Photo: Sergi Hill
Southeast Asia is hardly the final frontier when it comes to backpacking. Buses specially tailored for foreign tourists line every Bangkok street corner; tubing the Nam Song in Laos ends with gift shops; pancakes and spaghetti are ubiquitous even in Burma.
When I first went to Koh Phangan in 2013, I was expecting this — just a few days in Southeast Asia and you quickly learn of Koh Phangan’s reputation as the go-to place for manufactured buzz and bliss. It wasn’t like we didn’t have a good time, but the days of The Beach were long, long gone. It felt more like a frat party than an underground adventure.
My partner Ryan and I spent our time on Koh Phangan with a German couple with whom we’d spent about two months in India the previous year — lovely, rough-around-the-edges, wildly intelligent hippies whom I’d trust with my life, given that with them I’d shared the most traumatic experience of my life. When they told us we’d do ourselves well to get to Koh Rong, Cambodia, as soon as possible, we knew it was something we’d need to rearrange our (very loose) travel plans to do.
We arrived in Sihanoukville on an overnight bus from Siam Reap. The smell of saltwater and sand was laced with traces of moto exhaust and street food, and we found ourselves herded to the Koh Rong Dive Center — the only place, we were told, we’d be able to book a ticket on a ferry to the island (which actually isn’t true). Because Simon and Isa had described Koh Rong as one of the last truly wild places on Earth, we were surprised at what a well-oiled machine the process of getting there seemed to be. There were two ferries that left Sihanoukville each day to make the two-and-a-half-hour journey to the island.
We arrived just before sunset, and despite our misgivings in Sihanoukville, it only took a few minutes after our arrival to realize that Simon and Isa had been right.
Koh Rong is an island about the size of Hong Kong, with 28 beaches that ring an untamed mess of virgin jungle. The main beach where the ferry dropped us off is home to Koh Toch, a village settled about 25 years ago. Locals traditionally made their living as fishermen on brightly painted Cambodian longboats, and, whether it was the sun or the surf, or the happy abundance of fish in the rich waters, these were some of the friendliest people we’d ever met. Being invited to sit down to a traditional dry salted fish and rice dinner with a Khmer family was common. On Koh Phangan, being invited to sit down for dinner with a local — or being asked to hold their baby or play with their kids or have a warm and watery local beer with a crew of old men playing cards — is unheard of. It’s not as if Thailand lacks an authentic culture…but the country, especially its islands, has been inundated with foreign tourism for so long that it’s far more difficult to forge sincere connections than it was on Koh Rong.
Looking at the beach, the village is situated left of the community pier, mostly foreign-owned guesthouses to the right. Going left meant being in Cambodia proper: thatched roofs, rusted metal, very free-range chickens, boats older than my mother being refurbished 24/7 by old men with gnarled hands. Going right meant an untouched beach paradise with water as clear as crystal and sand as white as snow. It sounds cliché, but this is what the cliché is actually meant to describe. I wouldn’t have believed just how white sand could be or how crystal the ocean until I came to Koh Rong.
Always seeking off-the-beaten-track adventure, Ryan and I decided to spend our first five nights on Long Beach, a 7km strip on the other side of the island, through the jungle. We strung our mosquito-netted hammocks between a couple of scraggly beach trees and ran around playing Robinson Crusoe for those days, catching crabs on driftwood branches, cooking instant noodles on our small camp stove. We were fulfilling our separate but similar childhood fantasies of living on a deserted island, and they were some of the most fantastic days we’d ever spent.
When we traversed back to Koh Toch beach, we realized we weren’t going to leave any time soon. In 2013, there were roughly 20 guesthouses on the beach, and electricity ran reliably only between about 5pm and midnight. We spent our days lazily passing joints on the tourist end of the beach, or playing with kids in Koh Toch. The Koh Phangan nights of Long Island iced tea buckets and prepackaged EDM and capsules of crappy MDMA were nonexistent. This was a real party, a real pursuit of pleasure; travelers spent their evenings spinning poi, playing guitars, swapping stories, singing by candlelight. Don’t get me wrong — we drank. A lot. And it’s not as if we didn’t have speakers that played loud dance music or pass time until the wee hours of the morning dancing on the beach and skinny dipping with the phytoplankton.
But this was the business of pleasure. Not getting fucked.
In 2014, a lot of this has changed. Most of it’s good — the Friends of Koh Rong (founded and run for over a year by the unbelievably talented and determined Kelly, Fran, Jacki, and Eliza) have renovated the school in the jungle. Jacki and Eliza just recently moved on, but Kelly and Fran, with the help of Bun Te, a half-Vietnamese, half-Cambodian man who’s lived on the island for a little longer than three years, and long-term volunteers who can dedicate six months or more, now teach several different English classes. FOKR is also involved in community development and environmental awareness. There are now signs in all the guesthouses that remind people that the water they use to shower is “local people’s drinking water,” and to keep their showers short. Locals who used to make $60 a month now gross more than $600. Mr. Run’s noodle stand (seriously the best Khmer noodle soup you’ll ever try) has expanded his menu; what used to be a small village stand is now a hopping restaurant.
It’s just that in 2014 Koh Rong is less a village that happens to be on a paradise beach, and more a paradise beach that happens to be home to a village. This, of course, is because of the influx of tourism. There were roughly 300 tourists on the island at any given time a year ago; now there are more than 700. While the majority of people passing through are still conscientious, there are a lot more neon tank tops than last year. There are Full Moon Parties. With them, of course, come bucket drinkers and fist-pumping, “throw your hands up in the air” anthems. I’ve heard people come into bars and ask for MDMA — only to be told in no uncertain terms to turn around and get on a boat back to Koh Phangan. There are more foreign women wearing bikinis in the village than last year (a truly disrespectful thing in Khmer culture), more foreign men who can’t hold their liquor stumbling in the sand by 3pm. A fire earlier this year, sparked by two travelers (allegedly drunk, smoking in bed) destroyed two businesses and nearly destroyed one more.
While the true party — the pursuit of real pleasure — ends, the other party is just getting started.
If you’ve ever traveled in Southeast Asia, you’ve heard people complain about “how it’s changed, how it used to be.” I don’t mean to be one of those people. It’s still paradise. You can still float on your back under a massive equatorial sky and be amazed by the glowing plankton washing over your skin. The villagers will still invite you in for dinner — if you take the time and effort to venture from the western side of the pier. You can still have a meaningful romp on Long Beach. You can still form real connections with the kids and indulge in some of the best noodle soup at Mr. Run’s. You’ll still meet some of the most special, interesting, kind, intelligent, and honest travelers you can meet anywhere in the world.
But it’s changing. Fast.
Koh Rong is still the last authentic party in Southeast Asia, but it’s also an indication of what unregulated, unfettered development and an unchecked influx of tourism can do to a developing place. Ryan and I convinced two of our best friends from New York to come join us for a brief stint in 2014, and though they were surprised by how many people were there, they still were blown away by the rawness of the island. We passed joints and giggled at the phytoplankton and drank Koh Rong Steamers until we could hardly dance around the fire any more, and it was magic. Hopefully they won’t be among the last people to feel it.