Joanna was the first person to tell me about Koh Rong. We were sitting together on my bed in Dalat, and she was pointing out the best places to visit in Cambodia.
“Siem Reap is ok” she told me “but I didn’t really like Angkor Wat. Everything was old and falling apart, and it was all the same color. I liked Phnom Penh, but the best place in Cambodia is definitely Koh Rong.”
“What’s that?” I asked, curious what the attractive, blonde Dutch girl sitting next to me would say.
“It’s an island just down here. You see it?” Pointing to a small speck on Google Maps, she tried to zoom in on it, giving up several seconds later. “Your laptop sucks” she said without laughing.
“No, it’s the best laptop in the entire universe, you just don’t know how to use it” I said, defending my $200 investment from an entirely justified comment.
“Here’s Koh Rong, you have to go there. There aren’t any cars, no scooters, nothing. There isn’t even a road.”
Sold, I asked her how to get there.
“You take a ferry from Sihanoukville. You don’t have to book a hostel in advance, you can just show up and find something. When I went there I met a girl on the ferry and she told me about Ty Ty’s hostel. You should go there it’s awesome!”
After knowing Joanna for just an hour or two, I couldn’t have known that three weeks later we would go to Koh Rong together. We began travelling together in Saigon, and it wasn’t long after that we ended up in Sihanoukville. We bought our tickets in the evening, and the next day we boarded the ferry an hour before noon. Beers in hand, ready to leave the mainland behind. Before the breakfast beer dulled the attic, I counted my blessings that I was going to a tropical paradise with a girl who I was wildly attracted to. Sometimes things work out like that, and it’s beautiful when they do.
Stepping Onto the Beach
The beach is the road at Koh Rong. It emerges from the ocean and goes directly up to the steps of every hostel, bungalow, restaurant, and bar on the island. In some places the front door of a building is a mere ten to fifteen feet from the ocean. In other places it’s sixty feet. Nowhere is it farther than Tom Brady can toss a football.
We got off the ferry and stepped onto the dock, ignoring a man loudly bellowing advice about how to survive on the island.
“We don’t need him” Joanna said to me, briskly stepping past the shirtless alcoholic. “I’ve been here before, I know where to go.” So I followed Joanna. I’ve never met anyone in my life who walks as fast as her, and I may not ever meet someone again who does. She turned a three minute walk into a ninety second one, and we quickly arrived at Ty Ty’s. They had a room and we booked it for a week. After dropping our stuff off and stepping back out into the tropical heat, I looked around and shrugged.
“Well, let’s get a beer.”
Joanna smiled “let’s do it” she said.
With that the tempo was set. When in the tropics, drink like a fish. Given the Scrooge pleasing prices of alcohol in Cambodia, this was easy to accomplish. We grabbed a few cans and sat up on the balcony of Ty Ty’s, looking out at the ocean and watching drunk tourists walk below us on the beach. Despite having been in Asia for more than a month, this was only the second time that I felt like I was somewhere truly special. An island with no roads and no police. Cheap alcohol, sand whiter than a Swede at Christmas, the ocean clear as the screen on a brand new phone, and the company of a girl who I loved.
Embracing the Lifestyle
Everything that I learned in college had prepared me for Koh Rong. I knew how to drink, how to make friends, and how to blow off all responsibilities. Most days began with breakfast prepared by the wonderful staff at Ty Ty’s. After that we would lounge around till ten or eleven. By then the boredom would set in and we would start drinking. Sometimes at the hostel, most of the time on the beach.
I had left my laptop charger in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and I had no way to get any work done. All I had was my cellphone and a weak internet connection. That was enough to send out messages to my clients though, most of which went something like this.
“Sorry, I can’t do any work for the next week or two. I’m in a tropical island in Cambodia and I can’t charge my laptop. As soon as I get back I’ll be available again!”
Luckily they were just as agreeable to this arrangement as I was, and I didn’t lose any work during my tropical vacation from reality.
What’s interesting about Koh Rong is the effect that it has on people. The locals who live there year round only make up a small percentage of the total population. The rest of the people on the island are tourists. There for a week, two if they’re lucky, and then back to the grind. Even though me and Joanna were by definition tourists, after a few days we had thrown off this label and we began to see ourselves as locals. We made jokes about the obnoxious, drunken behavior of the twenty-something travelers, even though we regularly made fools of ourselves.
Koh Rong has the potential to convince you that you’re special, a world apart from the other riff raff. It’s a unique feeling that I never fully experienced again. I don’t know if it was because I was with Joanna who already knew the island well, or if it was because of our hostel, which blended into the island like a chameleon. Whatever the reason, we carried ourselves with a certain amount of pride, even as we accomplished nothing.
Elevating Our Game
Five days into our tropical escape I made an exciting discovery. Not only is beer cheap, but you could get a liter of Jameson (my favorite liver-buster) for just $18. After convincing myself that this wasn’t some form of fraud, much the way you can buy a Rolex for $50 from the night market, I paid for a bottle in cash and walked out onto the beach.
The best way to imagine my situation is to picture Jack Sparrow, marooned on that stunning tropical island with the beautiful Elizabeth Swann. Nothing in his hand but a bottle of rum. I walked up and down the beach with my Jameson, the way more sensible people were carrying bottles of water. I’m not particularly proud of the person that I became with that Irish whiskey, but nor would it be right to hide it. I took the bottle with me everywhere, from the beach, into the sparkling ocean, and back to the beach.
The culmination of all my efforts came to me shortly after noon one day. I had been drawing on the Jameson for the better part of two hours, while we sat with a few other guys. One of whom we would meet a month later, 1,400 km away in Pai. Joanna was playing her ukulele, and Eddy was on the guitar. Baked from the sun, I pushed myself to standing position to go for a swim with the Jameson. Standing shakily, I found myself completely unable to walk forward. Instead I ended up staggering ten feet to the left, before collapsing in the sand. Jameson in hand, sand on my cheeks, dignity lost.
After that day I didn’t buy any more liquor. Me and Joanna worked on the beer and enjoyed the water. Right up to the end Koh Rong maintained its magic. I would have been happy there for a month, but my liver and wallet couldn’t stand it any longer. We bought our ferry tickets, paid the last tab at the hostel, and departed the next day. I left with mixed feelings. It saddened me to leave behind an island where I had so much fun, and made such an ass of myself without consequence.
On the other hand, I was ready to see what was next. When you travel a lot you begin to develop an inquisitive spirit. Even though the conditions you’re in may be ideal, you still think about why the next place is going to be awesome. The ferry ride out of Koh Rong was sad, but then again, we had our travel beers to lighten the mood.
Joining the Real World
Back in Sihanoukville me and Joanna visited half a dozen computer shops looking for a charger so that I could restore life to my dead laptop. At the time I had no idea that a hostel in Phnom Penh was holding onto it for me, and I thought my only salvation lay in buying a new one. For better or worse, that never came to pass.
All we managed to find was a dirt bike, which brought me just as much joy as any charger could. We rode through the Cambodian countryside, discovering the most pristine beach I’ve ever seen in my life. We stripped down to our underwear and dove into the exotic blue water. All thoughts of Koh Rong and Jameson were washed away, to be tucked away into my long term memory until next time. Someday I hope to go back to that hedonistic island, and resume the suspension of reality.