One Way Ticket: The Island
I arrived promptly at 9:30am to Serendipity Pier of Koh Ta Kiev with a pre-purchased ticket in hand. The blue, wooden long-tail boat waiting for me is typical of Southeast Asia. The boats for hire are always a bit rickety, but seemingly safe enough to get from point A to point B. The captain, a sixteen year old boy named Khmer dressed in knock-off plaid Louis Vuitton, filled the boat with daily rations from the mainland. It was an adequate supply of basics one might need for life on a deserted beach: ice blocks, drinking water and bananas. Backpacks belonging to the four travelers sitting behind me filled the remaining space. I was excluded from conversation as they made introductions in Dutch, but the roar of the engine eventually drowned out their words anyway. I plugged in my headphones with eyes closed as we rode out to sea, thinking about how little I actually knew about the upcoming anchor point.
One hour later we docked on a tiny shore off the Southwest coast of Cambodia, with a gentle giant waving us in.
"I’m Liam, and this is Talu," he said with an Australian accent, pointing to the man squatting beside him with a rasta shirt and small eyes. "Welcome to Crusoe Island."
He reached out his hand to mine as I jumped onto the sand. The scenery was tranquil as I followed suit toward base camp. We passed four beach swings, six hammocks, and plenty of tents before we stopped so that Liam could give us the routine introduction to the island.
"We have tents for $5, bungalows for $7. You’re free to roam the property and find a spot you like. If you need help setting up the tent, the boys can help you for a tip of $1," he said, motioning to a pair of Cambodian boys sweeping fallen leaves from the pathway. "My wife runs the kitchen alone so dinner orders are usually placed by 4pm. There’s one shower and one bathroom up the trail to the right and camp gets electricity from 6-9pm."
My camp along the ocean’s edge was already pitched, all I had to do was make myself settled.
Easy said – easier done.
The camp’s minimal amenities could be attributed to the fact they were only celebrating their sixth-week birthday. The daily routine of the camp was easy to pick up. After a week of calling the place home, I felt like a native to the island. I’d rise naturally around five as the sun made headway and the heat poured into my tent. Most days I would shift for another three hours atop the grains of sand covering my single mattress, drifting in and out of groggy sleep. By half past eight I was paddling out for a morning swim, the salty water giving me a jolt of energy equal to my usual morning coffee. Sometimes I’d rinse off in the tin-walled shower with a few scoops of cold water from buckets carried by hand, observing the new curves in my body caused by rice and noodle overload. But sometimes I wouldn’t and no one seemed to mind. The remainder of the morning was more often than not meant for nothing more than reading under the sun. I became professional in the afternoon activity of hammock laying, letting stories of the simple island life pour into my mind.
I cycled through this routine with different characters who came and went, some out of boredom and others out of time. I couldn’t help but judge them through Francoise’s likeminded perception of The Beach, "It would be sad to be bored of Eden, no? If you’re bored of Eden, what is left?"
Over the course of my stay I got to know my own personal Eden very well, initially curious about the property and equally curious about the staff. The island was full of people who left daily life for a business of uncertainty on a remote island. At first I was jealous. As I progressively learned more my jealousy turned into appreciation. I was happy knowing there were people in the world dedicating their lives to relaxing.
In the story of my new friend Liam, the opening chapter read similar to mine. A traveler doing some soul searching who, through a labyrinth of unplanned events, found himself far away from the planned vacation he had when he started. In chapter two of his story Liam followed tour buses throughout Laos into Cambodia on a motorcycle he purchased on the cheap. He did this until his bike broke down in Siem Reap where he met his lovely Cambodian wife, Vanna. Together they moved eleven times before settling on the island.
It all started with privately chartered overnight trips on Liam’s hand built boat. But often one night was not enough time for customers, so the pair searched for a logical space to purchase as a headquarters for their business. With the remaining money in his bank account they constructed a basic infrastructure and hired a small staff. I learned the three Cambodian boys whose daily errands keep the business up-and-running are orphans under the age of 17. Liam came them a place to stay and a means of taking care of themselves, in turn, the boys work diligently day in and day out. It’s such family-like atmosphere that holds the team together and creates a sense of community for the guests.
Foreign territory and staff also means keeping with foreign tradition during my visit to the island. On my departure day I awoke early as always, but rather than tying the edges of my bikini I zipped up my most modest dress and headed to base camp, where a pair of monks sat waiting to bless the property. Campers talked amongst themselves while the monks sipped coca-cola and smoked cigarettes. (If there’s anything I’m still struggling to understand it’s the rules and lifestyle habits of monks). Once finished with their vices, the entirety of camp was welcomed to the ritual. I bent down to my knees, placed my palms and fingers together, and greeted the monks with three bows to the ground. I observed the prayer in a trancelike state, awed to be a part of such a harmonious ritual. It only took thirty minutes to increase the morale of staff by rebuking bad spirits. As quickly as the monks arrived Liam waved them off and routine ensued.
Such experiences are vital to create a space that will eventually self-sustain. Even at its birth, Crusoe Island is already something charmingly special, but a place that takes a certain type of person to appreciate.
"When you’re stuck on an island its impossible to filter who comes in. I need to advertise that it’s rustic, for lack of a better word. Some people come in with expectations of something that we can’t provide….this is simply a place I want people to come out and enjoy themselves. My ideal customers are slightly more seasoned travelers – people who want to find interesting and unique places. I am considering making it less accessible and creating a stricter timetable. That way, people who really want to come out here have to put in conscious effort. I don’t want this place to be busy; I don’t want everybody. It will get a name for itself in time."
The valued customers are those who come and stay for a couple of weeks and become a memorable part of the island’s evolving culture. Because the people who arrive for one day and are back on shore the following morning could never leave with a true impression of the uniqueness Liam frequently talks about. Those travelers swim in the water, no different from any other beach, and eat the snacks they’ve brought over from mainland. They don’t have enough time to meet the strangers who ensure there’s an escape from the world for the rest of us always fighting to find it; they don’t give themselves the opportunity to lose sense of civilization.
Liam and I shared a similar mentality, "I don’t know what the hell the world is going to throw at me next, but this is just where it brought me. I followed my nose, took opportunities as they presented themselves, stepped out the box, my comfort zone. I’ve always liked doing things a little different to everyone else."
With that sentiment and the final grain of sand removed from my tent, I left the single mattress that produced aches and kinks in my back I never knew existed for the next group of arrivals. I was packed with no traces to connect me to the island by 8am to ensure that our ride back to shore would coincide with a prompt 9:30 departure time for the new guests waiting on Serendipity Pier. The engine was even louder than I remembered, maybe because my mind wasn’t yet ready to acclimate back to unnatural sounds. I didn’t have any headphones this time, nor did I have any inclination as to where the wind would blow me next.