It’s not yet 06:00 and we’re in the water. Ten meters from the shore I’m only up to my hips. There’s a slight pull of a stream and no waves to speak of. Floating bell jellyfish silently propel themselves forward by contracting and stretching out their slippery, semi-translucent bodies. No boats are anchored at the four wooden jetties jutting into Saracen Bay, the largest on Koh Rong Samloem, an island off the western coast of Cambodia.
It may only be a 45-minute speedboat ride from Sihanoukville, the frantic beach resort town on the mainland, but I couldn’t feel further removed from its sun-lounger, day-drinker crowded beaches. And although Saracen Bay is the island’s hub of activity, it never feels much busier than just after sunrise.
I didn’t set an alarm. At this point I’m not entirely sure where in my reed and thatch bungalow I discarded my phone. The morning light must’ve woken me up. Maybe I fell asleep ridiculously early last night after another full day of doing nothing in the sun and that’s why I’m awake. Maybe it’s the heat. Whatever the reason, the time of day is insignificant unless you’re waiting for the restaurants to open for breakfast.
The eateries and beach cottages lining the bay are stretched thin. Living on the furthest tip of the bay, it takes a while to get anywhere, especially considering the lazy pace our usually brisk city legs have adopted. Trudging along in the soft sand is the only way to get from the one cluster of cane chairs and tables to the next and to reach the other side of the island there are only four paths that wangle through the dense inland forest. It’s advisable not to bring too much luggage, as human hands and feet is the only form of transport here.
There are no electricity or waste removal services. Each owner organises his own generators or solar panels to supply power to the kitchens. Hot water showers are redundant on a tropical island. The waste is collected by boat and taken back to the mainland.
But its isolation doesn’t compromise Koh Rong Samloem’s food in the least. Each accommodation has a restaurant and although the floors are bare cement, the roof is thatch and there aren’t really walls to speak of, you have to use the water handguns to clean the sand off your feet before you enter. It doesn’t matter what you wear, either.
Our favourite breakfast spot was at Sweet Dreams cottages, especially the three-course breakfast for $4. Eggs the way you like it are followed by four small, fluffy pancakes with toppings like pineapple jam, passion fruit, and chocolate to choose from. The coffee (you can also have green tea) is sickly sweet and thick, but for some reason I kept ordering it.
After breakfast there are no concrete plans, only a vague interest to walk to Lazy Beach on the other side of the island. Flip flops are sufficient for the walk through the forest along the shaded path softened by fallen leaves. Monkeys, birds and critters screech and bustle overhead until the canopy opens up onto more cool sand and an even quieter bay.
Casuarina trees provide shade. The shed twigs make the sand look slightly unkept, but also unshowy. A wooden swing dangles from a branch. We sit, we read, we swim. We float in the water in silence. We nap. We decide it feels like lunchtime and order this eatery’s version of simple noodle soup or stir fry and rice. Tonight’s version will be served in a hollowed out pineapple. Mine is almost always accompanied by a watermelon juice.
Somehow the afternoon passes without any definite activities apart from sauntering back and napping some more in the hammocks under our stilted bungalow. Another thunderstorm is drawing in, but the evening rain doesn’t call for jackets or hats. A burst of rain is welcome before we fall asleep at an unimportant time.
Before we know it, four days have passed and we’re back on the speedboat to the mainland before we spend 12 hours on a bumpy bus to get to the revered Angkor Wat. We’ll be able to list the attractions we saw in the north, but it’s more difficult summarising the island. It was never about the sights, it was about the actions: eating, swimming, sauntering, and staring at the very little that goes on on Koh Rong Samloem.
If it isn’t clear, Koh Rong Samloem is not a destination for those wanting to party. Koh Rong is a better place for that. Koh Rong Samloem is where you push restart, where you only need a handful of clothing items and lots of sunscreen.