Koh Rong (Lazy Beach)
Here it is, as promised/threatened, the journal with the death-defying moment in it. Two, if you count the horrible boat ride to the island. Look away now if you're going to get upset. Don't say you weren't warned...
We were picked up outside the booking office by a pair of tuk-tuks, along with two middle-aged French couples. Normally, we would have walked down to the beach and waded out to the boat, but today the wind was up so we needed to ride across town and meet it down by the old dock.
Bags were passed over while the boat bobbed around a few feet away, making the process look a bit dodgy to me. Then, we all had to get on board via a plank which the three crew tried to balance precariously between the boat and the dock. It all looked very risky with the boat lurching unexpectedly in all directions and, alarmingly, the crew looked like they'd never done this before. We all exchanged worried glances before taking deep breaths and jumping over.
Once we were seated, the anchor was pulled up, the engine started and we headed out. The water was incredibly choppy as we headed across the large harbour area and even worse when we reached the open sea. We were riding into the waves and the boat flipped backwards and forwards as we were thrown upwards when we hit them and dropped nose-first back down again into the hole they left behind. After a while, it was almost possible to get used to the idea of waves as high as you can see smashing into the front of the boat and soaking everyone, but when the horizon kept going up too high to see it was pretty scary. I tried looking backwards for a while, but arguably that was worse. I think that the crew had probably seen all this many times before, but there was one 'wave' that crashed down so comprehensively that even they were looking a bit wild-eyed afterwards as they scrabbled around trying to help the drainage situation.
Eric had always described himself as a pessimist, but the way he spent the entire journey trying to light a cigarette showed an admirable degree of optimism that I don't think I've ever witnessed before. He offered me one and I have to say that I thought long and hard before declining. I spent the last half an hour with my head in my hands in my lap. I think I must have looked pretty bad because the French tourists apparently kept staring at me concerned.
On a good day, the ride can take as little as one and three-quarter hours. My understanding of a Frenchman's understanding of something the captain had told him was that the bad weather meant that we would take five hours today. In actual fact, after we had saved some time by going to the near-side of the island rather than around to the other side where the resort was, it was only two and a half hours. The reason for the change of destination was because this beach faces away from the ocean so is calmer and we could get closer to the shore. Apparently, this was the first time in six or seven months that they had been unable to bring the boat into the western side.
We were greeted when we arrived by Rich, in his West Ham shirt, and his two dogs. Bags were put in a big, red box to be floated to the beach while the passengers had to climb into the stomach-high warm water and wade to land. From there, we had to carry our stuff on a fifteen minute walk through the jungle to get to the western side. I had my full backpack plus ten litres of drinking water, which was carried by Eric as he had brought so little with him that it all fitted into a small satchel.
We were assigned to bungalow number seven, looking out onto the beach. Each bungalow had two double beds, with mosquito nets, and an en-suite bathroom. They were fronted by a porch with a pair of hammocks. The structure was built from a wooden frame with a reed thatched roof and bathroom walls. Electricity came on as the sun went down until a little after the last guests had left the bar. The shower was cold, as are most of the showers I've used in Cambodia, but in this heat the tanks get to luke-warm in the sun and, besides, you're not looking for a hot shower a lot of the time anyway.
Having dropped off our bags, we headed over to the bar to begin the serious business of running up a tab. There was one bar/restaurant area and we spent most of our days there eating, drinking, reading, playing Scrabble or just staring out at the sea. There were a number of Khmer staff around working the kitchen or carrying out building renovations, but mostly we only saw Rich and Chris, the co-owners, and Chris's girlfriend Cat.
We had booked for three nights but kept on extending and extending our stay. Eric, who had been dragged there almost against his will, hardly wanted to leave at all and often when I decided that I really was going to leave the next day he assented only because he didn't want to stay and pay the whole cost of a bungalow himself. Many nights as I sat at the bar telling them that this was my last night, Chris and Rich would tell me that we weren't allowed to leave and I would end up being talked into staying one more night. This was more so once they lowered our rate from $25 to $15 halfway through our stay. In the end we were there for ten nights.
The waves were quite active when we arrived. Rich said "Those waves have definitely died down today" so many times that it practically became a catchphrase, but in the end he was right. The first few days were fun to walk into the sea and let the water splash over me. It was so warm, it was like the kiddies pool at the local swimming baths. Generally they had very few guests during our time there and for two days we were the only guests at all, so all this beach was ours alone!
The beach we had arrived at was sheltered from the ocean wind and so always much calmer, so the two of us walked out there after a couple of days, followed by the dogs. To the far right on this 4km stretch of sand was a pier where people sold fuel to fishing boats. To the far left were some buildings associated with the Cambodian navy, which meant you could also just about get a mobile phone signal. But in between was nothing but empty gorgeous sandy beach. I set about trying to send and receive a couple of urgent messages before walking into the water and along the beach to take some photos. Eric began collecting little bottles and other interesting flotsam and jetsam that had washed ashore and built himself a curious little altar from it all.
