Koh Rong

For the past ten days I’ve been living on a pier on the island of Koh Rong off the coast of Cambodia. The group of 14 of us stayed in a dorm room that opened into a common room without walls on two sides. This is where we enjoyed our varied meals of toast and watermelon for breakfast and rice with vegetable for lunch and dinner. Vegetables were either morning glory, pumpkin, or carrots and potato. Twice we got some little bits of pork. The bathrooms, one room over from that, were squat toilets that emptied directly into the lapping waves below the pier. There were cold showers there, if you were lucky to get to the water before it ran out and had to be replenished. At 6:00 PM each day the generator would turn on, at which point we could charge electronics on a strip or enjoy lights until about 9:30, when the generator was turned off and all went to bed. It was a meager living.

In addition to the weather problems, the group was afflicted by a virus that quickly worked its way through all but three of us. I was lucky enough to avoid its clutches, but the others were gripped with 24 hour bouts of diarrhea and vomiting. Rats and ants were also a constant nuisance. Some would wake up in the morning with dozens of ant bites and the rat even bit a trip leader’s finger one night. It was subsequently trapped and drowned. Two in the group actually decided to leave the island six days early to start independent travel time because they were so miserable (it wasn’t that bad).

The pier is owned by the dive shop, the scuba center we were PADI trained through for the first three days. A boat arrived from the mainland each day at 10:30 and 4:00, bringing with it a fresh bunch of tourists to stay at the local bungalows as well as food for the village. When the boat couldn’t reach the island due to inclement weather, the fresh fruit supply ran out. This happened multiple times because it rained essentially nonstop for the first five or so days. Keep in mind that the open nature of the dive shop meant that rain blew right in, soaking all huddled within. We did our shallow water dives right off the beach (probably submerged in our own excrement), and weathered the turbulent seas and pouring rain to do our open water dives in underwater visibility that, on one day, was a mere 30 cm. The most we caught sight of on a dive was a few murky fish.

Despite these somewhat trying conditions, our work on Koh Rong has definitely been the seminal experience of the trip. We stayed right off the shore of a small village of 170 or so Cambodians. At first glance an old and isolated village of fishermen, the village was in fact only established in 1992. I conducted interviews with a variety of island figures, from the founder of the dive shop and Paradise Bungalows to the corrupt village mayor, to try and figure out exactly how things work there. Lets just say that the largest corporation in Cambodia has big development plans for this island, and the village doesn’t stand a chance. They aren’t fishermen either; most make money through the few local resorts, cleaning Sihanoukville nets, or illegally logging he island’s interior. I hope to write an article about this odd situation when I get home.

The people are incredibly kind regardless, and in our ten days I felt truly connected to the villagers. One night we made a bonfire and sat out drinking homemade rice whisky with the local policeman, another time I was led by a lone woman up the hill to a religious shrine, a group of gambling men (they gamble and get drunk every day, for most of the day) tried to teach me the card game they play every day, a group of net cleaners accepted me and tried to teach me khmer words for crab, fish, etc.. and of course the children are all a joy. We taught English everyday at 2:00, and the children all arrive half an hour early in their excitement to learn, play games, and spend time with us (they called us “”teacher”, I’m Teacher Chris). They all only have one set of clothes, if that, and many had lice problems, but they were full of energy and were always excited to high five, piggy-back ride, or just hold hands. They and the rest of the villagers came to accept my camera, and they loved to take pictures and then see themselves on the camera’s LCD.

We decided to hire a group of locals to help on the toilets, so that the villagers would feel some ownership of the project and could continue once we were gone. Cambodian work ethic is not at all like the western work day, and we’d constantly have to search them out to get them back on the job. We couldn’t all help at once so most of us collected garbage from the beach and got the incinerator going. The villagers don’t have any concept of trash, and it’s absolutely everywhere. For example, some kids showed up to help pick up trash, and we had to teach them to pick up plastic and not coconuts and leaves as well. The Dive Shop built them the incinerator but it doesn’t get used; instead the trash just piles up around it. We burned almost all of that, a practice that engendered some disagreement amongst us. Is it really better to burn plastic and be breathing those fumes?

