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Island Separated by Undeveloped Seaway

[Editor’s note: The island of Koh Rong, just 40 kilometers off the coast of Sihanoukville in the Gulf of Thailand, remains underdeveloped. However, locals hope that improvements under a proposed project will lead to better transportation, education, health and economic opportunities. This is the first of a five-part series.]

One day late in September, a small wooden boat left the beach in Sihanoukville and, engines rumbling, made its way off the coast to the island of Koh Rong. The boat had aboard 10 foreign tourists, an uncommonly high number for the island, which remains separated from the mainland and has gone undeveloped for years.

Residents hope that this will change, but any improvements to the island will first require an improvement in transportation. Currently, trips to the island are expensive, and, during the rainy season, travel can be unsafe.

“Traveling down there depends on water transportation,” said Som Chenda, director of Sihanoukville’s tourism department. “Technically, our transportation is not standard. We do not have ferries or cruising vessels. What we have at the moment is small wooden boats, and it is dangerous for a long-distance trip in the big waves of the open sea like that.”

The lack of transportation has meant Koh Rong has so far missed out on the booming tourism experienced by Sihanoukville.

Even now, the lack of accommodation on the island means that foreign tourists prefer to take daytrips. Those who wish to stay will have to camp on the beach or stay in a fishing village.

The only site for foreign accommodation is a set of bungalows being built on neighboring Koh Bang Koh Aun, referred to locally as “Sweetheart Island.” Villagers on Koh Rong say they have been prevented from looking closely at the bungalows, which are roped off by a floating red line 100 meters offshore.

A trip to Koh Rong remains off the public itinerary of most hotels or restaurants in Sihanoukville, adding to its isolation. A visitor must arrange the trip, and bargain for the boat, which can cost between $50 and $170, depending on its size and speed. The trip can take between one and three hours. The island can also be accessed from Koh Sdech.

The 1,400 people who occupy Koh Rong’s four villages seem far from outsiders, and the area was hardly accessed after people settled their as the Khmer Rouge collapsed. The people here are poor, earning a living by farming or fishing with long-tailed boats inconvenient for travel.

Still, the older generation is at ease, and even if the island seems under-developed, they have seen modernization. It used to take three days to travel to the mainland, after all.

"In the past if people go to [Sihanoukville] or Sre Ambil they had to sail, or if there wsa no wind,” said Ma Ti, 56, who lives on the southern tip of the island. “Now it is much better.”

Residents of the island say they hope developments by the Royal Group, which intends to invest on the island, will bring them more prosperity.

“I believe my people will have better lives if the island is developed by the company,” said Ung Nit, deputy chief of Koh Rong commune, adding that the construction of recent cell phone towers for three companies had already helped.

Jacov Montross, business and finance manager of Royal Group, said investment will have to start with a port, which will lead to a ferry, which “will cater more toward local populations.”