Sandy Retreat From Culture

The tiny, practically deserted island of Koh Tonsay, just south of the resort town of Kep, is Cambodia's best-kept secret for seaside relaxation among the natural splendor of the Gulf of Siam.

Koh Tonsay, which means "Rabbit Island" in Khmer, is most commonly visited as a day trip from Kep, but if you're looking for a real back-to-basics getaway, consider spending several days here. The island covers barely 2 sq. km and remains blessedly primitive. There are no cars or motorbikes on Koh Tonsay, and a generator provides electricity from 6-9pm only. The only residents of the island are seven families who make their living from fishing and coconut farming. So why come here? For the beaches. Koh Tonsay's two main stretches of white sand are absolutely pristine and usually empty, and the shallow, calm waters are a shade of turquoise that makes for some glorious, I'm-in-paradise swimming. All in all, this couldn't be farther from the overwhelming sense of cultural obligation at Angkor Wat.

If you do decide to extend that day trip from Kep, bamboo huts on stilts near the beach are the only overnight option on Koh Tonsay. Your shower and toilet might be outside on the sand, but the units are a bargain at about $7 per night. In the evening, don't miss a chance to go swimming in the bioluminescent waters off the island, where plankton emit glowing phosphorous, creating a twinkle on the water that perfectly reflects the millions of stars in the unpolluted sky overhead. Simple restaurants on the island are run by local fishermen and their families, who literally pluck your seafood out of the water minutes after you order.

Kep, the base for travel to Koh Tonsay, is notable in its own right for its history as a retreat for wealthy French-Cambodians in the 1920s -- though many of the Art Deco villas there still bear the scars of Khmer Rouge destruction, it's a charming base for exploring southern Cambodia. The 20-minute longboat hop from Kep to Koh Tonsay covers only 5km (3 miles), but once you reach those coconut-lined island shores, you're a world away from civilization, eastern or otherwise.

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Getting There: Air to Phnom Penh (148 km/92 miles), then bus (4 hr.) and private boat.

Where to Stay: Bamboo Huts, Koh Tonsay (no phone or website; inquire in Kep). Champey Inn, 25 av. de la Plage, Kep (tel. 855/12/501-742).