Cambodia days 10-14: rugged hippie village of M’Pai Bay, Koh Rong Sanloem

After two weeks of big cities, I was excited to move onto the next chapter of my trip: Cambodia’s islands. When deciding which island to visit, I chose Koh Rong Sanloem – the smaller, less “party” spot of the two key islands. Within the island, I started my visit in a chill village called M’Pai Bay. I only read a few things online before I was sold…hippie backpacker town, sign me up!

What I found was a different experience than I expected. I went through a complete metamorphosis from “what did I get myself into” to loving this place. More on that below. In the end, I ended up enjoying M’Pai Bay so much that I extended my stay.

As island life goes, each day blended together – filled less with activities and more with relaxation and enjoying natural scenery. And so instead of my usual day-by-day breakout, I’ll recap this chapter in one continuous post.

Getting to M’Pai Bay was an adventure itself (20 hours of travel). There’s no easy way to get from the north to south of Cambodia, and most travelers at some point make the long bus journey to Sihanoukville (the jumping point to all the islands). The first leg was 2 buses – luckily I had a bed in the first bus. 🙂 Unluckily, my second bus got into an accident, so we all had to exit and transfer to a third bus.

From Sihanoukville, I took not one, not two, but three boats! It turns out Koh Rong Sanloem is a collection of small villages that are only accessible by boats, and there is no organization to their routes, time schedules, etc…so it took some maneuvering and negotiating prices with locals. The most unique leg was hopping on one of the “supply boats” that shipped water/food to various villages. They let me ride for $5 USD, as long as I could squeeze between all the supplies. 🙂

Finally, I made it to M’Pai Bay! My first impression was the village was very small…like two streets small, with a handful of families, expats, and the village chief living there. The town was also very charming – there were cute colorful buildings/huts with subtle hippie vibes reflected in the businesses (especially the ones opened by expats). Lastly, the town was quite rugged – there was no wifi, no warm showers, and no electricity ~8 hours per day.

I’m not going to lie, when I first arrived, I was a bit underwhelmed and didn’t know if I could spend more than two days here. Several businesses were abandoned due to the pandemic and at the moment it’s certainly still in economic recovery from COVID. I know a few hostel-mates who left M’Pai Bay after one day in disappointment.

However, I’m glad I gave this town a chance, because as each day passed, I loved it more and more. Being one of the few people in town made it easy to become a familiar face, and I was able to meet some people who helped me feel connected to the supportive, tight-knit community. It took a little more work to meet people and integrate, but it was more rewarding as a result. I loved hearing people’s stories on how they visited M’Pai Bay several years ago and just never left. M’Pai Bay is certainly not for every traveler given its ruggedness, but for those who gave this town a chance and stayed, it certainly made for an interesting, like-minded group of people. 

Over time, I learned to appreciate this town for what it was and realized that the small quirks/inconveniences was exactly what gave it its charm. For instance, some people came to town disappointed in the few restaurant options (you could find 2-3 restaurants open at any given point). But I learned that every restaurant coordinated with each other to close a few days a week so they could throw their support to each other. That’s how their businesses survived the pandemic, and it also reduced the competitive vibes. I was super impressed by this community business model, and it was a relief to walk down the street and not have restaurants competing for customers for once.

There’s a Facebook chat that keeps everyone up to date on open restaurants/activities – I was so happy I found this as it helped bring M’Pai Bay to life for me! You can ask any person in town to add you as they want your business too. 🙂

I stayed at The Cliffs Hostel, which is situated on top of a cliff. The hostel was DOPE and a huge highlight of this chapter. The peaceful, scenic location was exactly what I was looking for after staying in busy cities. The views were divine, especially at sunset when many people from town would come by.  

The hostel accommodation was pretty basic (bed+fan), but the surrounding scenery made it the perfect retreat and I hardly spent any time indoors. There were a bunch of hippie furniture/decor which was totally my vibe. 

You could hike down to the bottom of the cliff where there was an area to swim. You could even see bioluminescent creatures at night.

Most of my days looked like this – relaxing at the hostel and taking walks around town. I read, I scrolled, and I chatted away with different people. 

One expat I met, Paige, was giving hiking tours for $5 USD. After a few days of bumming around, a hike sounded great. A group of six of us went along a 10km trek through the jungle that got my heart pumping! I’m really glad I went with this group as there was no way I would have navigated this trail myself. I think there was just one marker the entire 10k.    

It was nice to meet more backpackers from all over the world as we chatted away on the hike. It was just what I needed and it was fun to see more of the island outside of M’Pai Bay.  

The best part of the hike was stopping for a picnic at Clearwater Beach, which we had all to ourselves. I sweat so much on the hike, I dove right in the water! The beaches in Cambodia are up there among the nicest I’ve seen in SE Asia – endless white sand, crystal blue water, and limited trash.

This dog was everywhere around town. He was there at my hostel every morning when I woke up, and he even followed up on the entire hike! So cute.

Other than the hike, I also spent some time on the beaches around M’Pai Bay. The main beach is small and decent, but if you walk a little further down there is more peace and privacy.

I loved walking to this pier (~1 mile from town) and hanging out on the deck too.  

After 5 days in M’Pai Bay, I’m feeling rejuvenated. I’m so glad I took a chance on one of the more remote island towns which ended up being a unique experience. As much as I love it in M’Pai Bay, I am curious to explore more of the islands, so up next, I’m moving to the other side of Koh Rong Sanloem. I’m excited to see more and also get wifi/electricity again 🙂  

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