Better known for the 1975 battle, Koh Tang is a beautiful, as yet undeveloped, Cambodian island in the Kampot Province. While until very recently it lacked even the most basic amenities that tourists can find on other islands, like Koh Totang (kohtotang.com), Koh Tang is nevertheless worth a visit, particularly if you love diving. In the waters surrounding the island, you are bound to find previously unexplored (or little explored) diving spots with a wealth of marine life to admire. It is also the only place in Cambodia where you can go wreck diving.
Koh Tang is located about 5 hours and 52 km off Cambodia, and about 2.5 hours and 35-40 km southwest off Koh Rong Saloem. From all the Cambodian islands off the coast of SihanoukVille in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Tang is the biggest, at 3 km2. The island is 6.5 km long and 1.7 km wide at its widest point (only 80 meters wide at its narrowest). Koh Tang is 90 per cent forested, and it boasts five coastal beaches; however, only about half of them are sandy and suitable for sunbathing, with the rest being covered in rocks.
The time spent getting there largely depends on the type of boat used; thus, while a dive boat needs 4 or 5 hours to reach the island, a speedboat covers the same distance in about 1.5 hours; there are daily speedboats to the island from the mainland. Booking your place on a private chartered boat costs around $450, whereas diver boat trips are more affordable. Nonetheless, once you get past Koh Rong, the journey might be less smooth, with 2 meter waves slowing down the boats.
If you go there and decide to stay overnight, you will most likely need to remain on board since Koh Tang is not yet developed, so there is only one hostel on the island. Spending the night is actually a good idea, as many of the diving spots off the island are excellent for night dives. Moreover, these dive sites are seldom explored even by daytime, which makes Koh Tang the best island for diving in the region. You can book your overnight diving trip from SihanoukVille, situated about 60 km away. And while you visit Koh Tang, you may also want to dive off Koh Prins, a nearby island that has great diving sites as well.
In 1975, Koh Tang witnessed the last official battle of the Vietnam War, carried out by the U.S. forces on one side and the Khmer Rouge on the other. Ever since, there is military personnel present that boards all travelers to the island, but otherwise Koh Tang is uninhabited. This very isolation is what keeps the beaches pristine and the waters clear. The visibility is great, and marine life thrives undisturbed by anyone than the occasional diver.
Even though right now it is just an island, undeveloped and inhabited by the military, this is also a good thing, because when you do get there, you will have the land and the ocean all to yourself. While other Cambodian islands are also undeveloped, you will hardly ever find the same level of wilderness as you can explore on Koh Tang.
Treasure Island Bungalows
Right now, there is only one place where you can stay while on the island itself, and that is Treasure Island Bungalows. The hotel is relatively close to SihanoukVille International Airport, some 63 km away.
There are 15 rooms with basic amenities, as well as an in-house restaurant, all overlooking a private beach and the sea. The bungalows are clean, and linen sheets and free toiletries are provided. Most bungalows have en suite bathrooms, while the rest use a shared bathroom; there is also a communal sauna. Inside the bungalows, temperatures are kept cool either with a fan or with air conditioning.
Apart from the seclusion of the place, guests can also enjoy a glass of local beer at the bar, or watching the sunrise from the private terrace. Treasure Island Bungalows can arrange upon request diving trips, fishing, and hiking.
The closest hostels off the island are some distance away, on Koh Rong Samloem. Robinson Bungalows, for example, is situated 22 miles away on Sunset Beach, in Koh Rong Samloem, within walking distance from the pier and very close to the sandy beach.
The bungalows are rather rustic and simple, providing a sense of authenticity and relaxation; they are not meant for those seeking luxury, though, because they won’t find it here. On most of these islands there is no running water and no electricity.
You can spend your holiday in one of the simple bungalows; there are a couple of ensuite rooms, but most share a common bathroom that is a little far away from some of the bungalows. There are no fans in the rooms themselves, which means you will have only the sea breeze to cool you off, while the roof may leak in places when raining. The private deck is fitted with a hammock and a chair.
There is no electricity, but each room is equipped with a small battery that is connected to a solar panel; the battery charges the hanging light bulbs inside and on the balcony to light bungalows in the evening. Only the common area has electricity provided by a generator, but this is meant for charging various electric devices, and its use is restricted to set times during the day.
Unlike with other places on other islands, here you won’t be offered a safe storage box to put your belongings. Earlier this year, travelers have reported several thefts in the area, so keep a close eye on your valuables, like passports and other important documents.
The Robinson Bungalows restaurant serves a good selection of local dishes, with some tourists considering the food here as being better than what you get at other places on Sunset Beach. However, you can also have your meals at other resorts where food may be cheaper.
