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Going off road
A month of cities and markets, trains and buses, new friends and new food has been fantastic, but deep down we knew that what we were both looking for was a hut, a hammock and a beach. Cambodia’s South coast is, miraculously, still a fairly well kept secret. No doubt it won’t stay that way for long, but we felt lucky to have discovered it just in time. Our first destination was Rabbit Island, a short boat ride from Kep. Arriving in a small fishing boat with just a handful of other tourists, we weren’t disappointed.
Leggy palm trees strutted their stuff along the shore with a row of bamboo huts behind, each with a hammock smiling in the doorway.
Our main companions were a few disheveled looking chickens, who looked like they’d been given the electric shock treatment and survived, plus the occasional cow jangling around, showing off ribs to make Kate Moss jealous. And not forgetting the pack of lupine looking dogs loping about, concentrating on their futile quest to dig up crabs, punctuated by occasional forays to dip their balls in the sea. By mid afternoon, even they had given up on any activity.
Days passed in a blur of lazing, swimming and hearty breakfasts (fried rice for him, Nutella pancakes for her). Our peace was only disturbed on one occasion by the arrival of some MWT’s (Morons With Guitars). These specimens are a hazard on any travelling trip. Usually hailing from either the USA or good ol’ Blighty, these self styled ‘dudes’ come armed with carefully coiffed surfer hair and a repertoire of about three songs that they insist on busting out at any opportunity. Particularly common around campfires or anywhere they think they may find some beer and a suitable dudette companion. Fortunately, there just wasn’t enough action for them on the island, and they soon slung their guitars over their shoulders and departed.
We had originally only intended to spend three nights on the island, but three nights quickly turned into a week. We could have stayed even longer, but were wary of turning into one of the island’s more permanent inhabitants – an Australian retiree with long grey dreadlocks who looked like a white Rastafarian Father Christmas. It was time to move on.
To get to our next island, we had to go to the beach resort of Sihanoukville. A straight-talkin Texan expat on the bus had told us in no uncertain terms, “Don’t go there, it’s a s*thole”, so we were expecting the worst, and our expectations were duly rewarded. Us backpackers have a tendency to feel rather virtuously like we are the best type of traveler – hanging out with the locals and putting our pennies were they are most needed, ‘keeping it real’, and turning up our sunburnt noses at the package tourists hiding safely in their resorts. But Sihanoukville is what happens when a backpacker hangout goes too far. A scruffy strip of beach is wall to wall bars, with tourists in various states of disarray sprawled across them, swilling cheap beer and smoking themselves into oblivion. Marijuana is freely available, which is harmless enough – after all, stoned people are far more likely to sit around discussing their new found perspective on life (man) than starting a fight. But there is a dark side. If you decline the tuk tuk driver’s offer of weed, they then try and tempt you with the harder stuff – one guy who misunderstood our question about a guesthouse thought we wanted to buy heroin, and told us to come back in 20 minutes. Our first impression when we stepped onto the beach was a woman in her mid 40′s with her clothes almost falling off and her eyes practically crossed, looking like she hadn’t showered in weeks and staggering out of a bar at 2pm about to collapse. There’s even a bar which offers you free accommodation if you drink so much you can’t remember where you’re hotel is. It’s almost embarrassing to be a Westerner here – you wonder what the locals think of all this debauchery, as they never seem to want to get involved. After a sleepless night (our room was practically in a bar – if I have to hear another Cambodian version of an Akon track again I may scream), we were out of there on a boat to paradise number two at 6am the next morning.
And my, what a paradise we had found. We guessed divers always know the best places to go, so we hitched a ride with a local dive school – feeling like true landlubbers as we didn’t even have a snorkel between us – and two hours later we were on what I can only describe as the Cambodian version of Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach.
Our home for the next few days was a small room on a pier over the sea – we fell asleep to the sound of the waves below us. A ramshackle village with about 60 locals living there was next door, and a 30 minute walk up the island, including navigating a jungle path and wading through some waist high water, took us to a kilometer of white sand and turquoise sea, the likes of which you think only exists in a Photoshop world of people’s screen savers.
We had the beach to ourselves, save for the sand crabs, performing their strange dance on tip toes across their sandy stage, looking for all the world like alien ballerinas. Surely places like this don’t exist in real life? We had to pinch ourselves to believe we were really here.
Life on these islands is pretty simple, and the people are very self sufficient. The small scale tourism has provided them with a decent income and new opportunities, but life remains pretty much unchanged. Watching the daredevil feat of a miniature muscle man shinning up a 50 foot palm tree with no safety rope to collect coconuts, or a family slowly fixing a boat, makes you realise how redundant our computer savvy deskbound bodies would be in this world, and you start feeling pangs of envy for a life where you actually create something rather than send endless emails.
Sadly, the people living on these islands are on borrowed time. All the islands have now been bought for development, often by foreign investors, so expect them to be turned into high class playgrounds for the rich within the next few years. The people living here have no real land rights – after the end of the Khmer Rouge’s regime, people just settled where they found themselves, with no legal documents to their name. Some communities have been offered as little as $50 per family to relocate – or they can stay and get nothing, but maybe a job in the new resort. You can hardly blame Cambodia for wanting to exploit its natural resources after everything the people have been through, but it seems a shame to do it at the expense of the villager’s traditional way of life. Only time will tell how much of it will be able to remain.