A Short Paddle in the Gulf of Thailand [43]

By Rod Morriss

After a few months in Phnom Penh I finally saw one…

A sea kayak, on a car… unfortunately travelling in the opposite direction.

The owner almost had to be an Australian, and a few weeks later Ian McConville invited me on my first paddle in Cambodia. This was a ‘few’ kilometre paddle from central city down the Tonle Sap, into and back up the Mekong, trying to surf the waves behind local ferries on the return journey.

Ian suggested a more interesting paddle at Sihanoukville, about 230 km to the south, on the eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand. Sihanoukville is a spread out town and Cambodia’s main sea port and beach ‘resort’. It is still a fairly undeveloped location, but with the potential to change rapidly.

One Sunday in early February, at about 7:30 am, we paddled out from Ochheuteal Beach (Ian in a three-piece Inuit, and myself in his plastic whitewater boat) to the nearest island of Koh Khteah (about 500 metres across, and 20 metres elevation), about 1 km offshore, with almost no wind or swell.

Ian’s family and friends had caught a local fishing boat out, which waited while we snorkelled and looked around on a 50 metre small white sandy beach. Looking around the island was difficult, as despite its close proximity to the mainland, no tracks were found across it.

After a pleasant few hours snorkelling in a water temperature around 30 degrees, Ian and family returned to the mainland. I decided to head across to the next island of Koh Praeus, about 2 km further south, which was much larger at about 1 km across, and about 50 metres high. Near reaching the island I watched some local fisherman using a home made hook to search for and catch some fish, apparently in fish traps, and they had three 2 kg fish in their boat.

Paddling around I landed on some rocks at what looked like a track, but after a few metres it disappeared. I continued paddling, and landed at a beach with a few mangroves, which contained thousand of dumped scallop-type shells left by local fisherman, along with much other rubbish and signs of occasional habitation. Checking for more tracks also proved unsuccessful, so it appears the locals do not walk far inland when visiting these islands.

A machete would be useful to move almost anywhere more than a few metres from the beach, due to lantana-like vines and other tropical jungle coverage.

All half dozen islands in the easily ‘paddleable’ vicinity appeared covered in jungle and probably only the inhabited ones would be easy to explore. The island perimeters seemed to substantially consist of rocks (washed clear to about 3 metres above sea level), typically with several small white sandy beaches making reasonable camping.

Stopping at any location seems easy due to the calm conditions that exist for most of the year. Enough wood could be obtained to make a fire, and while I did not try any fishing, small fishing boats abound in the waters suggesting the opportunity of reasonable fishing.

A light southerly wind sprang up assisting my return to the beach, although north winds are more common over November to February.

For longer kayaking trips on the area, water supply would be the main problem on smaller islands, although may not be a problem in the wet season (April to November), or perhaps after searching at any time on the larger islands (Rong, Thmei). The visitor’s guide say a number of islands, about 50 km further to the southwest, including Koh Tang (150m elevation, “site of 1975 US/Khmer rouge battle”) and Koh Prins (“two shipwrecks in 30-40 metres of water”), are also accessible.

The possibility of unexploded ordnance (UXO) all across Cambodia exists, and while the islands are probably fairly safe you never can tell where a missed bombing run, target practice or dump site exists (a friend tells me of a delivery of river sand at his construction site north of Phnom Penh which contained an unexploded mortar shell). Some locals tend to be fairly casual with these devices, and in recent months a couple have exploded while being welded (to repair motorbikes), with fatal consequences.

Other paddling possibilities are to visit Preah Sihanouk National Park (or Ream, 20 km to the southeast), of about 21,000 hectares covering two islands, Thmei (elevation 130 metres, 8 km length) and Ses (elevation 80 metres, 2 km length).

Only about 8 km further southeast is the large inhabited island of Phu Quoc (50 km long), located just across the (movable) Vietnamese sea border. I haven’t located anywhere that can make available a sea kayak (local fishing boats are another possibility for sea travel), so it is wise to bring your own (or borrow one).