Past and future
Koh Tang was sold to an investment company back in 2009, but its situation is not yet clear. Previously owned by the Russians, all projects are now overseen by the Council for the Development of Cambodia (or CDC), with the aim of developing the islands and coastal areas so that these will attract growing numbers of tourists.
Consequently, there are plans to develop Koh Tang and fill it with luxury resorts and amenities for the wealthy. While around 20 islands are currently owned by private companies, most still remain undeveloped because investors don’t have clear plans as yet. Therefore, this would be one of the first high-end developments of a Cambodian island, overseen by the local government.
Earlier this year, Worldbridge Land and the Chinese Nanshan Group announced that a luxury resort might be built on Koh Tang in the near future. Negotiations and feasibility studies are still underway, but there are hopes the investment can be finished by October 2016, with construction proper beginning by early 2017.
The plan is to cut down much of the forest on the northern part of the island in order to build several luxury hotels, hillside and lakeside villas, a casino, night clubs, retail centers, conference halls, a wedding venue, and a helipad. The south will also be cleared of trees to make way for a retirement villa, a sanatorium and a rehabilitation centre; there will also be a marina. The western side of Koh Tang will be used for a service jetty. Only the centre is bound to remain forested for trekking purposes. While these developments will greatly improve conditions for those vacationing on the island, it is a pity when you consider that right now 90 per cent of Koh Tang is covered in forest that will be lost forever once construction begins. At the same time, the island will become as crowded as most of the Thai islands, so that it will cease to be the secluded and wild getaway that it is now.
Nonetheless, the investors do not intend to build their own mainland jetty to ferry the construction materials to the island. Instead, they are looking into the capacity of the privately owned deep sea ports Union Development Group in Koh Kong, and the SihanoukVille Autonomous Port in SihanoukVille, respectively.
The investment would cost $1 billion, but there are still some obstacles getting in the way; these are primarily negotiations with the military who has been using the island since the Vietnam War. Some years ago, Worldbridge Land purchased Koh Tang from a Russian businessman, but soon after, the naval contingent on the island claimed it for itself. The situation required the intervention of the Secretary General of the CDC (the Council for the Development of Cambodia), in favor of Worldbridge Land. The development initiative is also backed by the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce. Apparently, the country plans to connect Thai and Cambodian island developments in order to double the tourism potential of each of the two countries. Even so, the military are still not convinced, and negotiations continue, with the Chairman of Worldbridge Land promising the allocation of 50 hectares for the military.
About the development partners
Worldbridge Land has already developed two large condominiums in Phnom Penh, while the giant Chinese-mainland Nanshan Group is an experienced resort builder, with projects not only in their home province, but also throughout Australia. In fact, Nanshan has expanded its business to the manufacturing of textiles and aluminum, tourism, real estate, golf, education, wine, finance and aviation.
The track record of the two investors is seen as a guarantee of the success of these ambitious plans, as aside from developing the island, they are also expected to bring in more Chinese tourists and turn Koh Tang into a regional destination for cruise ships.
If you spend the night on Koh Tang, you will most likely get to see the glowing plankton that lights up the ocean at night off all the islands in Cambodia. You can walk along the shore, or simply admire them from the comfort of your boat. During the day, you can also sunbathe on one of the beaches here, and if you are really adventurous, you may explore the thick forest (though it is not recommended, since there are no trekking paths there yet).
Diving, exploring and learning
Diving and sunbathing are the two main activities tourists can indulge in when on a Cambodian island. These pastimes are all the more enjoyable when considering you can have the beach and ocean all to yourself. Since Koh Tang is not yet developed at all, most visitors come here to enjoy a swim in the clear blue waters.
Therefore, if the purpose of your trip is diving, then consider visiting sometime during the dry season, between December and April, because then you have the best visibility. You can also come anytime from July to September, but visibility isn’t at its best then because of the winds, currents and storms. On the other hand, the rainy season also means even fewer tourists than there are normally on these islands, so, if you don’t mind the solitude, you will enjoy the ocean unhindered. What’s more, unlike Thailand, diving in Cambodia won’t cost you a fortune.
Koh Tang and Koh Prins are the two islands set further away from the rest, and they offer spectacular views of marine life. The waters around Koh Tang are rich in coral reefs, barracudas, eagle rays, sting rays with blue spots, leopard sharks, and whale sharks. And if you are lucky, you might even spot a blue shark. A rarity in Cambodia, around Koh Tang you can even explore two wrecks, at 30 to 40 meters. The waters here are clear and provide great visibility of up to 30 meters. Both Koh Tang and Koh Prins are more suitable for the more experienced diver, given their deeper waters.
