I felt like I had come to a place that instantly understood me when I stepped off the speed ferry and onto the beach at Koh Rong, one of the several dozen islands off the coast of southern Cambodia. I tore off my flip-flops, eager to feel warm sand beneath my toes, as I gazed upon this sight:
Magnificent. I couldn’t wait to get in that water. But first was the matter of finding a place to stay. Having had trouble finding listings for accommodation online, I decided to take the plunge in my heretofore booked-before-arrival strategy and instead take the 8:30 ferry from Sihanoukville, which would give me first dibs on available accommodation. At first I walked down to the end of the beach with three Chilean girls I had met in our hostel the night before, who were hoping to find a cheap but nice bungalow. However, as the hour wore on and we couldn’t find something that suited everyone, I split and headed back to the busier end of the beach, where there was an array of restaurant-bar-guesthouses practically piled on top of one another.
Having no idea what to expect, I checked out a couple. They all looked pretty similar: dorm room walls were unfinished planks of wood roughly nailed together, with a gap between the tops of the walls and the beginning of the roof to let in sounds from outside (foreshadowing #1). Finally, I deposited my bag at Island Boys, really on no more basis than that the guy who showed me the dorm was nice and the dorm looked bright enough (foreshadowing #2). The people working there seemed like slightly less hungover versions of the ones at JJ’s back on the mainland of Serendipity Beach, in that as soon as I came down the stairs, I was pulled into a “game” where we rolled dice in order to “win” a shot of a combination of whatever three bottles of liquor that the bartenders hit with ping-pong balls from my side of the bar, and then afterwards was ignored, we having nothing of substance to say to one another (foreshadowing #3).
Oh well. At least there were cute puppies (puppies!) to play with. One of the girls hanging around the bar snatched one up and, while scratching its head, told me, “Last night they followed us right into Sky Bar, where they refused to leave, so we put them to sleep behind the bar and then had to carry them back here when the party ended, which was like 3. Or 4.” Sky Bar was next door (foreshadowing #4). Then the girl said, “Well, I should go rest before tonight.” She explained to me, “I work at Mango’s, next door. We’re usually open until the sun rises” (foreshadowing #5).
Stuff put away, odd shot downed (whiskey, sambuca, and I forget the third), and lunch duly eaten, I took off for the beach. I mean, getting to the beach doesn’t take all that much work on Koh Rong. All you have to do is walk out of your guesthouse and take off your flip-flops. But the beach at Koh Touch, the main village, was filling up. Fortunately, as I reached the end of that beach, I saw a thin crescent of white sand that looked reachable by a jungle walk. I decided to set off for it. 20 minutes and one waist-deep wade through fast currents later, I stepped onto a beach spoiled me with choices for where to spread my towel. Not that I spent much time sunbathing, that first day. No, the blue water was too inviting, and its salinity made buoyancy a breeze, so I just floated around in circles for a couple hours.
Later that night in the restaurant area of Island Boys, I struck up a conversation with two Russian-German girls, and we ended up spending several hours eating, drinking, and talking together. I got to my guesthouse around 10, thinking I’d call it a day and get up early so as to spend as much daylight time as possible outside. I had to sidestep three simultaneous games of beer pong in order to reach the stairs (foreshadowing #–okay, by this point it’s no longer foreshadowing, is it? Because it’s actually happening), then weave through everybody again a few minutes later to reach the bathrooms.
That’s when the power went out. Cries of dismay went up all around me. Flashlights clicked on, and several of the employees ran out back to check the fuse box. I had just reached the bathroom when I heard one of them say to the other, “Dude, it’s, like, sparking. I think we need to give it ten minutes.”
“We can’t give it ten minutes,” the other said. “We’ll lose all our customers.”
Fifteen minutes later, as I was ensconced in my bed under my mosquito net, the power came back on. I wonder if their customers survived.
After reading on my Kindle for a bit, I decided I’d try to go to sleep, despite the fact that my very bones were vibrating from the music that was shooting up from below. Then, my bunk started shaking. Gripping my pillow in horror, I realized that the guy in the dorm room next door had just shifted in his bed, and, since our beds were both pushed up against the same rough wall, every time he turned, my bunk would shake a bit.
At midnight, the farm animal noises started. Two doors down, Coco’s was having a “cowboys and Indians” themed party, so I’m not sure why that involved both recorded and live imitations of donkeys braying, cows mooing, and chimpanzees screeching. And then it seemed like the farm animal noises were moving up and down the beach, because the surest way to promote tranquility in the hearts of people who want to sleep is to gallop past their doors oinking.
Before 2am, Island Boys shut off their music and their electricity. Thank God!
Then, the music next door at Mango turned way up. The top 40 hits heavily remixed with thudding dance-bass beats untz-untz-untzed their way right past my earplugs. Surely they can’t keep this up forever, I told myself, resigned to not being able to sleep until the music turned off.
