Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sihanoukville's Lazy Beach

From a hammock in the bar, Stephen Phelan watches the tide rise and fall on a deserted jungle island off Sihanoukville.

This is not Cambodia, in any way you'd imagine. The island of Koh Rong Saloem has no roads or infrastructure, no native inhabitants, no history to speak of and no electricity, save for a few hours of inconstant power in the evenings, provided by two shuddering diesel generators. If Lazy Beach had a local name before a small settlement of wooden bungalows and outhouses was built on it three years ago, nobody here seems to remember.

"I think it was just called Beach Number Two," says the co-owner and operator of the site, Chris Beadles. That sounds like the kind of impersonal number the Khmer Rouge might have assigned, as they did to all the streets in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot's forces seized the capital in 1975.

But even after his regime expelled the urban population to the provinces, where millions were then worked or starved to death, this lonely, empty island sat outside the range of the genocide.

"During that whole trouble, it was pretty uneventful here," says Beadles's old friend and business partner, Rich King, who discovered this place on a weekend camping trip almost six years ago, while working at a hostel in Sihanoukville, the nearest mainland port.

We have just come from there by motorboat, a two-hour ride that felt to me more like a week-long voyage. When the Gulf of Thailand is choppy, as it is today, the boat to Lazy Beach has to anchor offshore at Sihanoukville, and new guests are obliged to swim for it. Our bags follow us in floating, watertight crates. I boldly retch my way around the Koh Rong archipelago.

Eventually, we arrive at Koh Rong Saloem, and round the headland towards Lazy Beach. The wind has died to a light breeze, the waves turn calm and clear and my heaving gives way to a low, happy hooting.

We have reached the beach of my dreams - and probably yours, too: an archetype of earthly paradise, a natural enclave of white sand and iridescent green water, sheltered by high sea cliffs and protected by a thick, dark jungle.

On a rainy day inside an office building, you might cast your mind to a distant shore like this and find yourself diving through the window. Knowing this, and having made his own escape from that kind of job in Britain, King started drawing up plans as soon as he set foot here. Despite his name, which seems a good fit for a foreign conqueror, King wasn't thinking of fortune or glory so much as making a better life for himself and sharing it with fellow travellers.

Over a tall, cold, lime-juice cocktail, offered to new arrivals as they step off the dock, King tells me the story of how he leased this land from the government, commissioned Beadles to design a discreet row of 12 beach bungalows and enlisted his Cambodian girlfriend and her family to help build and run a modest resort.

Lina Muy, who is now King's fiancee, is head chef and a better cook than even King realised - the menu in their open-air octagonal bar and restaurant is as good as anywhere in Cambodia. This is fortunate, because there is not much to do here but eat and drink and there is nowhere else to go.

At first I thought Lazy Beach was a lazy name to give the place but after a few hours it seems entirely apt, as the sea rolls in and sun rolls over and nothing continues to happen. We spend the next three days swaying half awake in hammocks, floating belly-up in the water, or curling into cushioned bamboo chairs and sofas with books and snacks and fresh fruit shakes.

The bungalows are better appointed than the more basic equivalents on other Cambodian islands - and at $US30 ($36) a room, a lot pricier - although we are required to share our bathroom with a family of large, colourful and immovable geckos, whom we welcome as benign reminders of the jungle outside.

King has told us the island's rainforest is impenetrable, except for one short path that leads from this beach to an even quieter stretch of coastline on the opposite side of the island.

The other beach has a local title - Ao Yai - but is also known as Saracen Bay, for a British ship that once sailed into it. When we get there it is utterly deserted; the sand is so blindingly white it takes a while to discover the small naval station at the far end.

The entire island belongs to the Cambodian navy but during the past decade of relative peace and stability the cash-strapped government has sold or rented its land to every kind of developer. King calls them "speculators", in reference to various groups with their sights set on this archipelago, which some are already advertising as "the next Asian Riviera".

King doesn't think of himself in the same class and has no plans to expand his property beyond two or three more bungalows. "We could stick a skyscraper on it if we wanted," he says, "but then why would people come here? On this island, less is definitely more."

The economic development of Cambodia is at least a decade behind its wealthier neighbours, which makes it cheaper than Thailand or Vietnam and much more attractive to tourists on a budget, who in turn act as vanguards for wealthier travellers.

On Lazy Beach we have paid a little extra and travelled a little further to avoid the crowds, which only makes us a part of the process of development. And if this is heaven on Earth, it is also a sealed and soporific bubble of tropical atmosphere, with only Muy's local dishes to remind us which country we're in.

In order to relax about this, I find it helpful to think of the island as a safe and well-catered lost world. I am happiest on Koh Rong Saloem when I feel like some kind of time traveller.

A sudden thunderstorm breaks over my head while I'm wading at dawn and the rain is so heavy that the dock, the bungalows and then the beach seem to disappear.

A few hours earlier, when the sea was still black, we floated face-down amid blue phosphorescent algae, which looked like little galaxies being born. And every night of our stay, at about dinner time in the bar, the generator fails for at least a few seconds, cutting the music and lights, filling the silence with waves and jungle noises, sending us back to primordial darkness with cocktails in our hands.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Malaysia Airlines flies to Phnom Penh for about $980, nonstop to Kuala Lumpur (8hr), then to Phnom Penh (2hr). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days, which can be obtained at the airport upon arrival for $US20 ($24) and two photos. From Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, is a six-hour bus ride, about $US10 one way.

Staying there Bungalows at Lazy Beach cost $US30 a night; see lazybeachcambodia.com. On arrival in Sihanoukville, Ang Muy at the bungalows' booking office will direct you to the boat for Lazy Beach, which costs $US10 a person each way.

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