The boat crested through the waves, bobbing up and down in the driving rain. Salt water splashed our face, waking us up every time we were about to doze off. The shores of Sihanoukville shrank into the past as we approached our next destination: Koh Rong. Rugged, peaceful and sparsely populated. We were the Swiss Family Robinson, South East Asia backpacker-style. In the foursome of travellers there was Seren, the chatty Welsh girl with a bounce in her step and a new idea always bouncing around her head. There was Andy, the breakdancing Irishman with a quick wit and a quicker step. There was Karl, a Scouser who was likely a caveman in his past life and is now part man, part caveman, part puma. Finally, there was me, a hyperactive Canadian with a contagious laugh.
We took refuge at Coco’s Bungalows, in a thatched roof bamboo hut tucked up a hill among palm trees and with a perfect view of the ocean. The main beach on Koh Rong has a modest line of guest houses and restaurants but on Friday, we wanted to find a remote beach to call our own. After hopping over smooth, purple-hued rocks along the shoreline, past the treehouse bungalows, we found a quiet strip of sand to ourselves, save for two Chilean men slack-lining between two palm trees. After a few hours soaking our skin in the salt water and drinking up the sun, my parched throat reminded me that we didn’t bring any water with us. Two coconut trees leaned into the breeze, a crop of perfect green coconuts at the top of the sand-coloured trunk. Karl and Andy suddenly had a mission, the first of many. Climb the tree, crack open the coconuts, get water. Andy koala-bear shimmied up the tree and ‘plunk, plunk’, down came two coconuts, a life goal checked off the list. Karl came strolling back successfully with some of his own. Seren and I watched eagerly as the guys smashed the coconuts open against a jagged rock. The sweet coconut water dribbled past our lips and down their chin and we were content, reveling in the accomplishment of foraging for food. “We could totally survive on a deserted island, we just climbed a tree for coconuts,” Seren said. “We’re like Swiss family Robinson.” And that’s where the name came from.
That night, a new adventure. Watch the sun set from Long
Beach on the west side of the island. (yes, Andy, the sun always sets in the
west). We didn’t set off until about 5:30 p.m. so we were booking it through
the jungle for abut 45 minutes, dripping with sweat as we zigzagged through the
dense tangle of trees, following a tiny path marked with old flip flops nailed
to trees and red splotches of paint, showing us the way up and over the tiny
island. We felt like we should have had machetes, hacking our way through the
jungle like a badass Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. To get down to Long Beach,
we had to rappel down slanted slabs of rock, clinging onto a rope for support.
We could hear the rush of the pounding waves, telling us we weren’t far. Through the leafy trees we could see the pink-tinted clouds, signalling sunset.
We reached the empty beach just in time to see the remnants of the sun, washing the horizon in a swipe of orange and staining the clouds pinks and magenta. We ran into the sea, washing off the sweaty hike and jumping in the rolling waves until dusk gave way to night. The full moon shone down on us, a vibrant white bulb hovering over the trees. We made a fire to dry off and tried not to think about how we were going to make it back through the jungle in the dark. When we finally decided to head back, we took stock of our equipment. A single keychain flashlight I’m pretty sure I got for free somewhere. Karl kept telling us to turn it off, that our eyes would adjust to the dark, but a blind, hand-guided climb over the rock face wasn’t in the cards for Seren and I. The blue-white glow of the flashlight, shaky because of my nervous hands, got us to the top of the hill, where the trees parted enough to let the moonlight illuminate the rest of the way. We could see fireflies dancing among the tree branches and it made me feel like I was a fairy in Fern Gully. We finally made it back to the main beach, back to civilization. The reward for the epic hike was a barbecue feast of burgers, grilled chicken and tuna steak at Frank’s BBQ.
Friday’s mission: kayak to pagoda island tantalizingly close to the mainland. Andy and I hopped in our kayak and Seren and Karl hopped in theirs and we paddled out, fighting against the current and cutting a bizarre-looking path through the water. When we reached the island, our arms and shoulders aching, we were greeted by three monks sleeping on the rocks. One of them spoke very good English and wanted to know where we come from. Canada and Ireland, Andy and I said. The monk said he was 26 and has been a monk for five years. He lives on the mainland and takes a boat every day to reach the modest pagoda perched on the hill. Andy and I took a wander up the staircase, flanked by two serpent statues whose bodies snaked up over the top of each handrail. There were several spirit houses, with fresh fruit, water and Coca-Cola as offerings to the Buddha.
