I have found Paradise. In Paradise toilets don’t flush, showers are a bucket of cold water, electricity only flows for a few hours a day and when I arrived in Paradise my bedroom only had two walls. By the time I went to sleep there were four, like the felt shoes miraculously left by the elves.
Paradise is an island called Koh Rong and lies a three hour boat journey from the bawdy tourism of Sihanoukville, Cambodia. A ribbon of white sand wraps its way around the jungle island, a present for those lucky enough to open it, sugar soft and squeaky underfoot. The lush, leafy jungle provides shade from the midday bake and the sea is a sun-bleached aquamarine, blending hopelessly into the azure and cloudless sky.
Rustic shack-esque bungalows line the beach and perch in the treetops and if, like my party and I, you don’t book ahead, there are one or two ‘guest houses’, walls optional. A tiny “village” teams with perennially happy Cambodian children who fling themselves into hugs around your knees with joyful abandon and a small shop sells cheap cigarettes.
There are a few places to eat and freshly caught fish-of-the-day costs a mere $3, whilst a can of beer sets you back $1. It is pleasant to sit out in mellowing light, sucking on beer and dining on fish that flakes at the faintest nudge of a chopstick.
Koh Rong provides an escape in the truest sense of the word; a holiday from a holiday or so to speak. You don’t need or want to do anything other than stare in awe at the sheer perfection of it, read your book on the beach, swing in the hammocks, float about in the warm ocean, take part in the daily beach volley ball match or try your hand at diving and snorkelling if you want to up the anté. The hours of blissful relaxation melt into to night without much preamble.
At my most whimsical I found myself lying on the wooden slats of the pier with the group of friends I went with, staring at the blanket of stars winking down at me, just trying to get a grip on how lucky I was. A spell slightly broken when I got whacked in the face by fish-bait, much to the hilarity of the local fishermen.
In the evening the cheap beer, card games, good tunes and excellent company draws the few island guests to Monkey Island bar, where arguably, the best food on the island is served. One of the barmen twirls fire poi on the beach; limbs mingling with flames against the black night. A bit of shisha and fireside heart-to-hearts may follow, until you crawl under your mosquito net and awake in heaven all over again the next day.
Siem Reap and the glorious temples of Angkor beckoned and so it was with a heavy heart that I left Koh Rong but I’ll venture back on my memories whenever I need to remind myself that Paradise does exist and its nestling alone in an endless ocean, just waiting.