Koh Rong Samloem: Through The Senses

Off the coast of Cambodia lies an island so mysterious, so achingly beautiful and populated with the most intriguing characters that it seems like it operates in its own multiverse. Named with the Khmer word 'Samloem' which means 'drowsiness' - you will become dangerously intoxicated by the strange seduction of this paradise...

I arrived at Samloem on a classically Cambodian-timed boat. By that I mean two hours behind the advertised time. Two hours I spent trying not to judge European backpackers for the deep shade of lobster red seared onto their skin. Two hours of spying on rogue pigeons pecking at abandoned french fries on the cracked concrete pavement in the nightmarish port city of Sihanoukville. I was wondering if the phase 'you gotta go through hell to get to heaven' would ring true of my transit from the former Cambodian coastal resort to the island of Koh Rong Samloem.

Simply put, Sihanoukville is hell. What was once a quiet fishing village, archive photographs under a decade old hinting at miles of unspoiled beachfront apart from the odd tarpaulin shack, is now an eyesore of vacant skyscrapers stacked far too close. Empty Chinese-owned casinos are covered in blinding neon signs and blast out heavy dance beats 24/7, and if for a minute the bells and whistles stop, well there’s the background dirge of the near constant construction work to fill your ears. I managed to stay one night in this city - one night too many. Two extra hours at the dock was a fair price to pay to get the hell out of, well, hell.

When three backwards baseball-capped boathands casually arrived with the speedboat, sailing away towards Samloem felt like nothing less than unbridled ecstasy. Through sun cream-smeared sunglasses on the deck of our boat, Sanloem emerged from the glassy water as a mound of powdered icing sugar sand, framed by clusters of imposing black rock, and encircling feathery emerald palms. Feet hit the concrete of the long jetty, which shot straight into the jungle, and my centre of gravity slowly settled after the 45 minute choppy journey across the Andaman. There is a single aquamarine painted hut perched on the edge of the jetty, populated with two old and wisened fishermen, who look completely nonplussed by our excited arrival, as we wander towards the village of M’Pai Bay.

I could write about my time on Samloem island through three lenses. The first is time, and I’m convinced that M’Pai Bay operates in a timezone completely of its own. It’s hinted at in the name: Samloem stems from the Khmer word for ‘drowsiness’ - an appropriate description for this pulse-slowing sister island, to its slightly larger (and louder) brother Koh Rong. One afternoon, swinging in a chunky rope fishing net suspended over a shallow sand pool, I was convinced that I had been lost in the clouds of my imagination for at least a couple of hours, watching the fishermen hunt with their spears and falling into intermittent bursts of deep sleep, only to find out that barely twenty minutes had passed. The same can be said of my one night spent volunteering at the ‘Yellow Moon’, a self proclaimed ‘party hole’ on an otherwise secluded and tranquil oasis. After a long day bartending, I try to sleep in the staff quarters, only to be frightened awake at three am by a gang of local Cambodian men who had a scrap with the hostel owner. Safe to say in the morning I jumped out of there. That one night felt like a week.

The second is through the sense of smell: Samloem smelt of spices. Not the heady, earthy kind, like the Garam Masala and Cumin of Indian streets, nor the sweet fragrance of lemongrass and coconut milk of neighbouring Thailand. Samloem smelt hot and herbaceous - red chillies and holy basil drifting on grey smoke, carried along the steamy currents of the tropics. Following my nose one mid-morning, I stumbled across a simple tent, two dirt paths back from the beachfront; the kind of tent you would find as kids in large Argos packages - all plastic tubing and thin canvas sheets. Only slightly bigger. Here, Pierre - a hunky and barechested Frenchman in his thirties, if the name itself didn’t give it away, would toil for a while with pots and pans over a small camping stove, then sit in his plastic chair and watch French football matches on his iPhone. I tried to converse with him naturally, attempting to hide my instant attraction - turns out he’s a chef (extra swoon), and has married a local Cambodian lady he met on his travels, and together they create French-Cambodian fusion cuisine. Reader, my mouth started frothing. In the pot was freshly caught Cambodian crab served with a French l’orange sauce… and I think it cost about $1.50. I still dream of it over boring British dishes as I write this back in London.

