Cambodia is an incredible country. From the enormous temples of Angkor, the buzzing capital of Phnom Penh, secluded island paradises, sheer endless kilometres of unspoiled tropical beaches, the mighty Mekong River, to a vibrant culture and some of the friendliest people around, this country has it all. There is so much to see and even more to experience, making it an absolute highlight on every south-east-Asia trip and a great spot for a holiday.
Last month we spent 4 weeks travelling Cambodia and of course we didn’t miss out on all the famous sights but we were very surprised when we finally came upon one of the countries features, which not only ended up to be our absolute highlight, but also we had never in our whole lives heard of before! In case this has caught your interest, read on as I will tell you all about it:
The phenomenon that had blown our minds so much is called Phytoplankton and we first heard of it when at Koh Rong, a beautiful island off Sihanoukville, situated at Cambodia’s southern coast. We stayed at Palm Beach Bungalows, which is the only resort on the secluded Palm Beach and upon arrival with the resort owned boat, we discovered a sign advertising a sunset boat trip to see the “Glowing Plankton”. We loved the sound of it and immediately made the decision to book the tour for the next day, to see what it was about.
One day later, in the late afternoon we got picked up by a diveboat, which took us on a pretty 30-minute cruise towards the north of the island, where we got equipped with snorkel and mask and then jumped in the water for a snorkel. When the sun started setting we got back on the boat where we had plenty of time to enjoy a serving of fresh, tropical fruit salad, watch the sunset and even try our luck at fishing. This was in order to pass the time, that was needed for it to get absolutely pitch black outside.
Treated to a beautiful sunset as we waited for all the light to disappear
But why did we want it to be so dark, you wonder? Phytoplankton has evolved to glow in order to startle or distract fish and other potential predators, leading them to light up in the water as soon as they are being distracted. This distraction is caused best by objects that are moving through the water, but the simple swirl of a wave can sometimes be enough. One condition is absolutely imperative though and that is absolute darkness. Daylight, or even just distant lights, such as the lighting of a bar or a resort will cause too much light pollution. That’s why the best way to see them is on a dark boat in the darkness of the night, or on a super secluded dark part of the beach, if available.
At 8 pm it was finally dark enough for us to jump in and we couldn’t wait. I was first in the water and I literally couldn’t believe what was happening. All the water around me was full of glowing sparkles, I could see how my body was covered in them as well and every movement I made would cause a flow of bright water. It was so magical that I started swimming and watching the sparkles run over my arms and through the water until someone on the boat had to tell me to turn around, cause I was going to far away. I didn’t even realise, thats how captured I was by this amazing sight. After this first swim we ended up jumping in a second time, with snorkel and mask, and it was even better. With your head under water it was easier to watch the plankton and you could see the light coming from all directions and right in front of your eyes. We spent over an hour in the water, absolutely fascinated and playing around with the glowing water like little kids and when we finally had to get back on the boat to go back to the resort, we sat down on the top deck, watching the stars and talking about how unbelievably beautiful it was.
After this day we had several more experiences with the glowing plankton. Once on the far side of the beach at the Palm Beach Bungalows at Koh Rong and twice at the Sunset Beach on Koh Rong Samloem (here we had to wait until the electricity turned of at 11pm). We were lucky and saw them very well every single time, but we have heard that the glow can be less obvious with a fuller moon (we had close to no visible moon).