Koh Rong: A Paradise Island Riddled with Sandflies


Koh Rong paradise

When it finally came time for Dave and I to drag ourselves away from Otres Beach, we needed a break. Though living on the beach had been wonderful and relaxing, we had still spent the majority of our time chained to our laptops. Dave and I have managed to carve out a wonderful life for ourselves, one where we can have our office located on a beach with our lunch breaks spent swimming in the sea, but we still end up spending close to 70 hours a week working. Although from the outside it may appear as if we are on a permanent vacation, the reality is actually far different.

It was because of this that we decided to spend a few days taking a vacation from our vacation!

Koh Rong, located a couple of hours from Sihanoukville by ferry sounded like the perfect place to do so. The island has very few accommodation options — less than ten over 80 square kilometres, it has electricity for only four hours a day and it was doubtful that it would have wifi.

It was just what we needed.

Arriving in Koh Rong

We chose to stay at Paradise Bungalows purely because it seemed to be more relaxing and less party-party than neighbouring backpacker haunt Monkey Island. For $20 a night we had a bungalow located slightly up on a hill with a balcony overlooking the beach. We had an incredible bathroom, partly outdoors with pretty pink pebbles inlaid into the floor.

Paradise Bungalows bridge Koh Rong

We also had a pretty amazing view…

Koh Rong view from Paradise Bungalows

Koh Rong is the stereotypical deserted island paradise.

The sand is ridiculously white, pristine and so soft it feels like powder; the sea is calm, as warm as a bath and a clear, vibrant turquoise colour. Koh Rong is quiet and peaceful, a twenty minute walk away from the few guesthouses next to Paradise Guesthouse will find you on a completely deserted beach with not a single person in sight.

And that is exactly what we did on our very first day.

Beach on Koh Rong

There are no roads on the island, so much of our walk was spending paddling through the sea with our bags held over our heads, climbing over rocks and trampling through the jungle. Fortunately, I was not aware at that point that the jungle of Koh Rong is home to a lot of poisonous snakes. An untreated bite from a King Cobra (one of the inhabitants of the island), for instance will leave you with just five hours to live!

Though there were no snakes lurking in wait for us, our string of bad luck on Koh Rong began on this walk.

We came to what looked like a shallow stream separating us from the island we wanted to get to. Dave attempted to cross it first, carrying our bags above his head. Let’s just say the water wasn’t quite as shallow as we initially thought and he ended up underwater with just a pair of hands and a bag poking up in the air. My concerns that he was drowning and that we’d lose our stuff wasn’t enough to stop me giggling at the ridiculous sight… something I felt extremely guilty about when he finally emerged with the bottom of his feet cut up from the jagged rocks on the seabed.

Koh Rong paradise

Despite Dave’s bloody foot, we still managed to have a pretty amazing day. We spent our afternoon on the beach pictured below and didn’t see another person for the entire time we were there.

Koh Rong was absolutely the definition of paradise and I’d never been on a beach so perfect.

As we packed up our stuff and trekked back to our guesthouse, I had no idea how bad my day was about to become…

Beach day in Koh Rong

It happened after dinner.

We’d just finished up an amazing plate of bangers and mash (very Cambodian!), when I felt a strange burning, itching sensation creeping over my body. I tried to ignore it, assuming that too much sun was the cause.

By the time Dave and I headed to bed, I was tearing at my skin, scratching and rubbing all over. Nothing could help the itchiness and I was still in denial that something was wrong. I took an antihistamine and tried to get some sleep.

Puppies at Monkey Island

At 3am, after no sleep, I could take it no more.

I turned over and shook Dave awake, asking him to turn on the lights, forgetting that we no longer had electricity. As he shone his phone’s flashlight over me, I knew it wasn’t good when he gasped “holy shit!” upon seeing my back. My entire back was covered in sandfly bites. I looked like I had acne and I can’t even begin to describe how insanely itchy they were.

The sleepless night continued, with Dave rubbing Tiger Balm over my entire body while I covered up and tried not to scratch.

Little did I know, it was about to get a lot worse…

Sandfly bites on back

I then had an allergic reaction to the bites.

By the time morning rolled around, the small red bites from a few hours earlier had swelled up into huge pus-filled blisters. Over the next 12 hours they grew in size until I looked like a sheet of bubble wrap.

I have never felt so hideous.

My entire body was covered and it was taking everything I had not to rip my skin to shreds.

My paradise island had been tainted, I felt terrible and I couldn’t wait to get back to the mainland.

My remaining time on Koh Rong was spent with every square inch of my body covered in Tiger Balm, afraid to leave the room incase further sandflies attacked. The one time I did venture onto the beach, I noticed the sandflies swarming around my legs within seconds. I left after ten minutes and that night, my legs were almost as bad as my back.

After much research, we learnt that the reason some people have such a bad reaction to sandfly bites is because after they bite you, they like to pee on your skin to celebrate. Apparently people from Australia and New Zealand usually have a natural immunity, which explains why Dave was barely affected.

