Secret Islands of Southeast Asia
Odysseus had his quest, Naomi Lindt had hers: to scout and explore the next great islands of Southeast Asia, from an untouched Cambodian hideaway to a foodie's paradise off the coast of Vietnam.
Not surprisingly, most of Ko Yao Noi's restaurants and hotels are set along the eastern edge of the island to capitalize on the views of the karsts. At Lom'Lae Beach Resort, for one, the 10 bungalows have bamboo furniture and king-size beds, and all are set right on the water (lomlae.com, doubles from $60). I signed up for a full-day long-tail boat tour around the island and park with a guide named Dani, who took me to secret caves and sand spits that emerge only at certain hours (011-66/87-292-1102, boat trips from $60). On one of our first stops, we squeezed through a narrow passageway between the rocks to a hidden, emerald-hued lagoon. Ours was the only boat there, and from the center of the lagoon, I couldn't even see how we'd entered—not that I had any interest in leaving.
Koh Rong Saloem, Cambodia
The castaway fantasy
Storms in this part of the world come out of nowhere, as I discovered on more than one occasion. In minutes, the sky would turn from a perfect blue to a foreboding gray. Unfortunately, I happened to be the sole passenger on a 12-seat converted fishing boat en route to Koh Rong Saloem when I first experienced this phenomenon. One second, I was texting my husband farewell (the island didn't have cell service), and the next, I was gripping the side of the boat, life vest pulled tight, water whipping my face. Judging from the crew's smiles, I overreacted, but still, I was relieved when I spotted the 12 sun-beaten bungalows of Lazy Beach (lazybeachcambodia.com, doubles $25, entrées from $4).
Staying at Lazy Beach is like going to a tropical summer camp: The rooms are simple, with mosquito nets, double beds, and cold-water bathrooms, and the activity options consist of swimming, sunbathing, snorkeling, and hiking 20 minutes through thick jungle to the heart-shaped bay on the island's east side. For all practical purposes, Lazy Beach is the only establishment on the entire five-mile-long island. (Richard King, the proprietor, told me that a few families live at a small naval post not too far away, but I never saw any hint of them.) At night, guests congregate in Lazy Beach's open-air restaurant, lounging in papasan chairs, playing Scrabble, and digging into Cambodian dishes like amok, a curried fish wrapped in banana leaves, prepared by Lazy Beach's brother-and-sister chef team, Ken and Lina. The atmosphere is convivial—I didn't eat a single meal alone—and the talk revolves around gecko sightings and how to avoid leaving. From a mother-and-son duo to an English couple celebrating their anniversary, everyone I met extended their stay, and many discussed quitting their jobs to join the Lazy Beach staff—something that's happened more than once.
Koh Tonsay, Cambodia
The dreamy day trip
Like most visitors to Koh Tonsay (a.k.a. Rabbit Island), I came over for the day from the century-old colonial resort town of Kep, on the mainland, to take advantage of the immaculate beaches and broad expanses of shallow water. For about $1, I rented a bamboo platform shaded by towering palms and made it my home base for the day. I left it only to take cooling dips and to hike the rugged, two-hour loop around the perimeter of the one-square-mile island. A thatched-roof restaurant hut on the main beach served a delicious plate of grilled fresh prawns with black-pepper dipping sauce and sautéed bok choy, which altogether cost a couple of bucks. As evening approached and the day-trippers piled onto boats for the 30-minute ride back to Kep, I strongly considered canceling my return trip in order to spend the night in one of the six bare-bones cabins rented out by Rabbit Hut Bungalows (011-855/12-692-906, doubles $5, entrées from $3). They don't offer much in the way of comfort—a pillow, a thin mattress, a mosquito net, a bare lightbulb, and a towel are the rooms' sole furnishings—but I couldn't imagine a better way to have the beach to myself for the night. Remembering what awaited me back in Kep, I quickly sobered up and stuck to my original plan: a room at Veranda Natural Resort (veranda-resort.com, doubles from $30), where accommodations range from bungalows with ceiling fans and fluffy white linens to higher-end suites with air-conditioning and platform beds. Checking in at the Veranda, I felt as if I was entering a world of luxury, especially after Lazy Beach. I ended the day by walking to the dockside Knai Bang Chatt Sailing Club, a former fisherman's home turned restaurant, where the view of Koh Tonsay lit by a pink sunset was the ideal backdrop for unwinding with a rum-and-passion-fruit cocktail (knaibangchatt.com, drink $4).