What makes a “paradise island”? A beautiful, white sandy beach? Warm, perfectly clear sea, complete with shoals of playful tropical fish? Wooden bungalows that look out over long stretches of unspoilt and virtually uninhabited coastline? A bit of jungle in the middle for exploring? If this all sounds like the paradise ideal you’d imagined, then it also almost describes at least one side of the Cambodian island of Koh Rong, which we visited for a few nights on the penultimate leg of our trip. However, it seems that paradise comes at a price…
The island lies in the Gulf of Thailand, around a two hour boat trip from the slightly seedy resort town of Sihanoukville on Cambodia’s south coast, somewhat infamous for its links to sex tourism. We somehow got to Koh Rong after struggling at first with a broken-down boat organised through a decidedly flamboyant French diving instructor, and made it to the island in plenty of time to take on the walk over the jungle hill to the far side of the island. Here, unlike the north-eastern side, the developments of restaurants and bars have so far barely touched the 7km long beach and crystal-clear waters, leaving an almost desert island feel with only a small village at one end and a tiny smattering of beach bungalows for rent. Nevertheless, reaching this apparent paradise was our first taste of the pay-offs associated with getting away from it all. In sweltering heat we dripped and trudged up through jungle paths that we later found out are home to a surprisingly large variety of venomous snake. An untreated bite from a King Cobra (one of the local serpentine residents) for example, leaves you with around five hours to live. In Cambodia, one suspects that even a flamboyant Frenchman (probably especially a flamboyant Frenchman with a shonky boat) would struggle to find anti-venom in under a day. Luckily for our paradise quest, the snakes stayed out of our way and we just had to worry about drowning in our own sweat as we scrambled down ropes that allowed downward progress over large boulders and steep rocky paths.
Once there though, we were able to cool off in beautifully temperate transparent waters and book into beach bungalows that were basic but had an outlook to make Robinson Crusoe nostalgic. That night, limbs rested, we were again treated to both the good and bad aspects of nature in such a place. After a beautiful sunset we went again to the sea. With the moon bright and the stars appearing gloriously unimpeded by light pollution we waded out into the dark water to be met by the truly magical sight of millions of bioluminescent plankton, glowing as we touched them and splashed around. Like magicians, we traced sparkles in the sea in a marine light show that really was a phenomenal experience.
The bad side though? Beach bungalows jutting out of the jungle are a good place for foraging if you’re a rodent. With no fully enclosing wall and stories of large, toothpaste-loving rats abound, a sleepless and roasting night on nylon sheets was in store. Indeed the next morning it transpired that one of our fellow travellers had awoken to find some of his possessions devoured by rats, whilst another told us a tale of large rodents invading beds. We were lucky to get away with just rat droppings on the floor: maybe a fair trade for bioluminescence and powdery sand, maybe not.
The following morning required a walk along to the other side of the beach. Again, walking along a deserted paradise beach – where apparently they’d recently filmed the French version of the reality TV show Survivor – should be a pleasure, and was at times, but the heat and the sheer amount of washed-up rubbish on the sand (there’s no-one to clean it, after all) made the 7km a hard task. Nevertheless, we arrived, sweating once again, to the far end of the beach where a small village sits and more beach huts were there for the renting. With fewer rodent evidence and less jungle to contend with, we decided to stay for a couple of nights.
Here, the problems seemed fewer, and paradise really seemed an apt description. Still, nature cannot be ignored, and soon enough I was covered in around 90 extremely itchy sandfly bites. It seems that to find a real island utopia, devoid of physical and natural peril, you might have to pay someone to clean a place up. On a virtually deserted island, you just have to take a bit of rough with the oh-so-smooth.