The Price of Paradise.
17.04.2012 - 19.04.2012 33 °C
Khmer New year was a sedate & pleasant affair, and my notes for it are currently AWOL. Reader, I therefore beg your indulgence with the first part of my tale of my journey to Koh Tonsay, also known as "Rabbit Island". I hope it will not disappoint you with it's highlights of beautiful sunsets & glimmering seas and its horrifying lows in an unexpected and violent death....
For the last week of Khmer New Year holidays, many of us were at a loss as to what to do. One of the volunteers, Emma, suggested we visit the small island of Koh Tonsay, or "Rabbit Island" where we could relax and take in a dose of tropical paradise for a few days. I agreed, and the next day we set off, but not before we had discovered the locals two houses away from the Agency had a home-grown stash of Cambodian Green. They all sat around smoking out of a small bong composed of two wax-jointed pieces of bamboo. I declined, having forsworn the stuff years ago but some of the others (whose anonymity will be protected) were very happy and in possession of a small bag by the time we set off. Angk Tasoam was bustling as ever, and our ride to the port of Kep proved to be one of the ever-variable shared taxis and the "how many Khmers can you fit in a minibus" joke was being played. With my beloved Big Pack hanging out of the boot on little more than an improvised mesh AND two Cambodians sat atop it, I was a little on edge. Stopping many times, we had our hopes up for having more space. And yet; like Russian Dolls, a new Cambodian face would appear from nowhere to take the seat with a crafty smile! (Surely it must count as cheating to use a toddler as a reservation marker?). Kep port was relaxed and "tourist clean", and we got our tickets and supplies in a nice, air-conditioned shop with all the airs and graces of the Western world. After a short walk down the silent jetty we clambered on to a long, aft-crested skiff with a pair of improvised pole-mounted outboards and a rope tiller. It was skippered by our very own Cambodian Ancient Mariner: with a grizzled smile, four good teeth and built like an old raisin, he looked the part.
The Island ahead of us was small and bore little resemblance to a rabbit; less than six miles end-to-end as the crow flies with about five or so islets and a few neighbouring isles off the slim coast. Unlike big resort territory there was little in the way of marine traffic: a large, ugly outline to the east may have been a rogue Singaporean dredger or neglected Cold War hulk in the obscurity of horizon.
After disembarking from the boat at a rickety little jetty we set to finding rooms in the palm bungalows that sat between the short beach and a rearing wall of jungle that rose to the summit of the isle. Accomodation turned out to be basic and I felt as though I might fall through the spaced palm sliver-slats at any moment, but there were basic mattresses. Later on I had a wash in the plastic pipe shower that belched out murky water that made me feel dirtier than when I had got in. There was only one thing for it - the sea! The water was shallow but reasonably clear and warm, and I immediately felt more cleansed than I have in the past month (it also worked on some of my laundry, to surprised expressions from my fellow Westerners).
Relaxing on the beach, I took a look around me. Lines and lines of available deckchairs......and not a single German towel in sight! With the other tourists, gaggles of Koreans seemed to have taken delight in the fact that they had all bought the SAME messy fisherman's hat and sat around eating weird and wonderful snack packs until they crammed back on to their day boats, quacking at some unknown comment. The guard then changed; so emerged several trios of moody francaise in their 20s who patrolled the sands: all aloof expressions, Marlborough Reds and wrap bikinis. The food was pleasant and I sampled my first Amok (Cambodian curry) which was rich in a murky yellow sauce and made with fresh squid.
The setting sun that evening was enchanting, glowing as unattended embers behind the now light-ashen clouds. In a moment the silhouettes of the mainland became starkly outlined in pastel-greys and blues under rival hierarchies of billowing peach and stone-grey thunderheads; whom, after only a few minutes faded obediently into the new night as the great red eye closed into the limitless waters of Asia. With the light foam dragging shell fragments over my bare feet I walked back to existence to a chorus of insects and the last, desperate clicks of French camera shutters.
All seemed as a tropical paradise on this tiny, warm island as we all made our way to a small beach cafe; we had no idea of the terrible, savage event about to occur. A light dinner with a few drinks was interrupted sharply by a horrible, unfamiliar noise. The many dogs living on the island were a welcome sight that day, and we thought nothing of their playful fighting. But when a stocky bitch chased down and killed a tiny puppy the image was shattered into pieces. The yelping seemed like normal sparring at first, but as the barks turned to screeching cries and every dog walked over we knew something was very wrong. The barman ran over and dealt the bitch an almighty clout with a frondless branch, but the damage had been done. Annie was soon on the scene, though even with her vet nurse training there was little she could do to help the small broken form gasping and shivering its tiny paws as the life poured out of it.
We were all very shaken by this horrible event and it took several drinks to calm down again. We retired to the landing of the large bungalow we had rented, and sat around the thin-slatted floor playing Chinese Patience in the gloom. A stumpy little cleaning lady who smelled of noodle soup gave us worn, old candles to help our odd crowd play in the dark. We'd scarcely dealt the first hand when the old lady returned. She grinned at us, muttered something in Khmer, then let loose a thunderous fart. By that time beetles were flying into the candles and our faces, so I decided to crash in the hot, unventilated cell.
The next day I awoke to a grumbly stomach and immediately set to work tracking down rumours of Muesli and "fresh" yoghurt. It wasn't really much more than a few seeds and fermented milk, but it did the job. Today was set to be a beach-bum day and the girls hired a pair of inner tubes, each with a rusty metal hook on the inside, clearly marketed as "a surprise" All was going swimmingly (ha ha) until a group of Buddhist monks and monklets turned up in faded yellow wraps and began stripping down to the base layer, jumping into the shallows like a flock of awkward, shaved ducks. Smiling, they lured us into a false sense of security and it was a half hour before we realised that the monklets had pinched our tubes - the villains! Eventually we recovered our rings from the smiling little voleurs, but in the excitement I had neglected my shoulders and they toasted in the sun (ouch).
Sizzling in the shade, I remembered reading that there was an old Khmer Rouge bunker accessible by a path through the jungle. I managed to rope a few of the others into coming along the next day. The day ended quickly, giving way to another incredible sunset. Pearlescent swirls of sky at the end of the afternoon yielded a curtain of molten gold falling into the sea, transforming into a dusky burn of worrying red shapes with a hurtful glow; as if flicked by a Madman's brush onto the canvas sinking into night, where the stars eternal maintained their constant vigil in the infinite space beyond this world. I soon lost interest in the little boats with their crude wooden crests as a bolt of lightning hammered into a distant mountain on the distant mainland: a lance from Heaven with a flash of yellow from another world, forbidden to exist for more than a moment in this passing place.
At the next breakfast we made our very earthly plan over very average cereal; meeting Gemma, a 26 year-old Teacher in Siem Reap University and her Cambodian boyfriend Joe, who works for Pepi Tours - they were going to attempt the route too and had a good idea of where it began. We didn't think therefore, that we would need a guide and I figured it would save me enough money to buy another good lunch.
Besides, how hard could it be to follow a popular path?