The many Cambodian islands in the Gulf of Thailand are similar and at the same time different from one another islands. What all have in common is the natural backdrop of pristine jungle surrounded by sand and lapis waters that imbibe a sense of complete relaxation even to the most weary traveler. However, if you plan to visit, you’d better do it now, because foreign investors have already started developing these islands, and soon there will be hotels and bars popping up everywhere instead of all the trees.
Secluded sandy beaches, turquoise waters, lazy days and nights under the hot sun… If this is your idea of the perfect idyllic holiday, then you will be happy to know there still are places like this left in the world, awaiting your visit. One of them is the tropical island Koh Totang in the Gulf of Thailand.
About Koh Totang
Koh Totang, alongside 11 other islands, forms the Koh S’Dach archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand. In fact, only five kilometers apart, Koh Totang and Koh S’Dach (or Kings Island) are the only two islands in the area that provide accommodation.
Koh Totang is a small, eco friendly paradise, that is only 1.3 kilometers long by 0.5 kilometers wide. The island is 60 kilometers from SihanoukVille and another 60 kilometers from Thailand. If, for some reason, you get tired of all the wilderness and would like to go back to civilization for a while, then know that the only island in the archipelago that has its own village is Koh S’Dach Island; there are about 3000 people living there.
There are no roads, no restaurants, no banks, and no ATMs on Koh Totang. There is no sewage and no fresh water naturally available, and no WiFi either. The current under-development of the island is good news for travelers who love equally nature and the seclusion that can be found only on an isolated island like this one. In fact, due to its remote location, few tourists have heard of it and even fewer come to visit it. The island is inhabited by two local families, their dogs, and the staff of Nomads Land Cambodia, the only accommodation you can find on Koh Totang.
You shouldn’t expect complete wilderness, though, but more of a rustic, eco vibe throughout. Particularly since 2009, when Nomads Land opened, there is power on the island for basic lighting and charging electric devices. There is telephone coverage as well.
Until 2014, the only way to get to the island from the airport was a long and uncomfortable journey. The bus or car would take you out of the city through dirt roads until you reached a river that crossed the road. There, you had to wait for a small barge to come and take both you and the car across to the seaside village of Poi Yopon. From there, you would embark on a thirty minute journey in a small fishing boat across the gulf to Koh Totang. While this itinerary is certainly tiresome, the views are so out of the ordinary for the American or European traveler, that they are well worth it even today. The boat journey to the island is particularly spectacular. However, the Chinese have since built a road, which makes everything much faster.
From Koh Kong, Sihanoukville or Phnom Penh, you will need to get on the bus early in the morning, from 06:00 to 08:00. If possible, try to get your ticket from the bus station at least one day before. Depending on your departure point, the minivan will take 2 to 3 hours to reach Cafe Sok Srei where you need to get off. The owners of Nomads Land, the only accommodation on Koh Totang, will book a seat for you on one of the minibuses leaving from Cafe Sok Srei to Poi Yopon; a fare along the new road costs $7.50 per person and takes about an hour. Poi Yopon is the designated pick-up point for the boat that will take you to Nomads Land on Koh Totang in 15 minutes.
However, there is a more comfortable way to get to the destination nowadays, as a Chinese company built a new road that connects Andoung Teuk to Poi Yopon village through the Botum Sakor National Park. The road has four lanes but no lane dividers, which means it is not completed yet, and is also a nightmare for environmentalists. Still, it is much faster and more comfortable than the old way of getting to Koh Totang, especially when you hire a taxi. Be aware that it is not cheap, though. Thus, a taxi ride to or from Phnom Penh costs $90 one-way and lasts 4-5 hours, from SihanoukVille it is $80 and lasts 2-3 hours, whereas a taxi from the Koh Kong border is $60 and also takes 2 or 3 hours. Once you arrive, there are signs all around the island pointing the way to Nomads Land, so that you walk past it despite its seclusion.
Tourists based on SihanoukVille can also reach the island by boat, but the journey is significantly longer than by road. This option is not recommended, but if you do decide you want to take this road, then you should know there is a local fishing boat in SihanoukVille that leaves every other day at noon (around 12:30). The boat reaches Koh S’Dach in six hours; alight and wait for the Nomads Land boat to come pick you up.
