“You want some?” asks the woman standing next to me. She’s talking to the bartender, who doesn’t answer her. Doesn’t need to. The answer is always yes. As she reaches over the bar to hand him a lit joint thicker than a human thumb, the wooden beads of her necklace rumble across the bamboo bar counter. It’s a sound that might be tantalizing, but it’s drowned out by the clatter of generators. He drags deeply on the joint, holds it out in front of him between thumb and forefinger, palm towards him, holds his breath, exhales fully. He sits down on a crate, nods a few times to no one in particular, then looks up at me, red-eyed. “Get you a drink mate?”
Drinks in hand, Megan and I take off our shoes, rinse our feet in the metal bowl at the base of the ladder and go upstairs barefoot. We flop down onto some cushions on a ledge, looking out over a small section of beach that cuts through what they call “the village”. The bartender returns to his spliff. On a chalkboard, someone has scrawled “Open Mic Tonite”. At a table next to us, a shirtless man hunches over a piece of paper. His left hand holds a nearly-finished cigarette that threatens to burn his blackened knuckles. With his right hand, he fervently scratches out an arrestingly beautiful picture in charcoal. Locks of his waist-length hair fall repeatedly forward onto his workspace. Two young women at a table next to him strum on guitars, practicing a song I don’t recognize — perhaps a song of their own making, perhaps to be debuted at the open mic later. A couple, late twenties, walks in, each holding a can of Klang beer. They settle on the ledge behind me and both fall asleep. In a languorous silence, we watch the world below, then finish our drinks and spend several hours drifting between beach and sea. For the next six days, this is the extent, more or less, of our existence.
Koh Rong is that kind of place. Slow. Gentle. Friendly. Easy. Cheap. Narrow beach. White sand. Behind the beach, jungle. In front of it, turquoise waters. Slow boats. Bamboo huts. Beach barbecues. Cushions. Hammocks. Fruit stands. Chickens. Dogs. Thatched roofs. Footlong lizards on rafters above beds. Generator power. Blocks of ice carried over from the mainland, two hours by boat. Big but basic, populated but not developed, it’s as if Koh Rong has stepped out from a bygone era, untangled itself from the rest of the world, and presented itself naked, in this moment, to anyone who wants it. It’s a perfect moment, but a fleeting one. This Koh Rong, it seems, will be gone soon; when it goes it will be gone forever and a new one — fast, sturdy, brash, no longer naked — will appear in its place.
Suited men in dark sunglasses pull up to the island on speed boats. Escorted by cadres of green-uniformed chaperones, the suited men cling to cell phones and briefcases, talking in whispers, hungrily surveying the island, tiptoeing across the white sands in their designer shoes, as if on stilts. From their briefcases they pull out expensive cameras, snapping away at everything — water, beach, jungle, even slumbering dreadlocked beach bums in hammocks. Sitting down with their accompanying officials to a business lunch of rice and shrimp at a beach shack in the hot sun, together they salivate at the prospect of an airport, highways, concrete, neon, air conditioning, five-star resorts, eternity pools, marble floors, high-end shopping, manicured lawns, parking lots, fine dining… These men, with their drooping circles of underarm sweat and dubious government connections, will have Koh Rong developed in no time (and why shouldn’t they? — Cambodia needs all the development it can get), but for now this island, like the ones around it, may be one of the very last outposts in Southeast Asia where the travel of “no” is still possible. No roads. No vehicles. No ATMs, no credit cards. No earth-moving machinery, no gravel. No grocery stores. No worries. No urgency. And no doctor.
It happens a few days after Halloween, which is, it must be said, a wonderful affair on an island where the only costumes are those people fashion for themselves from materials they find in the jungles. We sit down at a sloping wooden trestle table and dig our toes into the beach sand beneath us. The cushions are comfortable. The night is warm and dry, the moon is bright. Small waves lap the shore a few feet away from us. Wooden boats are pulled up onto beach for the night. Dogs sleep at our feet. We order a picture-perfect meal (Meg in fact has me take a picture of hers — a balanced repast of chicken and vegetable skewers prepared over coals on the beach, sides of salad and potatoes and garlic bread, two cocktails to wash it down with, all for five dollars. Good enough for a thumbs-up.)
Five hours later, it begins. The food poisoning takes hold and Meg is in the grip of a feverish, six-hour-long, convulsive body-emptying ordeal.
At sunrise she is no better. In the early morning, weakened, she takes a turn for the worse and I make several enquiries about a speed boat to whisk us back to the mainland, to some sort of medical assistance. A phone call is made, a price is agreed upon, a boat is promised, a time is arranged… We wait, but the speedboat never arrives. There is, however, a much slower ferry that leaves shortly from a pier in the village. I grab our bags. Meg musters what strength she has left. Pale and dry, she staggers down the crisp white sands one last time, ankle-deep in the dreamy waters. Reaching the village, we board the slow ferry back to Sihanoukville. On the lower deck she sits on a ledge and stares out at the horizon behind us. Farther and farther out to sea, the breeze on her face feels refreshing.
In the distance, the world of Koh Rong grows smaller and smaller, a speck on the horizon, and then it is gone.