While there was a lot of work to be done, the second half of our time there was very sunny. We walked one day an hour across the island to get to a deserted white sand beach. Other times we would go to eat at one of the local resorts, a welcome break from the monotonous rice at the Dive Shop. A little store in town stocked a variety of little sweets we could enjoy, and Pringles were eaten en masse. Yesterday we tried to do a reef cleanup, but after gearing up, boating out for 30 minutes, and getting 6 meters down, one of the leaders decided he couldn’t equalize and the whole cleanup had to be called off. It was quite frustrating.

I know this entry is dragging on and on, and I still don’t feel like I’ve covered even half of what being here was like. Pictures would probably help, and I promise to get some up when I get back home. Today begins Independent Travel Time, our first stop is a few days in Siem Reap after a night bus tonight. And then Thailand perhaps?

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8 thoughts on “Koh Rong

  1. Wow, Chris – this is great info. You’re right, the pictures will help, but you’re giving us a strong, vivid depiction. What is the relationship between the US govt and Cambodia right now? I’m wondering, because I’m wondering if any US federal dollars go to NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) to help there with sanitation. My nephew Dan is with the State Dept., and he’s heading over to Thailand after labor day for a few months to check out the NGO’s there.
    You mentioned writing an article when you get back; if you don’t mind a tiny bit of advice from a journalism teacher, here it is: first, I strongly recommend trying to get interviews with even more people – you mentioned the corporation(s) – if anyone from there was willing to talk with you, someone on site now? — you’d probably get a completely different perspective. Good to get all sides, regardless of how corrupt. 🙂 And any kind of documents you can get pictures of (readable ones) will help with your accuracy. Of course, be careful.
    Also, if you find any time at all, I’d not wait till I was back home before beginning to write the article – you’ll remember more vivid details now, and you can go look (or search your recent memory). The info about the rats, etc., even if not specifically about the displacement of the villagers, is great scene-setting. No matter how many notes you take to remind you, nothing beats being there. And are you able to get any audio recording of ambient sounds and interviews, even if a different language? And is there an interpreter there? If you can get audio, it would help make for a great radio or Internet news feature.
    Sorry! I’m getting back into teacher mode after a too short summer, and my teacher of journalism hat is fitting a bit too tightly. 🙂 You’re clearly having a great experience.

    • I really appreciate your help on this, and I’ll definitely consult you when I get back. Unfortunately I already left the island, but I did grab interviews with about 5 people total. That includes the local English teacher, one of the men we hired, the mayor, the manager of the dive shop, and the owner of one of the bungalow resorts. I did have a translator, but he wasn’t very helpful and more often than not tried to answer questions himself rather than forward them on. As for getting to speak with the corporation, I don’t think that will go very well. I have a copy of a Cambodian newspaper article that told the local story and has scans of relevant documents. Now I just need to figure out how to translate it… Anyway, after it came out there were some protests against the company, so I doubt they’ll be forthcoming about more information. Also, I really don’t know anything about the US-Cambodian relations as far as NGOs are concerned. I know they strongly support clearing the landmines here.

  2. Sorry – one more thing: think about the angle of an article – it always has to have a particular focus (I don’t mean a leaning or bias, I just mean a focus) – if you can think of an angle – what you want to focus on, then there may be additional questions you’ll realize you want to ask. — Man, somebody stop me…..

  3. This is quite an amazing set of experiences; good and so so good and life altering. Assume you did end up getting PADI certified? Were any of the sick folks able to benefit from your antibiotics? Sounds like you were quite lucky. Yes, this sounds like good material for an article or two… Janet has good advice. So…teacher Chris…all the best at Angkor Wat.
    Love you and so proud of what you’re doing.

  4. I’m actually speechless after reading all this! There will be so much to write and tell upon your return to US soil. Hope you are keeping copious notes.

    Stay safe.
    Much Love,
    Grandma

  5. WEIGL YOURE KILLIN IT! killer. do your thang, i cant wait to hear all about it when u get back!
    p.s. killing in this context is a good thing…
    p.p.s put up some pics already!

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