3 Day SUP Adventure Ream National Park
The woman on the phone was confused when I said that we didn't need their regular boat pickup to take us to our resort on Koh Thmei. This was the only way the island was normally accessed. "Well, how are you going to get here, then?", she asked. I replied that we would be paddling to the island with our own stand up paddleboards, to which she gave a surprised laugh. "Alright... well, good luck!"
We chose a large estuary as our starting point, and examined the Google Maps imagery looking for a clearing along it where we could launch the boards. Next, we called our favourite taxi driver, who luckily agreed to our vague plan of driving down little-used gravel roads in search of the small dead-end spot that we had chosen. When we arrived, he confirmed whether we would need him to pick us up there again later. We replied "no", we would spend the next 3 days paddling our way back to town. A bit taken aback, he reminded us that it was over 70 Km and asked whether we were really prepared for this. When we assured him that we were, he smiled, wished us well, and left us on the abandoned clearing, alone and baking in the hot sun.
We set to the task of pumping up our boards, sweating profusely during the 5 minute process. Packs on our backs and boards under our arms, the next step was to find the actual spot that we would be able to get down to the water. It turned out that the small waterway that we had chosen to take us out to the main river was lined with mangroves, making the banks muddy and difficult to pass over. We split up, each of us navigating our own little path through the trees, while sinking down into knee-deep mud and trying keep the boards somewhat protected from getting scratched or dirty. After a difficult trial, with some less-than-polite language involved, we finally found ourselves floating on our boards. We brought only a single 20L dry bag each with a change of clothing, some water, and snacks, and we arranged these on the front of our boards. Adjusting our paddles to the correct length, we stood up and began our journey down the narrow passage.
The small tributary was quiet, thickly forested on both sides; the only evidence of other humans in the area was the odd small path through the trees, likely created by local fishermen. The water was calm, without much current. The small rivers in Cambodia have always given me this same feeling of exotic wildness. Like many of our customers, when I first arrived, I was fearful of alligators in these areas. With dense jungle framing the winding stream of murky brown water, it just seems like exactly the type of environment that an alligator should be. After confirming with credible sources that there are no dangerous animals in these rivers, we can proceed without a worry, but I still like to internally maintain that newcomer's impression, that thrill of the unknown.
As we advance, I enjoy the silence of this remote place. I prefer not to talk, letting the only sound be my paddle passing through the water. I get into a rhythm this way: a few strokes on one side, switch, a few on the other side, switch. My body moves easily, automatically. We glide along so smoothly that we often startle birds as we round a bend where they are resting. They take off, continuing further down the waterway to find their next spot, peaceful until we catch up with them again.
The vegetation becomes dense mangroves; a paddler's dream. It's amazing to look at the interaction between the trees; how some will grow close together, roots overlapping, and create small groups. We venture off the main river and take advantage of the natural spaces between these clumps of trees as our route. The passages are often not much wider than our boards, giving us the privilege of exploring places not accessible by nearly any other way. There is a magical atmosphere in the mangroves; an enveloping sense of calm. The spidery, extraneous roots sprouting out from each plant impress a sort of otherworldliness, growing up out of the still water. We weave along through the forest blindly, trusting that eventually the passages will lead us where we want to go.
After meandering this way a while, we come to a more open area. We see a small wooden boat with a couple of fishermen in it, and they appear to be stuck. We realize that the water has suddenly become very shallow, and stop to remove the fins from under our boards. This allows the freedom to continue paddling in just mere inches of water, but with much more difficulty steering. We have to switch sides after just one or two strokes in order to stay relatively straight. We continue on, waving to the fishermen as we pass, to looks of amused bewilderment. They likely don't see many other people here at all, much less foreigners standing up on strange, colorful watercraft.
We look to the right and see a vast expanse of mud flats with hundreds of birds wading through the shallow water. The reflection from the sky creates a beautiful illusion of eternity: blue and white both above and below. This is the prime example of the difference between looking at an area on a map and actually being there. On the map, it appears that there is a seamless waterway from the tributary we started on, out to the sea. In reality, we have found a large estuary which would be completely dry and impassable during the low tide. These little surprises are all a part of the fun of exploring a new area. Luckily we started early in the morning and there is still enough water for us to skirt around one side and re-enter the mangroves that line the edge. The water is much deeper here, and we are immediately impressed at the capability of the trees to create an entirely different kind of ecosystem.
Our forest side path takes us a good distance along the estuary, but eventually we are forced to come back out into the open. I remove the fin from my board again, and am shocked at the heat of the water. The shallow depth and muddy bottom permit the sun to warm it almost to the point of scalding. Keeping the fin off of my board helps me to avoid getting stuck, but there is a strong wind here, and it is slow-going as I struggle to steer.
