Thursday, March 20, 2014

Koh Rong

The trip to Koh Rong was my first experience with a sleeper bus.  Luckily Brittany and I sat together or else I’d have been up, close, and personal with a stranger.  We stopped a few times during the 13 hour drive since the bus had no toilet.  I witnessed my worst and most unclean squatter during this trip.

 The bus took us to Sihanoukville, the beach city in Southern Cambodia where the ferry leaves for Koh Rong.  There, we picked up our ferry tickets, paid for our scuba diving, and booked our departing bus to Phnom Pehn.

We took three steps onto the pier of Koh Rong and immediately decided that we would never want to leave.  While checking in at Monkey Island Bungalows, we asked if they had vacancy for an extra night, and they did.  They even helped us change our bus ticket, so we tacked on an extra night!

Our bungalow was beautiful, but very basic.  We really roughed it for four nights.  Our bungalow was a stone’s throw away from the beach.  The sounds of the ocean put me to sleep every night.  We had a porch with a hammock.  Our beds had mosquito nets, which I had never had to use before.  There was no fan or air conditioning, but this is all authentic to how the island works and operates.  Also, wifi was difficult to come by, and the bungalows are solar powered.  We only got light from 5-11 PM.  Monkey Island’s restaurant is where we found wifi, but it was pretty poor at most moments.  Monkey Island also had a charging dock, run by a generator, for phones, as the bungalows had no outlets.  It was the perfect refuge, and it was nice not reaching for my phone until dinner each day.

 Brittany and I decided to do a fun dive in Koh Rong.  I probably won’t dive again in Southeast Asia, so we decided to go for it.  It cost $80 for two dives and lunch.  We met our divemaster, Luke, that morning.  He seemed awesome and we were excited for the dives (and nervous since it was our first dive since our certification).  Luke told us that two Russian men, who spoke zero English and had not been diving in six years, were also joining us.  I could tell that Luke was a little uneasy about taking the Russians out, but we all geared up and jumped in.  Luke gave us the signal to go down, but once we did, the Russian guys were nowhere to be found.  I also went down too quickly, and my head suddenly felt like it was going to explode.  My left hear was ringing and I began to panic.  Luke motioned for us to go up, as he could not see the Russians.  Luke, not really knowing what to do, asked us to go back to the boat so he could go find the men.

I had two thoughts. One was that I was disappointed that we missed our first dive.  Two was that I was thankful that I didn’t have to go down since my head felt like it had fallen off and my left ear was clogged and ringing (and later on noticed I had popped blood vessels on my face and one on my right eye).  When everyone got back on board to head to the next site, Luke told us that we could tag along with another group because he felt he needed to devote himself to the Russian men.  We completely understood, so we went on the next dive.  The visibility was not great, but my head did not explode, so that was a plus.

When we finished, Luke offered to take us out on Tuesday morning to make up for the first dive.  It was so generous of him since he knew we would not get our money back.  We laid on the beach for the rest of the afternoon and had an amazing bbq dinner at CoCos.

Another thing that is a must do on Koh Rong is Long Beach.  It is one of the best white sand beaches in the world.  Since there are no roads on the island, you can get there two ways: a 25 minute long tail boat or a jungle trek.  We heard the hike was around 45 minutes so off we went.  This was one of the most difficult hikes I have ever done.  We trekked up steep dirt hills, up large rocks, and we climbed down so many boulders.  Brittany seemed to be a natural, while I trailed behind, sliding down on my butt most of the time!  Rocks are not my thing and Britt knows this, so she offered to help with my things.  At one point she said, hey, you’re conquering another fear!  I’m not sure how one could be afraid of rocks but yup, add it to my list!  I’m mostly afraid of slipping and falling off of them, and this had great potential.  I have not been that sweaty in my whole life but every inch of that trek was worth it.  As soon as I saw the white powder and turquoise water, the hike was already forgotten.

I have never seen a beach like this before, nor is it likely that I will ever see it again.  The only accommodation on this side of Koh Rong is Broken Heart Guest House.  It is a series of private bungalows off of the beach, and you could stay for a mere $35 a night.  The only place to eat is the restaurant at BHGH, where I had fish n chips and a coke for $6.50.  Besides this, there is 7 kilometers of beach and a very small amount of tourists.

Brittany and I just laid in the sun all day, trying to fight off sunburns by applying sunscreen often, but failing with the strong sun.  We had many canine visitors throughout the day.  There were a couple puppies who grabbed anyone’s attention they crossed.  While watching the sunset, one precious puppy took it upon himself to crawl up on my lap, curled up into my sarong, and took a nap.  The cutest thing ever.

To take a break from laying, we took a walk down the beach.  Luke, our dive instructor, had told us that the Bulgarian version of Survivor was being filmed at the end of Long Beach, and Brit is a huge Survivor fan, so we went exploring.  A couple km down, we saw a bunch of Khmer people carrying wood to a boat.  As we got closer, we saw a colorful obstacle course set up on the sand.  We asked, “Survivor?!” and the men smiled and shook their heads yes.  We aren’t sure if we had just missed the challenge, or if it was going to happen soon, but it was a cool thing to see.  It is funny that we were on one very inhabited part of Koh Rong, all while people are filming a television show on the other side, distraught and needing food and water.

 We stayed on Long Beach for the sunset and took a long tail boat back.  The water was very choppy and the island had one white storm cloud with lightening going constantly.  It was such a cool sight to end the day.

Tuesday morning, Luke took us out for our second dive, just the three of us.  We saw some great coral and wildlife, even though the visibility was worse than Sunday.  I got poked by a black sea urchin, which hurt badly.  Apparently the stinger is just in my finger until it desides to disintegrate. Luck was not on my side with diving on Koh Rong, but I lived to tell about it.

The rest of our time on Koh Rong was filled with a bit more sun and good food, and I was so sad to leave.  Koh Rong is so wonderful that many people who come to visit actually stay more long term.  Luke had been there for 14 months, and Niels, a Dutch guy who worked at Monkey Island, stayed for four months.  It is a common thing for a person to say, “I planned on staying a week but I have been here for two months.”  Why would you not if you had no other plan?  It is beautiful, serene, quiet, hardly touched, fun, peaceful, and very cared for.  Upon arrival, we had two men welcome us, give us a complementary fruit drink, and tell us the do’s and don’ts of Koh Rong.  This was strange to us, as I would never picture being welcomed to a whole island, but the people who live here truly love Koh Rong.  One don’t is no fires.  A couple months back, a candle started a fire that took down a couple of buildings.  Luke was there trying to help.  He said he was petrified, and if the wind hadn’t changed, the whole island could have gone up in flames.  The people of Koh Rong also love their animals.  Choco’s program is a new program started to raise money to keep the dogs up with checkups, sterilization, and shots.  There are organized beach cleanups every week and a three month volunteer program for education.

I feel extremely lucky to have witnessed Koh Rong and its natural beauty.  A year ago, there were only a handful of spots for accommodation.  Since then, development has doubled, and I really fear for the future of this island.  I am blessed that I got to visit the island before it eventually becomes the Phuket of Cambodia.  Unfortunately, build up is what Koh Rong will do, as land is currently being cleared to accommodate the next set of bungalows.  Within 20 years, Koh Rong will be full of resorts, villas, a beach club, many more restaurants, a casino, and roads.  It is sad to think about, but what I can hope for Koh Rong is that Long Beach remains untouched.  With the lack of electricity and scarcity of water (we couldn’t even do laundry on the island), I hope that the most gorgeous beach I ever did see stays beautiful.

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