There are a range of dive shops in Cambodia that provides PADI (or the Professional Association of Diving Instructors) courses. These include Open Water Diver and Advanced Open Water Diver, Scuba Diver, Specialty Diver courses, as well as a Rescue Diver course. It is interesting to note that not all courses require water sessions, which means that if you cannot swim or dive yet, you can become more knowledgeable before actually hitting the water.
For instance, the AWARE Coral Reef Conservation Specialty course is designed for anyone, regardless of age or water skills. This is a non-diving certification that can be earned in 1 day, while teaching participants a little about the complexity of coral reefs and how anyone can help conserve them.
There are other classes where you can learn to become a better diver, and where better to do that than in the clear, warm waters off Koh Tang? The conditions here are slightly tougher than around other islands, so that your skills will really be put to the test. Each training center has its own space in the ocean, which means you get to learn and improve without other people bothering you; you will be out in the open only with your instructors and classmates.
There are only two dive shops that offer both training and diving around Koh Tang; these are Scuba Nation and the Dive Shop, and both are based on SihanoukVille.
Scuba Nation is the only shop in Cambodia with a dive boat, and it offers dives mostly off Koh Tang and Koh Rong Saloem. It also provides training for all levels, but this takes place in a pool rather than out in the ocean. Scuba Nation offers refresher courses and instructor training, as well as PADI and National Geographic Diver courses; these include meals and accommodation, and the possibility to rent the equipment.
The Dive Shop also offers PADI, National Geographic Diver courses, and specialist training. Their courses are held on a private beach which is on Koh Rong Samloen, but if you want to dive off Koh Tang, then know that the shop also organizes trips to the island that extend over several days.
The average visibility off Koh Tang is 15 meters, though it can easily reach 30 meters when the conditions are right (especially during the dry season). Most dive sites off Koh Tang have fun, weird names that they got after the looks of certain formations in the area. Here are some of them:
1. Explosion Reef
With a varying depth of 6 to 18 meters and great visibility, this reef formation includes rock outcroppings and coral bommies to the south, and staghorn coral in the northern region. The staghorn coral is teeming with young fish, while the elusive trigger fish can also be seen here from time to time. You can find this dive site off Koh Tang, in the direction of a small island to the west.
2. Three Bears
This reef has an initial depth of 2 meters that gradually goes down to around 16 meters. As you go further down, you get to see corals, batfish, and larger fish on the sandy bottom, such as schooling trevally and barracudas. The reef got its name from the on shore cliff that has three caves of varying sizes, with the taller one in the middle, that to some people resemble the three bears.
3. Giraffe Lookout
The reef features both hard and soft corals, and provides divers the opportunity to see creatures as diverse as marine worms, nudibranch, box fish, poisonous puffer fish, schooling trevally and cobia. This reef gets its name from the giraffe-shaped tree on top of the cliffs above the ocean.
4. Sting Ray Alley
This one actually has a reasonable name, as there is a massive amount of sting rays here. If you want to see them, it is recommended to dive at night, although day dives provide plenty of opportunities to spot them as well. At Sting Ray Alley, you can also see cuttlefish and crustaceans, scorpion fish, and octopuses.
This large reef starts at around 16 meters only to extend far out into the bay, where staghorn coral and small fish abound. Up to 12-16 meters, rays, angelfish, spotted sweetlips, and groupers hide out among the coral bommies
6. The Steps
The underwater rocks here resemble large steps, hence the name of the reef. It starts at around 3 meters with a shallow ledge that steps down gradually first to 7 meters, then to 10 meters and finally to 12 meters on the sandy bottom. The waters are clear and allow divers to admire the hard corals and the bright coral bommies, spotted sweetlips and other fish.
7. Fly – By Reef
This one is named after the current that you can feel while diving. The reef reaches over 20 meters down and maintains great visibility throughout.
8. Razorfish Alley
Sometimes, here you can see scorpion fish, squids, octopuses, and crabs, but the reef is particularly known for the schools of razorfish that fill the entire bay throughout the year. Consider going on a night dive when this happens, so that you get to see the spectacle of the fish swimming over the underwater torches.
9. Beady-Eye Bay
The shallow bay is rich in crustaceans, squid, rays, cuttlefish, moray eels and pufferfish. Like Razorfish Alley, it is perfect for night dives. This dive spot got its name from one of the Scuba Nation divers, inspired by the many beady eyed crustaceans watching their every move at night.