Stranded in Paradise

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October 4th 2011
Published: October 4th 2011
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If you were stranded on an island, what three items would you take with you? Well, now I know. You need enough money to pay for your food and accommodation, a phone to call the mainland and check to see if the boat can leave to collect you and a good (big) book to keep you entertained.

Although it rained everyday, it was not enough to dampen our spirits. In fact, it was four days of relaxation, with good music, good wine, beautiful sites to see everyday and the most wonderful adventures over ragged rocks. Plus, due to the rain and vicious waves, we were stuck on the island for an extra two days! Can't have been stuck anywhere better.....

Eagerly we booked a mini bus to take us what should have been the three hour journey from Phnom Penh to Sihanouk ville (south of Cambodia). It actually took us four and a half hours, and we arrived to pouring rain at 1:30am to an empty bar and an Australian owner with crooked teeth who kept threatening to back hand his staff. At that point, the only interest I had was in bed - the long days, 5am starts and 7pm finishes have been wearing me down. Waking or sleeping, I dream about bed. Bed and feeling cold. I got the bed, but it was still hot. Can't have everything though can I.

Six am start, optimistically speaking, at least it wasn't five! Disheveled and wearing the exact same clothes as yesterday, I reluctantly dragged my bag and coerced my feet to walk the 20 meters to the bar where I was met with a number of armed men and rather young looking women/girls/prostitutes hanging off their unarmed arm. Upon leaving, the crazy Australian owner whispered in to Chris' ear "if you come back, you might want to stay elsewhere as this is the red light district". With the wind and rain in our hair, we left prostitute central sharpish, heading for the harbor and our eagerly anticipated adventure.

The boat was narrow, with two floors but we were told only to use the bottom floor. Why? I hear you ask. Well I shall tell you my friends....because the waves are too rough and we might topple over. Great. Me and my irrational fear of deep dark open water does not bode well with this sort of information, and here I am sitting on a rickety old boat imagining my imminent death in the depths of these shark infested Cambodian waters. Rationally, I know the Cambodians have killed anything of any worth in these waters so the worst that could happen might just be a tiny sting from a beastly jellyfish, or a little fishy might nibble on my toe. But I still see Jaws watching me, licking his lips, biding his time.

The waves were rough at times, but no deaths aboard or overboard that day. Approaching the Island was magnificent. The sand was white, the sea was turquoise and even the sun was smiling down on us. Shockingly there seemed to be very little along the coast line. The port consisted of dilapidated wooden walkways with huge gaps to fall through or wobbly piers with only the supports left jutting out of the water. Brightly coloured fishing boats were tied up to the edge of the wooden supports and bobbed gently on the waves. The narrow pier led to the "village", a shanty town coupled with feces and human waste strewn across the pristine sand. Colourful shacks lined the edge of the sandy beach, complimented with a territorial dog and a few naked children playing in the water. The locals peered out at us through their shanty's eyeing us suspiciously while the children brazenly demanded High-fives and "Hello's". I imagined a hubbub of frenzied illuminations, typical of Thai style islands. This was the very opposite, and I could not have been happier.
The accommodation was a wooden shack with a beautifully thatched roof in traditional local style, complete with beds and mosquito nets. The bathroom however was considerably posh in comparison to the rest of the Island. Neat pebbled carpet, power shower, toilet (which would not accept toilet tissue), battered door which hung precariously on it's hinges and threatened to swing open mid-toileting, not to mention we were very much with the open elements with the gaping holes in the thatched walls. Sitting on the loo, if I turned slightly, I could see the boys sitting on their veranda chatting on the next shack along. Awkward.

The Island itself is big, but you couldn't see it from the shore line. It has only been inhabited for the last 15 years so the majority of the Island has been untouched and is relatively unexplored even by those who live there. People initially moved to Koh Rong in order to fish for crab but the crab ran out but there is very little here for the people, no infrastructure, commerce or agriculture. Slowly, families have been drifting back to the mainland in dribs and drabs, whilst those who stay, turn their hand to the developing tourist trade which in ten, maybe even five years will be booming. In the last two years, accommodation has been built, before then you had to camp on the beach or visit for just the day. What little development there has been is environmentally friendly and lessons have clearly been learned from neighbouring Thailand. It would be such a shame to visit Koh Rong later in life to find it has become another touristy trash house with culture and tradition blown away by the wind.