We cooled off in the clear water, peering through snorkel masks at the tropical fish, sea urchins and colourful coral. We made two spears, one out of hollowed out bamboo, thin rope and a steak knife and the other a shorter piece of bamboo and long tooth picks. Seren was determined to catch a fish. After violently stabbing the water with little success, Seren set her sights on a little crab who would peak out from a crevice just enough to tease her but not enough to let her stab him.
She was like the angry chef in the Little Mermaid trying to pin down Ariel’s crabby companion Sebastian. Each time she would come up out of breath, her eyes flared with murderous rage as he remained just out of reach. “I’m not leaving this water until I’ve killed that crab,” she said. Soon, all four of them were hovering over the piece of coral, Karl with a knife in his mouth, now equally out for blood. After about an hour of fruitless hacking, the four decided to admit defeat and paddle back to the mainland before the winds picked up. At least we made the spears, so technically, we can say we’ve been spear fishing, even if we didn’t spear fish.
All this was preparing us for the most rugged mission of all. Camping on an uninhabited beach about 30 minutes away. We took lighters, snacks, beer and whisky, although not enough, which forced Karl to run back to town around 9 o’clock for two more bottles. Again, we left too late, a bit after sunset, so it was another moonlit walk through the jungle to the beach but thankfully on flat land.
Seren and I marching down the main beach with our pillows caught the attention of one guest house owner. “Where are you guys going?” “We’re going to sleep on the beach,” we said. He laughed and so did his two friends behind the front desk. “Good luck,” one said. “Let me see your skin tomorrow morning,” he said, hinting at the blood-thirsty mosquitos and sand flies. We had plenty of bug repellant, coconut oil which is said to keep the sandflies away and two mosquito nets, pinched, er, borrowed, from the bungalow.
We set down our things and started foraging in the dark for wood, branches and dried palm trees to get the fire going. We had a raging one in no time and Karl used the white hot embers to build a little sand barbecue to cook his fish. “Would you eat the eyeball?” he asked Seren. “It just tastes like water. Or that’s what my friend told me anyways.” Before we knew it, Karl had his lips on the fish’s goggly eye and had sucked it out, blood running down his chin. Seren, not one to turn down a challenge, took the fish and started to suck out the other eye. She had to stop to retch a little in between but finally it was mind over matter and she used her teeth to dislodge the eye from the head. Karl held the second fish, this one raw, in his hand. “Go on, Katie, eat the eyeball,” he said in his thick Scouse accent. I took a lick of the eye, just to verify that it indeed had very little taste. It was kind of like licking Jello. I squeezed my eyes and closed my lips over the eye and sucked. It had half come out so I sucked harder and slurped the watery bulb into my mouth. I quickly chewed and swallowed. It had the texture of a tapioca pudding ball but with a slightly fishy taste. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined and Seren and I high fived over our accomplishment and took a picture with the eyeless fish.
Karl laughed and Andy cringed. “Youse two are the coolest girls ever,” Karl said. Note to self, way to gain respect with an outdoorsy guy. Eat fish eyeball.
When the grey clouds drifted over the moon and darkened the sky, we ran into the water and waved our hands around to see the phosphorescent plankton, twinkling around our movements like stars in the water. We heard the rumble of thunder and strikes of lightning began to crackle across the sky. We tried to predict where the next lighting bolt would hit but it always took us for surprise. Once, the lightning spread over the entire sky, like a map on a black canvass. Then came the rain. Sporadic drops at first and then a steady drizzle.
Andy and Karl gathered palm leaves and draped them over our mosquito nets to create two little shelters. It worked well enough, but the drops that got past the palm leaves were cold and left us shivering and very wet. It was only a few hours later until sun rise, when the sun cast the sky pink and seemed to rise within the blink of an eye. Red-eyed and groggy, we packed up our belongings and our rubbish, and trudged back to the shelter of our bungalow just as the rain picked up again. We were all very pleased with our accomplishment, convinced we could definitely live off the land if the situation arose and fully embracing Seren’s tag of Swiss Family Robinson. Except without the pirates.