"I've done some fucking stupid things in my life, but this has got to be the worst", mutters my beloved dad through gritted teeth. The waves kick up over the side of the tiny boat, its engine chugging out black smoke in an asthmatic effort to get through the storm and around the headland to the other side of the island. Rain streams down my father's face. I remember he's not a strong swimmer.
There's water everywhere. Our bags, including cameras, hard drives and everything we love, sit hopelessly under a thin layer of plastic on the open deck. Lori crouches behind me, arms wrapped tightly around a shivering Olivia, who has disappeared into a soggy beach towel for shelter. River looks up from his sling, eyes huge and innocent, like that cat from Shrek. My mum and mother-in-law hug us from both sides, trying to keep the baby warm. His feet are starting to go blue. I look at my family and try not to cry. Apart from “please don’t let us die”, there’s one thought on my mind – my God, they actually think this is how we travel. They think this is normal.
Let's get one thing straight. It's not. We may be adventurous, we may be strong, but we don't put our kids in danger, or our innocently holidaying parents for that matter. This is far, far from normal. We’d only hired the little private boat to make things easier, to make the return trip more comfortable. The storm wasn’t part of the plan.
Half an hour later, however, the rain has passed. We're on the other side. The beach is a stretch of blinding white sand. There's an absolute feast of a Turkish grill. We splash around in the most beautiful water we've ever seen. It’s like nothing happened. Was that journey fun? Nope. Would we do it again? Probably not. But was it worth the terror? Just about. Because where we'd come from was pretty special. And to find special these days, you've got to put some effort in.
Personally, we blame DiCaprio. Ever since Leonardo himself went running out onto The Beach, map clutched in victorious hand, those perfect little patches of paradise have sold out quicker than you can say booking.com. But we were determined not to spend our year of summer without a proper desert island, and our research led us here, to the small Cambodian island of Koh Rong Samloem.
Now, if you’re heading this way, it’s important to get your Rongs right. On the mainland, there’s the plastic pool of pollution that is Sihanoukville. From there, you can take a boat to Koh Rong, a party island full of beats and bikini shops and the opposite of what we wanted. Stick around ’til the next stop, however, and you’ll find yourself on Koh Rong Samloem, which has very little. Which is exactly what we were after.
There are two sides to the island, one accessible by ferry and one very much not. As we'd been warned that the accessible side was commercial and built-up, we opted for the tranquil sounding Sunset Beach, which sits on the opposite coast, just above Lazy Beach. We had friends who'd stayed on the latter, who spoke fondly about the “lovely walk through the beautiful forest with little animals." It sounded like a scene from a Disney movie, so we booked into a place on Sunset Beach and off we went. Well, it turns out that the two beaches have slightly different walks. And ours came with mosquitoes, 'beware of snakes' signs, ropes to help us climb up near-vertical rocks and sweat coming out of our eyelids. Olivia, the notoriously reluctant walker, decided to see the whole assault course as a giant playground and handled it like a pro. River got lucky in the sling. The rest of us, carrying the bags and the baby, nearly cried.
But then we were there. The remote side of Koh Rong Samloem isn't the kind of place you can hop in and out of. You can’t pop out for groceries. We were there for four days, and there we firmly stayed.
We were staying at Robinsons, a low-key cluster of bell tents and bungalows set along a wild beach. Run by a Swiss guy called Sebastian and a flux team of friendly volunteers, there is a restaurant, serving a menu with the unexpected comforts of rösti and fondue after a week of the Khmer cuisine that has proved hard to love. There are hammocks to laze in, bean bags to crash on, and low tables to inflict phonics on a five year old, if the urge takes you. There's a happy hour from 4-7, which technically is a few hours, and they really are very happy, as we spend them watching the sky swing from cerulean to teal to salmon to flame. There's a book exchange. There’s good breakfast. And, critically, there’s a hand-painted sign that says 'Free no wifi zone’. Because above all else, this place is a real, rare chance to switch off.
Our accommodation is exactly as promised. Our parents are in bungalows. They might be basic wooden structures but they do have cold showers and they do have toilets. We are particularly grateful for this because we, clearly not having learned any lessons whatsoever from the Great Vietnamese Night Bus Debacle, have allowed Olivia to choose what we’ll be sleeping in. And that, of course, is a tent. Lori, known in our house for the catchphrase “camping sucks”, coined during a leaky-tent-altitude-sickness-broken-by-trekking kind of a night in the Peruvian Andes. But while he may not exactly embrace life under canvas, this tent comes with decent space and a proper mattress and the kind of view that makes anything forgivable.
It's rustic, yes. But the luxury lies elsewhere.
Though we’ve been travelling for months on end, far from the familiarity of our everyday London lives, it’s not often that you can really be in the moment and cut contact with the wider world. On Koh Rong Samloem, there is no internet. It doesn't matter how much you want to Google something, you just can't. In a way, it’s sad that we have to be forced to switch off, but here we are, and we're delighted. Our phones lie untouched in our luggage, batteries on full.
We talk rather than type. We build sandcastles, take walks and get bored, which I mean as a good thing. We fall asleep to the sound of lapping waves and wake up to the sight of sand hitting sea hitting sky. We take golden hour naps in armchairs on porches, watch sunsets from balconies and terraces and tent zips. On the last night, we finally find the bioluminescent plankton Lori had been promising Olivia for the whole trip. It was magical to hear our daughter, splashing around in the pitch black with her dad and nanna, whooping with wonder as she moved her limbs and discovered the thousands of tiny organisms lighting up around her. She might not have got a kids’ club, but she got a sky full of stars and a sea full of glitter. And if that's not luxury, we don't know what is.
Koh Rong Samloem gave us what we'd failed to find in Thailand or Sri Lanka. It gave us that thrill of discovery, of DiCaprio euphoria, of climbing our way well and truly off the beaten path. But that feeling comes with the nagging hunch that it can't stay like this for long. The resorts and the rubbish will be here soon enough.
So now’s your chance.
Do go prepared.
Don't get on the boat if it's raining.
Don't forget the bug spray.
Don't expect room service, email, or 'a lovely walk'.
But do, before it's too late, do go.
Sunset Beach, Koh Rong Samloem, Cambodia