Speaking of Pierre, I am most fond of remembering Samloem through its third lens: the people. Being a fairly seasoned island hopper, I became used to spotting the common traits that unite a seemingly disparate group of travellers on one island. The Gilis have the nature lovers and hippie farmers who spill over from the mainland Bali. The Thai islands have their lost boys, with their Tinker Bell’s of course, stuck in a perpetual state of partying. With Samloem, I'm still trying to figure out what brings these adventurers together - but maybe that’s part of its charm.

Let’s start with the Chill Out House - my sanctuary after the drama at the ‘Yellow Moon’. It’s owned and run by two Mancunian brothers in their fifties - Ste and Lee, though they look nothing alike. A South African called Des, and his girlfriend from the States called Winnie, volunteer to run the bar in exchange for bed and board. Des has the snakiest hips I’ve seen since Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ music video - his vintage O’Neil Boardshorts always threatening to fall off of him, and a tress of luscious blonde dreads caressing the small of his bronzed back.

Then, there was Lisa. I’ll introduce her with a statement she makes to me one night over a platter of soft quesadillas at beachfront hangout ‘Bongs’: “Yeah I sing, I was offered three record deals in the States, but none of them seemed right at the time.” Who knows if she was making it up: a delusion dressed up in gothic rags and witchy-purple ombre hair - or if she really was the long lost answer to Christina Aguilera, shipwrecked in Cambodia. But for some reason, it didn't seem to matter. I liked her. Oh, and she’s twenty-four and instigating an affair with Ste, one of the Mancunian owners of the Chill Out House. A man at least two and a half times her age, balding and with a beer-baited accent that even a native Brit finds hard to decipher. Oh well, guess we all make some interesting life choices in our twenties.

Then there was Warren. How to describe Warren. I met him at the Dragonfly Bar: a wooden stall sat at the top of a Grecian staircase carved into the cliffside, painted in white, leading down to the azure ocean. It's dressed with an atlas of traveller souvenirs: mexican wrestling masks sit next to Kenyan wildlife carvings. You spot him a mile away - shirtless and happily pot bellied, effusing charm and espousing conversation about travel, drinking and his home town of Deal, England, in a way which cleverly manages to never be too overzealous or obnoxious. We bond with a mutual instant liking for each other, bouncing one liners off each other's self-deprecating tongues, in a never ending game of tete-a-tete. “I’m searching for enlightenment…” I earnestly told him one night at the Dragonfly. I’m loose-lipped after my third Angkor Beer, while he has somehow talked himself into playing bartender for the night - at once lining up shots, whilst berating unruly customers for leaving cigarette butts and empty cans on his newly-cherished tables.

“There’s no such thing,” he immediately responds to me, with such authority and conviction that I believe him. “It’s just about complete self acceptance.” I look at him, mouth agape, stunned, barely being able to nod my head. There’s a piercing presence in his eyes as he stares into my soul. ‘He’s right…’ I think to myself. That’s the most sensible thing I have heard in my life. There and then, I decide that he’s the most wise man I have come across on my travels to date.

It's only three days later, chatting to snake-hipped Des at the Chill Out House over my watery breakfast coffee that I hear, “Oh that Warren? Yeah man, I’ve heard about his energy. People were talking about him. He seems like a cool guy. He came here one night, said he was a massive coke addict...” Hmm. That piercing look in his eyes? He must have been high as a kite. Another wise man bites the dust.

