A Weekend on Koh Rong
Photos and Words by Taylor Simpson
June 1st, 2019
In hind sight it would've been good to know that Koh Rong, an island off the coast of Cambodia, played host to two seasons of the American reality tv show 'Survivor.' Dreaming of a unplugged, deserted island escape we spent one weekend on its' eastern shores and quickly realized our 'getaway' experience wasn't that dissimilar from the tv show.
Having trekked through Southeast Asia for the better part of four months, my husband and I thought a truly deserted island was just what we needed. Away from the congestion of Bali and the essence of modernism in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, we thought perhaps we could have an 'eat, pray, love' moment after all. Unplug from the world and live care-free in a quintessential grass hut in the jungle. That's the dream right? What's that saying about getting everything you ever wanted only to have turn out completely different in the end?
Descending into Sihanoukville, I peer out the window and see two things: dense jungle and dirt roads. The roads wind up and down the hills, and every so often I can make out someone navigating the potholes on their scooter, a child on either side, groceries in hand. These moments do not feel entirely unfamiliar at this point in our travels, and I mentally welcome the lack of traffic and sensory overload. We breeze through customs with our e-visas, but not until we've had our photos 'sneakily' taken by some customs officer- must be the fact that we're the only non-asians in line. We have some light-hearted fun bartering for a taxi to the port; $20 and an hour later, we arrive. People. Everywhere. Traffic. Everywhere.
Peaceful island ferry scenes from Mamma Mia playing over and over in my mind, I quickly realize this is decidedly not that. We miss the 2 PM ferry and are told we will have to wait until 5 PM, the last one of the day. No problem, we wait with 100 of our closest friends at a sketchy bar, order coke and fried rice and decide to make the most of it. While we wait, the effects of over-tourism slowly start to sink in. The coast line (and now, I begin to imagine the islands as well) have been confronted with too much too soon. Trash lines the shore, and young children are peddling bracelets. Not what we had imagined.
Five o'clock rolls around and we board our ferry and make for the island. Seems like too many people and too much luggage for one boat, but hey, what do we know. An hour and a half later, we get off at the last stop: a single concrete strip jutting out into the perfectly blue shallow waters, leading to our 'eco-resort.' Ah yes, this certainly looks like a scene from Castaway- perfect. We knew electricity, wifi, and plumbing would be limited, but what we failed to recognize was the effect several days of absolutely zero relief from the heat can have. At first you want to believe that, like the locals do so gracefully, you can handle it. Surely your body will naturally adapt after a certain amount of time. Well, having tested this theory, we felt certain that wasn't the case. But sometimes travel is about being mentally tough enough to overcome your circumstances, so we resolve to not address it for the next three days and get back to having that 'unplugged island getaway' experience.
Day two. 4:43 AM. The resident rooster decides he's ready to start his day and thinks we all should too. Lucky for us, while it's muggy at 5 AM, the sun has not risen yet, so a walk on the beach feels amazing. We enjoy a morning cup of joe in peace and quiet before everyone else emerges from their huts. Having purposefully booked a stay on the quieter side of the island, at an 'eco-friendly' airbnb, I thought that it would attract other like-minded travelers.- those looking for some true R and R from months spent on the road. Again, I thought wrong. Turns out the beach attracts the 'fresh out of uni' crowd looking to get cozy with their fellow backpackers while seemingly unaware of the heat and lack of personal space. Scenes from Leo's movie The Beach come to mind. Just glorious.
The next two days unfold in a similar manner. Dead ants in our food, lack of real plumbing, and trash stacked several bags high around what I'll refer to as our 'campsite.' Not only do I find myself incapable of unplugging, but I can barely focus on anything other than my own discomfort. I feel defeated, selfish, and weak. Finally pulling the plug, we change our flight to depart the next morning, leaving three nights early. I never felt so relieved.
A few hours before we board our ferry the next morning, we take a walk to the local fishing village on the other side of the hill. Seeing the local way of life here is equal parts impressive and depressing. Houses are made of scrap tin resting on stilts above the water. Children nap in hammocks in their 'living rooms,' while trying to escape the heat. The ocean below acts as sewer, garbage dump, and income stream, as the main economy here is fish farming. The most surprising part of all? The locals all smile at us, unphased, and go about laughing with each other, genuinely enjoying their day. How could I be so wrapped up and all consumed with a simple lack of air-conditioning, when there are people living a ten minute walk away in extreme poverty? How could I be so judgmental of rubbish on the shoreline and children selling jewelry when that's their only option for income? We board the boat back to Sihanoukville, and I leave feeling more exhausted and defeated than at any other point in our journey.
When we set out on a journey to foreign lands, we know we are asking for new and uncomfortable experiences. We are asking for our eyes to be opened and our ideals of life and the pursuit of happiness to be challenged. Sometimes this growth comes along on our journey when we least expect it. Just as you are about to live out everyone's deserted island dream, you are confronted with the grueling reality of other people's lives. Maybe the journey to find your true meaning in life like Liz in Eat, Pray, Love ends up looking a lot different than what you'd originally imagined. And I would argue that at the heart of it, that's why we set foot outside our door in the first place.