When it comes to a weekend getaway out of Phnom Penh, we often think of farther destinations such as Kampot or Kirirom, which usually takes around 3 to 4 hours by car or bus to get to. Yet, a great place to escape to is within our immediate reach, Koh Dach.
Koh Dach is a small island in the Mekong, to the northeast of Phnom Penh, nestled in between mainland Phnom Penh and Kandal Province. It takes around 30 minutes from downtown Phnom Penh to the first ferry dock to Koh Dach on Chroy Changvar, and only another 2 minutes on the ferry to get to the island. It is administratively a part of Chroy Changvar District of Phnom Penh, separated from the rest of the district only by the Mekong. Yet, impressively, the island’s environment has hugely maintained its rural feel and its community has preserved many cultural traits, much to our fascination.
Lifestyle on Koh Dach
Within two-minute’s ferry ride, the hectic rhythms of Phnom Penh’s city life was immediately replaced by folksy spirit. High-rises and compact city flats were replaced by a mix of traditional wooden houses and spacious, garden-hedged family houses. It was as if time and space operated differently as soon as we disembarked.
Much of the island’s area is dedicated to farming. As we drove around, we saw arrays of corns, cucumbers and banana trees. Rice was also grown, a bit further inland. It is safe to say the majority of the people on the island are farmers.
Concurrently, nonetheless, the economy seems very robust. Along the way, we saw some carpenter’s as well as metal workshops. A few places sold construction materials. Big and small houses running grocery stores dashed the main roads on both the eastern and western shores. The island’s biggest market sits on the northern end of the island, along with a few schools, medical units, and the administrative buildings.
Of course, much like the neighboring Koh Oknha Tei island–with which it is often conflated–Koh Dach is home to an active weaving community. Many families weave krorma (Cambodian scarves) and other accessories as a family business or for an additional source of income. Families that focus on output weave nylon fabric using electric weaving machines, whereas some households weave externally-sourced silk using traditional looms. We didn’t spot any place producing silk on Koh Dach.
The growing economy of the island is probably best reflected in its changing infrastructure. A new circuit of clean water pipeline was being installed around the island. Wooden houses inherited over generations were being renovated. Some were being replaced by new concrete houses. Villas were also present on the island, usually surrounded by gardens and facing the river.
Another ubiquitous aspect of the island’s community is its seemingly high number of active seniors. We saw many elders around the island, most of them likely in their 60’s and 70’s. Some were out and about in the neighborhood socializing while some were still being economically active. Considering the island’s relaxing atmosphere, its accessibility from Phnom Penh, and its apparent boost to longevity, it is not surprising people choose Koh Dach as the site for their vacation houses.
Culture and Places to Visit on Koh Dach
Another thing that distinguishes the island from its neighbor, the Capital, is that here, beliefs are still going strong. With an area of only 16 km2, Koh Dach is home to seven pagodas, at least two churches, and a Chinese deity shrine by the river. This is not to mention the countless spirit houses we came across every now and then, at village entrances and road intersections, near bridges, and under big trees.
We spent one morning visiting a few of the pagodas. Our first stop was Wat Chong Koh or, in its formal Pali name, Wat Ampophal. It is the first of five pagodas on the island’s western shore, if you are traveling upstream. (Indeed, the colloquial name “Wat Chong Koh” means “the pagoda on the island’s downstream tip”.) The pagoda sits opposite the Mekong river with a spacious compound, enclosing the vihear (main temple), the sala (assembly hall), stupas and the monks’ living units, among other things. Further inland, the pagoda’s compound is attached to a luxury wood garden donated to the pagoda by a steadfast devotees.
OLDEST STRUCTURE ON KOH DACH?
While planning for this trip, we made it a target to identify the oldest building on the island. Wat Chong Koh–we believe–has the answer to this question. Next to the pagoda’s vihear is a ruin of a brick structure, believed to be a stupa from the Udong Period (17th-19th century). Though we didn’t date every building on the island, we were satisfied that this ruin is the oldest man-made structure remaining. Perhaps one day a specialist team can confirm this!