Then, there was Karl. Beautiful, German Karl. Karl was volunteering at the Tiger Eye Guesthouse, a picture of broad, sinewy swimmers shoulders and baby blue eyes. Karl convinced me to go vegan during my stay on the island and it didn’t take a lot to convince me. But what me and Karl did best was swim. After the evening ritual of drinks at Yellow Moon, I’d grab a couple of hours sleep and wake up at five am for the Sunrise to swim out as far as we could towards the horizon with Karl. This was the only time of day the water was cooler than the blood in our bodies. We would strip, leaving bathing suits on the beach, and wade out, marvelling at the fact that the water was so shallow, and we could swim for twenty minutes straight and still stand up waist deep in the water. We were kids again, counting how many backflips or somersaults we could do in one breath, competing with each other for the longest-timed handstands. I’m not sure if we were numbed with excitement, or if the water did have some sort of crystalline quality, but we manage to keep our eyes open underwater with next to no sting.

One morning, Karl takes me out to the wreck - an upturned Cambodian fishing boat lying on the seafloor. The wreck is what you’d expect, but it plays house to an army of sea urchins - attaching themselves to the sides and hiding under the anchored objects. I squeal in peril as me and Karl avoid touching them with our feet in the shallow water; as he reminds me, so earnestly, how poisonous they are to the touch.

On a humid mid-week night, Karl storms into my room and wakes me up. I’m sure it’s far too early for sunrise. “Priz wake up! You have to see this.” Bleary eyed, I pull off my ‘Bongs’ t-shirt, hoist on my still wet swimming shorts, and jog with him for fifteen minutes to the protected bay on the other side of the Yellow Moon. ‘What’s the big deal?’ I complain, scanning the dark water for anything unusual.

‘Trust me… come in.’

I swam out into the Andaman. It’s still bathwater-warm. That’s when I realise: my arms and limbs are coated in glitter. Neon, sparkling, illuminated fairy dust. It’s nowhere else, just surrounding my immersed body like a halo. I should be freaked out, but i’m hypnotised. The more I flail and kick, the brighter it gets. There’s a handful of other swimmers out here with the same idea as us. We link arms in a line, and count to three as we all start kicking together. Suddenly, a glowing underwater fireworks display erupts along the line of intertwined bodies. It feels like magic, yet it’s just nature. Bioluminescent plankton to be more precise.

But getting back to the people on Samloem: there was Toby. Wandering, Welsh Toby. Toby becomes my sole room mate in a dorm made for six (but thankfully only housing two, think of the heat!) at the Chill Out House. We make a habit of finding a secluded spot out on the rocks to stare out at the painted sky for Sunset, practising some mindfulness and talking about what we’ve left home.

“Well, I guess there’s no point to life really without love” I utter one night, not really sure how or why those words fly out my mouth. I cringe inwards, hoping I didn’t sound too sappy. “Yeah…” Toby quickly interjects - to my relief - for the first time with a hint of true conviction in his voice. “I agree.” Then, as usual, silence. He seems like a deep, solitary sort of chap, until he insists on getting ‘wasted’ a few nights in a row at the Yellow Moon, drinking shots laced with a local powered energy drink, poured from stamped paper packets. I wonder how he gets to sleep after seven energy shots late every night…

And then, there’s me. On one of my last full days, I muster up the courage to leave the usual chit chat and early morning gossip at the Chill Out House to hike across the island to the other beach: Sunset Bay. The bartenders were mildly amused, saying that so few of their guests made it. It’s sweaty and there’s a few steep rocks, but this could not be called an arduous hike by any means.

Semi-pleased with myself after the exercise, I sit on the sand. And here I am, again. Just me and my thoughts, staring out at the ocean. A deep anxiety arises from my chest which I try to allay and brush off with thoughts of gratitude. I know it’s my final night on the island, and soon I have to go home, but here I was, perched on a rock on the sand, thousands of miles from home; a picture I’d had of myself in my head while teaching English lessons back at home, desperate to be anywhere else. Desperate for an adventure. I guess I’ve done everything I’d wanted. A slideshow of my adventures carousell through my mind. Kissing strangers next to exotic temples in Luang Prabang, speeding through sunset horizons on foreign seas in tiny fisherman boats, spending days doing nothing but bathe in sea hammocks and playing cards with beautiful strangers, trekking alone under starlight across tropical jungles, bathing at midnight with bioluminescent plankton, climbing volcanoes at sunrise. And here I was. Questioning whether any of it made me change.