Near the end of the first week, the much-promised calm came to Lazy Beach itself. The colours of the still water looked much richer in the sun, but it was actually less fun to go into. Perhaps if you can swim then it was more interesting but I cannot really, so instead of splashing about in the waves I was just walking around as an occasional rise lapped a few inches higher on me.
In order to get wetter I walked quite a way out so the sea level was around my neck. After a few minutes of this I grew bored so decided to walk to the bar to buy some shower gel so I could wash because a mouse had eaten my soap in the bungalow. Rather than walk on the beach, I walked parallel in the water. Getting closer to the bar and to where the boat was moored, I tried to swim a little, just to stretch some different muscles. After splashing my arms and legs around until they were tired, I hadn't got very far, so put my feet back on the sea bed. Imagine my surprise when I disappeared underneath and discovered that the water level was now a foot taller than I was!
I jumped up and tried to swim my way towards shore but of course found that I wasn't making much better progress than I had when I tried before. Worse still, the rip of the waves was probably pulling me back out as fast as I could swim in. I very quickly became very tired so tried putting my feet down again to see if I could walk the rest, but my head once again sank a foot below the water. Looking back now, I realise that I should probably have gone back to where I came from in the first place as I knew that there was a sandbank. Now I was stuck struggling over a dip in the sea bed that ended I knew not where.
Jumping up and trying to splash again, I called for help a couple of times. I had little faith that anyone would hear me all the way out here and had to consider the serious possibility that this was the end. It was oddly calming, in a way.
My voice had not gone unheard though. Rich, Chris and one of the guests came bounding out of the bar, sprinted down the sandy walkway and jumped into the sea. They were halfway towards me when, with all strength failing, I tried for a third time to put my feet down. This time I could get my toes to the bottom and still hold my face above water, so was able to walk my way slowly out and the four of us stood there for a minute catching our breath. Then, another guest came running over from his bungalow. He apologised for having been so late, but I thanked him anyway.
As I walked up to the bar (well, I still needed to buy that shower gel), Chris displayed the same speed he had in running to the water by getting back and playing the Baywatch theme on the stereo as I walked in. Perhaps the only dignity I can take from the experience was that I never watched Baywatch and so didn't recognise it.
I also couldn't hear it, or anything else very well. I think I got some sea water in my ear during the boat ride to the island which developed a day or two later into an ear infection. This was fairly painful and spread around a bit to even take in my gums. It also meant that something inside swelled, blocking the ear. My right ear has been poor for years, something I put down to spending too many gigs stood right up against giant speakers to the right of the stage. Unfortunately, this infection was in my left ear, so now neither were very good. Eric's hearing was rotten anyway so we spent a lot of time saying "Sorry?", "Pardon?" and "What?". Chris behind the bar said he was going to start communicating with us through written notes.
Rich had had an infection recently so they had some ear drops which they were able to give me and after a few days it died away. The ear was still half-blocked though. Indeed, as I write this a month afterwards, it is still half blocked. Perhaps there is some gunk in there blocking it, but self-administered tweezers haven't been able to remove it if there is.
There were various board games on hand to be used by the guests, including that staple of dull dinner parties everywhere: Pictionary. A dozen guests were pulled into a big game one night where Chris and I did manage to impress everyone by getting 'Whittle'. But it was Scrabble that Eric and I were playing most of the time, with a sixteen-game series in which the UK crushed the US by fourteen games to two.
Not many people can say that they have had a game of Scrabble interrupted by a gecko shitting on the board, but I claim membership of this select group. There were many geckos on the island, particularly in the bar's toilets where they provided a prettier solution to the fly problem than spiders. A few would also be sitting on the ceiling of the bar itself. A couple of times every night there would be a thud as one of them had lost its grip and fallen to the floor below. Everyone would look around whilst the dazed creature quickly began crawling back up one of the support beams before the dogs could catch it.
During the final game of our series, something odd landed on the board. I touched it and found that it was soft and a bit gooey. Suddenly, the penny dropped. "Is that gecko shit?" I asked. We looked up and, sure enough, there was the culprit high above us.
After ten days doing a whole lot of nothing and despite the protestations of Chris and Rich that we weren't allowed to leave, we finally headed to the mainland. By now Eric had five days to get to Bangkok before his flight back to America which would mark the end of his four months travelling, so even he was ready to leave this morning.
The boat ride back was much calmer than the ride out had been. We were able to depart from the normal beach rather than make the trek to the far side of the island and despite having to spend thirty minutes sailing around the island itself first, the total journey time was still no less. That's not to say that I didn't spend most of the journey with my head in my hands again though, just that I wasn't convinced that we were all going to die this time.