You can find the pagoda on the map here.
After Wat Chong Koh, we continued north along the western shore, generally observing the island and appreciating the atmosphere and the people. By noon, we reached the upstream tip of the island where the well-known Koh Dach Beach was located. People like to come over here for lunch and dinner by the water, or a quick refreshing swim in the Mekong. We only made a quick stop over there as the vendors were moving their kiosks from the rising water in the rainy season.
The Koh Dach Beach is here.
From there, we began heading back south along the eastern road. We continued driving for around 2.5 km before arriving at Wat Samaki Kbal Koh. Like the other six, this pagoda sits on the riverside. There, you can see Kandal province across the river. We visited the pagoda to see the landmark abandoned French colonial building located in its complex. To us, this building looked like a vacation house, yet no one knows for sure what it is. We also wondered why it was built facing to the south rather the east which would have provided a decent river view.
Wat Samaki Kbal Koh is here on Google map.
Heading further down for around 2 km, we arrived at Krapum Pich pagoda. This pagoda is known for having been “moved” inland after the old vihear was damaged by bank erosion. The damage aside, this pagoda was definitely on par with the previous two in terms of invoking questions about its history. The damaged old vihear had an intriguingly unique ornamentation, and so did a few stupas near it. Engravings on the vihear clearly showed that the pagoda was previously called Wat Koh Dach, and that the vihear was built in B.E.2467 (ca. C.E.1923). Considering the engravings and the decoration of the vihear and surrounding stupas, it’s likely the old pagoda’s devotees were linked to the royal family itself.
Krapum Pich pagoda is located here.
Relaxing Places to Visit on Koh Dach and Koh Oknha tei
After visiting the pagodas, we went for lunch at Chne Tonle Sok San restaurant. Normally, people would go to Koh Dach Beach, but as the water was rising, it is common to come to the island’s southeast for a meal.
There, we ate Cambodian style. The restaurant had two huge floating platforms, with choices of dining tables and low tables with mattress and hammocks. We picked a low table in a quiet corner and ordered half a grilled chicken (their signature dish) with steam rice before sinking in the hammocks to enjoy the river breeze. Then, lunch was served; the food was great. After lunch, we returned to the hammocks to compensate for 16 km of driving around the island with a recharging nap .
Chne Tonle Sok San restaurant is here on the map. The entrance to the restaurant is next to Island Café.
Just 2 minutes from Koh Dach is an island, called “Koh Oknha Tei“, better known to tourists as silk island. Koh Oknha Tei is two times smaller than Koh Dach. So, within around 40 minutes by motorbike, we managed to get from one end to the another. On the second day, we visited the Chamkar Snae Resort. This is where the island’s silk community is based. We observed the silk production process and visited the silk product shop before having lunch at the riverside dining area.
You can find the resort here on the map.
Online searches show a few accommodations on Koh Dach. We picked the Red House because of its convenient location on the downstream tip, near the ferry dock and the bridge connecting Koh Dach and Koh Oknha Tei. And we can have the Mekong and Phnom Penh view all in one.
Red House offers a home-stay style accommodation, hosted by a French and Cambodian couple, Stéphan and Sreypov. There are 3 rooms available. You can choose whether you want to have dinner prepared by the host during your stay. We initially decided to have the dinner at the place as there aren’t many suitable restaurants for dinner. But to our delight, the dinner was great. We had spaghetti bolognese and fruit plate, followed by a good chitchat with fellow travelers.
You can book a room at Red House here.
Best Means to Go around Koh Dach
We traveled around Koh Dach via our motorbike for these two days. As it was during rainy reason, some dirt roads on the islands were very sticky. We tried to go mostly along the concrete roads. You can refer to our travel routes below.
Bike and motorbike rental service is available on this island. A bike costs $8/day, and a motorbike $12/day. If you don’t want to drive yourself, you can also choose to travel around by Tuk Tuk, which costs $10 for touring around Koh Dach and $15 for touring around Koh Dach and Koh Oknha Tei.
You can contact this number for the rental service: +855 95 31 23 75 or +855 97 80 08 753.