The sea is so beautiful and inviting, I could not say no. Amy, Chris and Helen were already splashing about and the turquoise expanse was not enough to put me off. Delicately, I toed my way in to the shallow depths, gradually getting deeper until I was up to my knee. Satisfied with the clarity of the water, clearly no fishes or evil monsters lurking here, I waded in a bit deeper until the water lapped gently against my stomach. Feeling brave, proud and confident, I plunged the rest of my body in to the ocean. It was warm, salty, and felt amazing. With my heart beating fast I started to swim. Now, for those of you who have no fear of the sea - good on you, but those who can identify with my fear, well it was certainly an accomplishment. Especially considering the last time it all ended badly. Carl and I had paid a lot of money to go on a snorkeling trip (I was feeling confident), where the boat took us out to a remote part of the Thai sea and we had to jump in to the water. Carl was with me, so I felt safe. I did it. I was splashing away and kicking my feet and took photos of us under the water clearly enjoying my life until I felt something(s) on my legs. With goggles I peered down to find my entire bottom half was covered with fish. Frantic with panic, I screamed, flew back to the boat, clambered aboard and waited to calm down, whilst chastising myself over this ridiculous irrational fear but also hating fish even more. Thing is, on Koh Rong, I was more concerned about making a big do about nothing in front of my new friends - it's uncool to scream at a little fish and I certainly did not want anyone to see a reaction like Carl had to witness - 27 years of age regressing to 3. I had prepared myself before the trip for a beach holiday without swimming, so the fact that I was now jumping about in the water (I figured that if I kept moving the fish would be less inclined to hang out with me, but I wouldn't appear too strange above water) was a real feat.

The days were spent investigating the 40 meters or so of beach that we had access to. Jen, James and I decided to explore further afield one afternoon and clambered over abnormally shaped boulders bare footed. Some were rippled, as if they were an extension of the gentle waves of the sea, others were twisted in to curvaceous shapes, others were potholed. Each was incredible to look at. The beach we were staying on has white sand, the next had yellow. Each stretch of sand was lined with green jungle, no inhabitants, just nature. The desolation broken when we stumbled across one set of rocks adorned with a Christian looking grave stone, isolated by the sea. We could not make out the strange symbols as the wind and waves had eroded the scripture away, but the mystery behind it accelerated our imagination.

At night we would skinny dip with the bioluminescent plankton after a few drinks. The sea would light up like fairy lights and shimmer on your skin for a few seconds before fading. If you kicked under the water, you could see your leg light up. If you lifted your arms out of the water the plankton would attach itself to you for seconds and leave you glowing. Coupled with the blackness of Koh Rong, (limited electricity to lights off at 10) everything was so much more electrifying and visible. The stars even seemed to shine brighter than I had ever imagined possible and looked more like small planets.

At night - that's when nature lets you know it's there. During the day the place is peaceful and quiet, but at night you hear the nibbling of rats, the screams of the monkeys. Or if you are really unlucky like Natalie and Dom, the monkey lets itself in to your shack and steals your alcohol and food. Although Natalie was convinced it was a cheater (but she is from S.Africa). I also sadly found myself a victim of theft. The first night back to the shack and I found my bag had been ripped open and strewn across the floor. Upon closer inspection, I could see my camera was still there, my money and phone were also still there. Strange thief, left all the expensive stuff. Then it dawned on shortbread had vanished along with my sour cream pringles! It was only later in our stay that we met the intruder - a big fat rat which kept weeing under our beds which would cook in the sun and create a

The most intriguing aspect of this Island trip, is the lack of development both for villagers and tourists. So much is untouched and this is what makes Koh Rong an exceptionally beautiful place. When you are there in low season, you are one of a few westerners. The children are pleased to see you and want to play with you, even the villagers grew confident to approach us. Armed with a camera, you are everyone's friend there. The children try to steal it so they can take photos and see themselves on screen, the mothers approached us and wanted to see photos of their children and photos of them with their children. A few locals had set up businesses such as Nam Nam's, a restaurant serving basic meals but tasted good and Divers or boat trips around the island.
Koh Rong is definitely the place to be to chill out, relax and take time out from the usual stresses of everyday life. It is an extraordinary place, and one I would recommend to every traveler. Stay with Rudy at Paradise Island, the German with a big environmentally friendly heart who embraces all new travelers and is keen to share with them a very different life experience - no electricity, lights off at 10, simple but good meals which are utterly dependent upon the weather and the boats. Scramble over the intriguingly battered rocks and explore what feels like the unexplored. Over-come irrational fears of the sea and enjoy the turquoise bath. Skinny dip with the plankton and see the ocean light up like fairy lights at night. Most amazing of all, the lack of light means the stars are even more beautiful and visible. It's not hard to see why people get caught up and stay on the Island for extended periods of time. It is stunning.

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