Koh Rong island

After three days on Koh Rong it was time to leave. Dave could barely walk with his messed up feet and I needed to get away from the sandflies so I could begin to heal…

Koh Rong is an incredible, beautiful island and had it not been for the sand flies and my terrible allergic reaction, it would have been my highlight from my time in Cambodia.

If you’re looking for a tropical island paradise with gorgeous scenery, little development and hardly any people then Koh Rong is the place for you. Just be sure to bathe in DEET every few minutes while you’re there!

60 Comments

  1. February 24, 2013
    Reply

    That’s some pretty rotten luck Lauren, just when you think things are going swell; you get peed on.

    • February 26, 2013
      Reply

      Hahahaha, exactly! Story of my life! ;)

  2. Jmayel and dacha
    February 24, 2013
    Reply

    We lived in oz for 6 months and hated the sand flies there. Hopefully we built up some immunities though

    • February 26, 2013
      Reply

      They’re horrible aren’t they?! I’m not sure if 6 months is enough time to build up immunity but fingers crossed, hey? :)

  3. February 24, 2013
    Reply

    Ewwwwwwwwwwwww! Was it at least the fun kind of puss where you feel a kind of gross self-satisfaction when you finally pop the hideous zit and the white stuff splatters on the mirror? Or just the horrible itchy kind? Either way, this is totally ickety po.

    • February 26, 2013
      Reply

      It was the complete opposite. I had to put a needle through it and the big bubble just, kind of, deflated onto my arm and leaked out all of this liquid for the next day. Awful!

  4. Monica
    February 24, 2013
    Reply

    Looks beautiful but it’s such a shame about those flies! I once camped on a beach in Australia with sandflies and woke up the next morning looking like a monster. Horrible, horrible things!

    • February 26, 2013
      Reply

      I think British people are some of the worst affected.

  5. George
    February 24, 2013
    Reply

    OH you poor girl, wasn’t quite the holiday you were hoping for then :/

    • February 26, 2013
      Reply

      Hahaha, yep, we both felt pretty cursed on Koh Rong… and didn’t leave feeling quite as chilled out as we’d expected!

  6. February 25, 2013
    Reply

    Oh dear. Your pictures of the beach are heavenly, the one of your back? Not so much! I seem to have horrible luck attracting mosquitoes and other biting insects (I say that my blood must be the one part of me that’s sweet!), so although I’d love to see this place with my own eyes, I fear I would likely do little better than you did. What a shame!

    • February 27, 2013
      Reply

      I know, isn’t it disgusting?! I’m normally okay with mosquitos, which is why I was so shocked to have such a severe reaction to the sandflies.

      It is a shame, you just need to head over there for a night and make sure you put on insect repellent every hour!

  7. Kieu ~ GQ trippin
    February 25, 2013
    Reply

    OMG! I almost didn’t want to open this post.. lol. You have us beat on the bites. Yikes!

    • February 27, 2013
      Reply

      Haha, we’re both cursed with insect bites!

  8. Scarlett
    February 25, 2013
    Reply

    Oh my god how horrible – did you look like the one from There’s something about Mary? You poor thing – I hope they’ve gone down now xx

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      YES! I was so attractive. I’m all healed now :)

  9. February 25, 2013
    Reply

    Ewwww that’s some major bumpage going on!!

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      I know right?! I hated going out in public…

  10. February 25, 2013
    Reply

    Koh Rong was the highlight of my time in Cambodia. It’s one of the most gorgeous places I’ve been too but yes those sand flies are damn annoying!

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      Isn’t it like paradise? If the sand flies weren’t there I would have stayed for weeks.

  11. February 25, 2013
    Reply

    Holy shit! And you call it Paradise? :)

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      If there weren’t sand flies….

  12. February 26, 2013
    Reply

    What a gigantic bummer!
    Hope you’re all better again?
    I must say the pictures do look amazing, but I don’t know if I could still be at ease there knowing I could end up bitten everywhere at any moment…

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      I’m much better now thanks, Sofie! :)

      Yeah, I was ridiculously anxious once I’d been bitten… I didn’t want to go outside.

  13. February 26, 2013
    Reply

    Sounds like you would have been better off to keep working 70 hours that week. I can’t imagine having all those pus filled sores on my body. Hope this next week is better for you.

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      I know! I try and give myself a holiday and end up covered in pus-filled bits! Just my luck! :)

  14. Hogga
    February 26, 2013
    Reply

    OMG PUPPIES!

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      Aren’t they the cutest?!

  15. Amanda
    February 26, 2013
    Reply

    Damn. I can’t decide if I want to visit, or stay far, far away. Mosquitoes always love me, so I feel like sandflies probably would, too!

    But those photos… those empty beaches… All of that might just be worth it!

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      I think if you smothered yourself in 100% deet then you could probably be ok… stinky but ok :)

  16. Nico
    February 27, 2013
    Reply

    That’s the deceiving thing anout triopical beaches, more often than not they’re covered in sandflies and then the mosquitoes come out at night. Doesn’t look like so much fun, but at least you enjoyed your day.