Finally, we come to the large river that we expected, and stop for a lunch break on a small beach on one side. We appreciate a pause and a chance to reassess the map. While our morning meander was fun, we realize that it's taken much longer than expected and we still have a long way left to go. We set off again, each at our own pace. The sea lingers on the horizon, keeping us moving towards it like the carrot dangling before the donkey, but against the wind, we advance slowly. With no opportunity for stopping, we settle back into paddle autopilot, letting the body take over while the mind zones out.
In the late afternoon, we transition onto the sea, and the wind dies down. The water is calm and we advance more easily. We are now beside Koh Thmei, the island where we will sleep tonight, and continue along parallel to its shore. The island seems largely undisturbed, with pristine jungle and empty beaches. We see just one small village, with idyllic little bungalows under coconut trees. A rainbow appears in the sky, and after a trying afternoon, a sense of contentment and wonder at this beautiful natural environment returns. As we round the bend of the far side of the island, we are in the home stretch. We paddle towards the setting sun, and arrive at the guesthouse just in time for a spectacular show of colors. The staff are there on the beach to greet us; they are amused to see that we really did paddle here on our own, and happy that we arrived safely. They kindly help us with our boards and lead us to a spacious bungalow. We immediately head back to the beach and enjoy a swim in the fading light; washing away the sweat and struggles of this adventure-filled day.
Being the only accomodation available on the island, the guesthouse is a quiet and enjoyable place to rest. We enjoy a delicious dinner, much-needed sleep, nourishing breakfast, and then even though we are excited to continue our paddling expedition, we can't help but take some hammock-time with a book to enjoy this paradise a little longer. When we finally gather our motivation and hop on our boards, the sun is high and hot. The staff takes some photos and waves as we set off from the shore. The water is extremely clear and we glide over coral reefs and past countless jellyfish. We follow the coast of the island for a time, admiring the rocky cliffs and small, isolated beaches.
We stop for a lunch break at one such beach, pulling the boards up onto sand so hot it burns the soles of our feet, then trying to stash them in a patch of shade. We eat on a nice flat rock under a tree and enjoy the novelty of having such a beautiful place to ourselves.
We set out again, leaving the island and cutting across a bay; travelling parallel to the mainland shore, a couple of hundred meters out. There is a strong wind, coming at us from behind but on an angle; helping to push us along, but making it necessary to paddle more strongly on one side. We allow a distance to grow between us, each travelling at our own pace, each lost in our own little world. I start singing to pass the time, loving the opportunity to belt out any song that pops into my head, without anyone around to hear it. We see a huge cruise ship parked in the bay ahead of us, and use this distance to judge our progress. The going is slow, but eventually we pass the stationary boat, feeling extremely tiny in comparison. We continue along like this a couple more hours, persevering without the opportunity for a break.
Just as we are starting to fatigue, we arrive at our next accomodation, and with a final burst of energy we surf the waves into shore. We climb the steep stairs up to the reception, perched at the top of the cliff, and admire the impressive view of the sunset over the vast expanse of sea. When the staff ask how we arrived, they are again amused with our response and chuckle as they say it is the first time they have ever been able to write "Arrived on own paddleboard" in the guest book. It's happy hour, and we sit down and appreciate a well-earned drink.
There is a staff member's birthday party that evening, and a festive energy as everyone dances to loud music and passes around trays of drinks. We enjoy the celebration for a short time, but are exhausted and head to bed early. The night is an eventful one, as we sleep in hammocks outside and are woken by a storm of heavy rain, thunder, and lightning. Somehow managing to stay relatively dry, we're able to get some rest before our early wake up call. We fuel up on a big breakfast and then set out on the final leg of our journey.
As we leave the bay, rounding a point, we have calm seas and a nice wind at our back. Perfect conditions for paddling. We cruise along and enjoy moving quickly with very little effort, even lifting our arms and paddle above our heads at times, just letting the breeze carry us.
We realize that we are well ahead of our anticipated schedule, so instead of heading straight to our final destination, we make a detour to our favourite island, Koh Ta Kiev. Cutting across the bay and following the island's rocky coast, I can't help but smile. The water is perfect: calm and the clearest blue. The sky is cloudless above. There is nobody else here, and we have the novel feeling like one gets when visiting an amusement park on a weekday afternoon, when everyone else is working. We experience this incredible place as if for the first time, paddling over the coral reefs, up to the cliffs, and enjoying some snorkelling.
We leave reluctantly, and as we start the final stretch back to the mainland, I paddle slowly. I'm soaking up every last minute of this adventure and I'm in no hurry for it to end. I look back over my shoulder at Koh Ta Kiev, and express out loud my thanks. I'm grateful for this beautiful park and the time and freedom we've had to explore it. I'm grateful for a safe journey, a balance of challenge and ease. I'm proud of us for coming up with an idea and making it happen. As we pull up on the beach, smiling and satisfied, some friendly locals invite us to join them for a celebratory beer and we heartily accept.
Full video of our 3 day paddling adventure in Ream National Park!