Note that the return trip is even more tiresome: after a 15 minute boat ride from the island to Koh S’Dach, you will have to wait for the boat to SihanoukVille. There is one that leaves daily, but at 20:00 and reaches the SihanoukVille pier around 02:00. From there, you will have to arrange for your own transportation to a hostel, which can be dangerous to do in a foreign country in the middle of the night.
When to visit
November to March are the best months to travel to Koh Totang, with many people going there to spend Christmas and the New Year. That is why if you too want to visit in December or January, make sure to book your place well in advance, and be prepared to pay more for the same service you get in November, for instance. You can also go there from March onwards, as long as you don’t mind the rainy season that peaks around June. This time of the year, prices are at their lowest, and the island looks as beautiful as ever.
What to bring with you
It is very important to have cash with you, as there are no ATMs and no banks either on Koh Totang or on any of the other islands. Make sure to bring enough cash to last for the duration of your stay. Furthermore, you will also need a high SPF cream or lotion, one or more bottles of insect repellent, and a good camera, of course. You may also want to have a flashlight close at hand, as the lights in the rooms are quite dim, and the use of electricity is restricted.
Nomads Land Cambodia
When it comes to accommodation on Koh Totang, you won’t have much research to do, as right now there is only one place to go to: Nomads Land Cambodia, on the southeast of the island. Fortunately, though, the owners provide all the facilities that can be had on an island without an infrastructure, and often, these are a lot more than what you can get on other Cambodian islands. They also welcome their guests with a drink.
Owners Ariane and Karim opened Nomads Land in 2009, with the island dog, Nomad, as the mascot. The staff speaks French and English, so there should be no communication problem there, as is often the case on other islands. You should know that the place is not always open, so if you intend to go there from March to November, you may want to call ahead. The only alternative in the area is Lazy Bach on Koh Rong Samloem.
Nomads Land is composed of five wooden and bamboo bungalows, tucked away on a sandy bay. The bungalows are right on the beach, close to the clear water, and they are of different sizes in order to accommodate varying numbers of guests (anywhere from 2 to 6 people can fit snuggly; kids are welcome). Room prices range from $60 for a superior single room to $175 for a deluxe double room for four, and all bungalows have their own private patios. Children ages 6 to 12 only pay 50% of adult prices, whereas kids under 6 can stay and eat for free.
The largest bungalow is Villa Boulon, it has a sea view and an ensuite bathroom where you can enjoy some privacy (quite a rate thing on a Cambodian island). The bedroom itself is open-sided and equipped with a double floor mattress, a large plastic storage box, and a privacy screen to change behind. Moreover, there is a separate lounge that is large enough to fit an extra mattress if need be. In each bungalow you can also find a fire extinguisher, as well as umbrellas and plastic covers to lower in case it starts to rain. The many shelves in the rooms (there are some even in the bathroom) are decorated with shells, there are rattan mats on the floor, and a selection of travel magazines on the coffee table. The shelving is a nice touch, as it allows you to unpack and organize your luggage so that you have everything you need close at hand, rather than having to take out your things one by one, on an as needed basis.
The storage box is rat-proof, and the owners also provide insect coils, so that you can relax from the very beginning, knowing your things are safe. There are deck chairs on the porch, which make watching the sun rise above the sea even more enjoyable, and hammocks scattered all over the island. Finally, there is the communal area, where you can hang around and read a book from the quite large collection there.
The ensuite bathroom is as eco friendly as they come: it uses dry, sawdust toilets made from a bucket with a toilet seat built over it; you will get plenty of toilet paper, tissues and sawdust, though. The bucket shower is in fact a large ceramic bowl that you fill up with the tap, rather than the usual plastic scoop. Since there is no running water on the island, the owners strive to make the best use of what little they have; therefore, the water you use for showering has been collected during rainy season and filtered, so that it is safe to use, and should last throughout the dry season as well. Shelves and a mirror complete the ensuite bathroom setup. This type of private bathroom can only be found on two of the bungalows (the Dive Inn and the Hop Bay Now), while for the rest, there are shared showers.