    Nico recently posted Discover Why Lond Distance Friendships Last and Relationships End

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      I know… it’s such a disappointment! :)

  17. I’m heading to Cambodia in May and I’d never heard of Koh Rong before your post – oops. It looks incredible! But I have been known to suffer with my insect bites so I am not sure if it’s worth the risk :/

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      Ahhh you should definitely check it out, but just bring 3,000 bottles of insect repellent!

  18. Michael
    February 27, 2013
    Reply

    What a way to end a vacation, I didn’t know sand flies could do that to people. I wonder if there is any kind of bug spry that would repel the flies?

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      Me neither! I had never been bitten by sand flies before so had no idea I’d have such a bad reaction… my boyfriend was absolutely fine, which was ridiculous!

  19. TammyOnTheMove
    February 28, 2013
    Reply

    Love Koh Rong. You poor thing. Those bites look nasty. They pee on you to celebrate? Little bastards! ;-)

    • March 16, 2013
      Reply

      I know! Evil little things.

  20. March 18, 2013
    Reply

    Ahh, that looks itchy/painful/awful!

    I worked on Koh Rong for 6 weeks (probably while you were there, actually!) and the sand flies there were worse than anywhere else in Asia I’ve been so far. The island’s beauty comes with a price, I suppose…

    • March 22, 2013
      Reply

      Yep, it was all 3 of those things!

      That’s crazy that we were on Koh Rong at the same time. And true, I’d rather have the island as it is, sandflies included, than completely destroyed for an *Eco resort*…

  21. creative nomad
    March 19, 2013
    Reply

    OMG im cringing! suddenly I feel glad to be Australia, they dont look like fun bites!

    • March 22, 2013
      Reply

      Australia can have pretty bad sandflies too, I’ve heard. But yeah, the Cambodian sandflies are the worst…

  22. Jenna
    March 20, 2013
    Reply

    Oh wow–that’s horrible! I didn’t realize sand fly bites could be that bad, but I suppose the allergic reaction didn’t help! It looks like such a beautiful place if it weren’t for those dang sand flies…

    • March 22, 2013
      Reply

      I agree! Though maybe the sandflies help keep the island peaceful and isolated?

  23. The beach looks absolutely gorgeous, but ahh- those bites do not look like any fun at all. Hope they went away fast!

    • March 31, 2013
      Reply

      Yep, they went away within a week or so, fortunately!

  24. Bav
    April 15, 2013
    Reply

    What a shame about the sandflies. I think I read somewhere the reason they are so prevelant over here is because the island and sand is pretty much untouched. If they had as many people coming in and out as Thailand I think they may not be such a problem. But then it wouldn’t have that secluded charm hey.

    I was thinking of doing a few days there but think I will skip it now as I can’t stay mossies and sand flies. What a shame.

  25. Sissi
    May 12, 2014
    Reply

    Oh my god i have the Same problem with sandflie bites now! I feel so horrible! How Long did it take to get heal???

    • November 13, 2015
      Reply

      It took about a week for me!

  26. Mary
    March 23, 2016
    Reply

    We just spent a few days on Koh Rong and meanwhile the ferry guys give you a briefing upon arrival to use coconut oil against the sand flies. Seems to work,I just got bites on my back where I didn’t apply it well….but not as bad as yours luckily! ?

    • June 3, 2017
      Reply

      Oh, interesting! I’ll keep that in mind for any future visits :-)

  27. Erkur
    October 8, 2018
    Reply

    The nature know, how to survive. But not always and everywhere. The sand flies are the protectors of this island while keeping the investors away.

  28. Chris
    October 16, 2018
    Reply

    I just came back from Koh Rong and brought some of these nice bites as souvenirs on my feet :D I read your article today and found out I happened to be at the very same place. Sorry to hear you had such a bad allergic reaction. Fortunately, I did not have it at all and could enjoy my time on the island. 4k beach, Paradise Bungalows and their lounge was like heaven :)
    Better luck next time!

  29. Jenny
    March 31, 2019
    Reply

    Oh lawdy! We are about to travel with our children (12 & 10). Soft white Irish boys!!! My eldest son & I always get mossie bites I’m truly afraid now this would be madness between suncreen & repellent plus paranoia of some transmitted virus. Maybe we should just stick to Siem reap?

    • March 31, 2019
      Reply

      Well, keep in mind that I wasn’t using insect repellent in Koh Rong, so you’ll probably fare better than I did! And it’s been several years since I’ve been there, so the situation may have changed. I’d still visit if I was you. It’s a beautiful part of the world :-)

  30. jenny
    April 1, 2019
    Reply

    thank you Lauren!

  31. May 6, 2019
    Reply

    Oh my god, me too, Nobody tell me about this and Iim itching few days later.

  32. Zo Ann Morten
    February 6, 2020
    Reply

    Feb 2020 and the sandflies are most certainly still here

    • March 15, 2020
      Reply

      Ah, I hope you didn’t get bitten too badly!

  33. Nigel Griffiths - TWW
    July 16, 2020
    Reply

    Love our time on the Island! Sorry about your bites!! – We went for a beer & food @ Paradise place you stayed, I actually had the best Thai green curry there on the whole trip in Cambodia! Was lush.
    Happy memories!
    Cheers! – Nigel

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