That night, I was able to mark the hour by what song Mango was playing at that time. 3am? Nicki Minaj. 4am? A remix of that song I didn’t like and so never learned the name of. 6am? The music finally stopped, just in time for the locals to start waking up and going about their business in normal-volume voices and all the other noises required to keep tourism going.
When the 9am checkout time rolled around, I was at the bar, telling them my name. “Where ya going after this?” the friendly bearded guy behind the bar inquired.
“Oh, just down the beach,” I replied, vaguely waving my hand.
“See you at Happy Hour!!” he shouted.
I eventually moved to the dorm at Bongs Guesthouse, at the tail end of the strip of Western-style guesthouses, thoroughly convinced because the girl who showed me the room assured me you couldn’t hear a thing at night. Then, because sleep deprivation lowers my threshold for doing ill-advised things, I asked how long it took to walk to Long Beach, on the western side of the southeastern peninsula that the village was located on.
“About an hour,” the girl replied. “But find someone to go with you. It’s a pretty difficult trail.”
Right. I decided to ignore her advice. After all, I reasoned, I was in reasonable shape, cautious enough about what I do. I knew how long the walk should take, and also to follow the red paint and flip-flops.
The first 30 minutes were easy enough. After scrambling up a rocky rain-washed trail that started behind the village, I walked for a while over wide, flat stones and then pleasant fallen leaves. The flip-flops were indeed lost solos randomly nailed on tree trunks or hung on branches like alternative Christmas ornaments. The red paint was a little harder to spot, but hey, as long as there were the flip-flops, I could make it.
Then I reached a fork in the jungle. Standing there and peering down my two choices, I felt like Belle’s father in Beauty and the Beast, unable to separate the gloominess of the covered paths from worries of choosing the wrong one.
Thankfully, the left branch revealed an identifying splash of red a few meters in–even though that was where the MUD began. What path? Oh, do you mean this canyon of mud? If so, I must be on the right track. Here was where I began to regret my choice of footwear. So far, my flip-flops had been doing just fine, but it was a little harder to say the same when I was straddling the avenue of mud and doing a kind of funny hop-step-scuttle to move forward.
I did well: I only stubbed my toe once in the mud before I reached a most welcome sign:
Then I looked at the direction the arrow was pointing.
Somehow, all that tramping through the jungle had ended up with me several hundred meters above sea level. According to the flip-flops, I was supposed to basically climb hand over foot down endless rocks (yeah, my feet really hated me then), until finally I staggered, weak-kneed, out onto one end of a beach even more gorgeous than the one I had seen the previous day: Long Beach, so named because it is 7kms of white sand so fine and powdery that it feels like you’re crunching hot snow under your feet.
Fortunately for my legs, an entrepreneurial local at the end of the jungle trail sells boat trips back to Koh Touch, leaving after the sunset, so I got to enjoy the afternoon in gorgeous blue water containing thousands of tiny iridescent fish.
….And sandflies. I had been warned about the devil’s spawn residing in the sands of the more undisturbed beaches, and how nothing could tame their awful appetite except coconut oil. But I was able to bat away a good amount of them (or so I thought), and even as I looked at the spattering of red dots on my skin where they had bitten me, I thought, Oh, this is so much better than mosquitoes, because at least the sandfly bites aren’t itchy. That was before I woke up the next morning feeling like a multi-headed, teething alien was using my back as a chewing stick. Let me tell you, sandfly bites SUCK. Mosquito bites itch terribly for about 20 minutes and then subside. Sandfly bites get EVEN ITCHIER a week later, and then in the second week they blister and itch some more. I’m scratching the remains of my sandfly bites as I type this. Don’t underestimate the damn sandflies.
Self-deprecating stories aside, I actually loved Koh Rong. I really love Koh Rong. I say this with total sincerity.
By all rights, Koh Rong is a backpacking destination that shouldn’t exist. The island is owned by developers who have talked for years of building roads, resorts, and an airport to attract the kind of sterile, packaged, cultureless tourism that exists at many other tropical destinations in the world. Guesthouses keep springing up and getting cleared away every few years. The proprietors of the businesses on the island operate with the full, written-and-signed understanding that whenever they are told to clear out, they will do so promptly.
And so in the midst of all this impermanence, there existed a “live how you want, no judgment” attitude that I loved. The island was telling me that this couldn’t last, so I might as well enjoy it in my own way while we were both still around.
During my time on Koh Rong, my mind quieted. All those snarls of thoughts that often tripped up my sleep smoothed themselves out, until sitting folded into one of the satellite chairs on the beach turned into an almost meditative experience. One night I ended up sitting outside just looking up at the stars for an hour.
Koh Rong let me be exactly who I am, just like it lets itself be exactly what it is.