Since there is no electricity on the island either, everything is solar powered. Dim lights turn on at night in every room, and during the day, you can charge your electrical devices in the communal area, but be aware there are set hours when you can do this. There is phone service on Koh Totang, but no WiFi.
What’s on the menu
While you can’t get any fancy dishes on an island that is virtually deserted, you can nonetheless expect fresh, organic food every morning, accompanied by a selection of coffee and brews, and fresh water refills. In fact, all drinking water is purified on the island, and a refillable water bottle is only $2.
You can expect to have fruit with toasted sesame seeds, pancakes, or Moroccan eggs for breakfast, and grilled squid, curried yellow lentils, or barracuda and mango at dinner. Every course is fresh and healthy, without any palm oil or MSG, and the owners strive to cater any special dietary requirements guests might have. You should know there is a fixed time for lunch, and dinners are usually buffets in the communal area. More importantly, food is included in the room rate (though drinks are not).
How to spend your time
Anyone can simply walk down the pier and enjoy the many spectacular views the surroundings have to offer. Obviously, there are options for those who prefer to get more engaged with the place, like swimming and diving.
The island has a sandy main beach, but given the many rocks and coral in the water, it is recommended to run up the pier and jump in for a swim, rather than getting in from the beach. The water itself is a beautiful turquoise, but underneath the surface sea urchins loom, so pay special attention to their spikes, especially if you have children with you on the trip.
What better way is there to experience the natural beauty of a country than by diving? For those who are more into exploring corals and admiring reef fishes up close and personal, the island has plenty of dive sites, and even more can be found around the Koh S’Dach archipelago. While you won’t find any dive operator on Koh Totang, since 2014 there has been one on Koh S’Dach island, called Octopuses Garden Diving Centre, that serves the entire archipelago, including Koh Totang. The centre is located close to the best diving spots, away from the main tourist tracks. The dive sites around Koh Totang are 6 to 12 meters deep, and are suitable for both novices and experienced divers. You can also arrange for a boat ride out to the open sea; this usually lasts a couple of hours, and you can dive in the waters surrounding the Koh S’Dach archipelago and explore the outer reefs; don’t miss Condor reef and Boratit (or Shark Island) – aside from marine life, you might also get to see some skulls and bones.
Snorkeling and fishing
If you’d prefer to snorkel or fish instead, you can book a boat trip with Nomads Land to one of the 7 uninhabited islands nearby. Get your snorkeling gear for free from Nomads Land; the stand up paddle boards and kayaks are also available for free.
You can also stroll for around 20 minutes across the jungle until you reach Sunset Beach, a deserted beach that you can have all to yourself. Be aware, though, that there is rubbish washing up on shore. And during low tide, strolling around the island shouldn’t take you more than three hours.
Like the other Cambodian islands, Koh Totang also provides plenty of opportunities to reconnect with nature and watch wildlife in its habitat. The island teems with an abundance of insects, from butterflies and fireflies to grasshoppers and praying mantises. Around your bungalow, you will likely meet crabs and hear toucans singing, while in the jungle you can encounter wild iguanas, and see eagles and falcons flying high above the trees.
Coral reef gardens surround Koh Totang, offering a home to a wide array of clams and colorful fish, like barracudas, puffers, clown fish, bat rays, rabbit fish, and parrot fish. There are also sea urchins that might occasionally interfere with your swimming, but they are not that much of a problem. Moreover, the sea glows spectacularly at night due to the phosphorescent plankton.
Koh Totang is your best bet when you want to get away from the hectic city life and the stressful work deadlines. On the island, you can sunbathe all day long on the sandy beach, relaxing on your private porch or in your hammock, watch beautiful sunrises and the breath-taking phosphorescent plankton light up the sea at night. And when you need more adrenaline, there is a whole jungle behind your bungalow waiting for you to explore its every secret. Amazing coral gardens also await their underwater explorers, while swimming is the best way to kill time while dinner is ready.