in a tropical aquatic playground.

But one thing is missing – the white triangle sails that pierce the blue skies over the world’s other postcard-perfect archipelagos are all but absent. The only things to be seen breaking the surface of these turquoise waters are long-tails piloted by local fishermen and the occasional whale shark.

“Most people who come to Cambodia are here to see Angkor Wat,” says captain Rony Hill, who heads up charter firm Sail Cambodia. “Many visitors don’t even know there are beaches here.”

The lack of attention Cambodia’s coastline has received is particularly remarkable given what it has to offer. The sailing area covers some 100 nautical miles of tropical coastline and pristine bays with some 30 islands from Koh Kong in the north down to Koh Wai to the south.

The region enjoys superb sailing conditions in a warm climate and consistent trade winds of 10 to 15 knots all year round. The region offers cruising, island hopping, diving, fishing and trekking to rainforest waterfalls in what is one of the world’s last undeveloped tropical island archipelagos.

“Most of the islands are pristine and completely unspoiled by development,” continues Hill, who came to explore Cambodia’s islands eight years ago after spotting them on a chart. “When sailing among these islands, the only people you will encounter are the locals from the few tiny fishing villages living their lives as they have always done.”

Hill, who is originally from the United States, established his company a year after he arrived after deciding there might be a market for charter boats. “The first few years were tough, but it gradually got better,” Hill recalls. The company, which is based out of Sihanoukville, offers both tours and bare-boat charters.

Today, Sail Cambodia has three charter vessels in its fleet. First up is its 45-foot aluminium S&S cutter that can accommodate up to four guests, then a 37-foot sloop-rigged Sweline with three cabins that can sleep six persons and a 50-foot Celestial currently undergoing a refit. “The Celestial, our new boat, has four cabins and can sleep eight people,” says Hill. “I’ve been getting a lot of requests from bigger groups, so we decided to bring in this boat.”

Remarkably, for seven years after it came into operation, Sail Cambodia remained the only show in town apart from a single-vessel operation running out of Victory Beach offering charters on board a small cement boat.

At the beginning of the year, competition finally started to arrive, in the form of a marina offering boats for hire in Sihanoukville. Although small, Marina Oceania, located at Sihanoukville’s Koh Prib, represents a major shift in the country’s sailing scene and is expected to help bring Cambodia onto the radar of sailing enthusiasts in the region.

Hill, who has been sailing in various locations around the world for some 50 years, believes others have been slow to arrive in large part because of a lack of infrastructure.

“Things are at a very early stage here,” explains the vastly experienced seaman, who now operates off a small pier on
Victory Beach.

Hill also believes that Cambodia has suffered some unduly harsh concerns over security. “Some people worry that this isn’t a safe destination,” he explains. “But it is a safe place to be. There’s no piracy and no theft from the waterfront. I’ve never had anything stolen off a boat here.”

The lack of visitors is in some ways a plus. “From a sailing point of view, I don’t know a better place on the planet. There are 12 knots of wind out there, totally flat sea – and nobody sailing. I think that’s great. I’d like to keep it that way,” he says.

However, things are changing rapidly. While Cambodia still boasts a string of untouched islands, the pace of development is increasing. The number of bungalow resorts being established, particularly over the past three years, has gone through the roof.

“There are still many beaches and islands that are completely empty,” says Hill. “But it’s starting to fill up. It’s changing really, really fast. The days of untouched beaches are going to be coming to an end. But there are still a lot right now.”

The rate of development is perhaps best seen on Koh Rong Samleom – one of Cambodia’s largest islands. While there was little or no development on the island three years ago, it now has just one beach left without bungalows.

Meanwhile Koh Rong, the other main island off Sihanoukville, which boasts some 20-plus beaches, is slated for development by the Royal Group. The government has granted the conglomerate a 99-year lease, and international investors and partners are being sought to contribute to its development — with plans afoot to build high-end resorts and residences along with an international airport, golf courses and a marina.

With the rate of development increasing every year, the character of this remarkable region is set to change – and change for good. But for now, this paradise is still very much intact.

“If you come here, you’ll see simply beautiful islands and beaches, clear water and you’ll get good diving on the outer islands,” says Hill. “It’s a great venue and a great place to come and sail. This is what Thailand was like 30 years ago.”

For more information, visit sailcambodia.info