Type
Essay
Category
Cambodia
Television

That bird is for us

I looked now upon the world as a thing remote, which I had nothing to do with, no expectation from, and indeed no desires about – Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

 

An island is never only an island. I know this from Peter Pan and Jurassic Park and offshore refugee detention centres and Eileen Myles and Dolly Parton. Islands in the stream, that is what we are …

 

I read in the Cambodia Daily that Survivor has wrapped up filming on Koh Rong, in the Gulf of Thailand, so I go to see for myself. It’s July, the wet season; by midday the sky is a silvery purple that deepens until it bursts in the late afternoon. I picture a barely inhabited oasis, rugged and poised, the kind of island I mentally synthesise when in bed watching Survivor, but with the remnants of a major US game show – discarded fibreglass reproductions of Angkor devas, a neat circle of attractive stones around a pile of ash.

By the time I get to Koh Rong I‘m unsteady from a bout of gastro. I climb out of the ferry and, along with twenty or so other tourists, start off down the jetty. Ahead of us is a simple hem of coastline, busy with backpackers kicking soccer balls outside timber-hut bars pumping American radio rock.

 

On Survivor, an island is never only an island, primarily because it’s also a production set. The show’s contestants – its cast – don’t apply to go to an island because they want to visit an island. Some might be looking to escape the arrangements of their lives – almost certainly a number are chosen for that fact – but the island itself is not a destination founded by escape. The island is a stand-in for the stage on which they must give the performance that will hopefully grant them money, or fame, or both. The island is mise en scène.

I am looking for the thing that is not quite the island.

 

Need I explain the premise of Survivor? A group of contestants travels to a tropical island where each person competes in physical challenges and social gameplay in order to win a million dollars. One by one, the contestants are voted off by their competitors, who scheme and lie and uncover secret advantages laid out around the island by the show’s producers. A retro-colonial-meets-late-capitalist fantasy. ‘Human chess,’ the show’s tanned host and executive producer, Jeff Probst, once called it.

I have, for better or worse, watched a lot of Survivor.

 

The thirty-second season of the US version was titled Survivor: Kaôh Rōng (a rarely used Romanisation of the island’s Khmer name) and was the first of two seasons to be filmed in Cambodia in 2015. In the opening episode, the island is first shown in the distance, a shot from above thin clouds introducing it as an indefinite mass of foliage, bleeding white into the sea. Neverland spotted from the first star to the right. Next come shots that recur in transition sequences throughout the season: a tall, fast-flowing waterfall; a close-up of a screeching monkey; sun glare filtered by cloud, filmed from the ground – the subjective viewpoint, the Hitchcock shot. Probst and the contestants approach the island on a wooden cabin cruiser. Probst, in voiceover, describes Koh Rong as a ‘beautiful but formidable part of the world’ where ‘scorching temperatures and stifling humidity punish the body’.

 

An obscured island can be beautiful and formidable, but it’s hardly part of the world, or at least the physical world.

 

Or maybe Joan Didion: I had better tell you where I am, and why. I came to Phnom Penh to see an ex-boyfriend who is researching for a doctoral thesis. My actual boyfriend is in Europe for an academic conference, though by now he’s on a post-conference holiday in Sardinia with friends. I video call him in the living room of my ex’s one-bedroom apartment. ‘Obviously this way of communicating how we feel is pretty fraught,’ my boyfriend says, his face shifting in freeze-frame, ‘and there is a bigger conversation to be had.’

When my ex comes into the living room, I look up from my book. ‘Boyfriends are evil,’ I say. He shakes out a crumpled shirt that has been hanging from the window security bars. ‘Have you thought about whether you’ll go to the coast?’

 

Or maybe this: in 2013, a contestant and a doctor working on the French production of Survivor died on Koh Rong. The contestant was a twenty-five-year-old man who died of a heart attack after competing in a tug of war. French journalists questioned whether the production’s medical staff was negligent. The show’s staff doctor committed suicide ten days after the contestant’s death, leaving a note saying he had honoured the Hippocratic oath and that his name had been ‘smeared in the media’.

Reading this story, I wonder what it is to feel the edges of your life disintegrate from afar. What was the island to the doctor? Was it a bobbing bucket in a deep well, or a comatose patient, able to hear faint and fateful discussions of life-support machines and dosages, but unable to speak? I book a bus ticket to Sihanoukville and stay for three nights on Otres Beach, before catching the boat to Koh Rong.

The article I read in the Cambodia Daily describes a wrap party attended by the Survivor production crew and Cambodian government officials, including Hun Manet, son of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The ‘champagne toast’ took place at the headquarters of the Council for the Development of Cambodia, established in 1994 by the state’s joint rulers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, the latter having served as a Khmer Rouge commander before rising through the ranks of the Cambodian People’s Party. The council was formed to encourage private investment in Cambodia as the country opened its economic borders and slowly courted tourists. Survivor productions from France, Sweden, Denmark and Bulgaria were filmed on Koh Rong prior to the American circus rolling in.

 

The article quotes Survivor’s co-executive producer Jesse Jensen, who thanked Manet for setting up a security task force and for ‘helping to sort out some land problems’. Exactly what these problems were isn’t explained. In an earlier piece in the Daily, the governor of Sihanoukville province, which encompasses Koh Rong, said the production team was taking a long time to prepare for filming because ‘they have rented out houses of local villagers’ and needed ‘to cover them up to make the jungle look untouched’, as well as ‘decorating in the forest and along the sea.’

I picture an island dressed up to look more like an island. It’s Treasure Island. It’s Six Days, Seven Nights.

 

*

 

I wake at dawn to the sound of vomiting coming from the bungalow next to mine. I have barely slept in any case, the music from the bars having easily penetrated the latticework above my door. I sip bottled water on the bungalow stairs. I vomit a little. Not too much.

Over a breakfast of sticky rice, I look at a map I’ve picked up from the reception hut, an open deck that also operates as a bar and a retailer of tie-dyed sarongs and insect repellent. Koh Rong is seventy-eight square kilometres, with forty-three kilometres of beach, far larger than I anticipated. To its southeast, emerging from the corner of the map, is Koh Rong’s sister island, Koh Rong Sanloem.

The map shows the small stretch of Koh Tui village, its row of bungalow resorts intersected by two small creeks running out from the forest behind. Alongside the Dream Catch Inn is a path with an arrow pointing towards Long Beach. In a side column is a photo of Long Beach, an unpopulated and endless beach of white sand and turquoise sea. ‘Paradise,’ the brochure calls it. If Survivor was filmed somewhere on this immense island, then surely paradise is my best bet.

On the shore of Tui Beach are toned beauties lazing on the sand with T-shirts covering their faces; stray mongrels loll at the eves, ignoring the bodies in favour of the shade of casuarinas. Near the jetty where the ferry dropped me off, between sandwich boards advertising ‘happy cookies’ and health smoothies, a group of Khmer men straddle precarious-looking bamboo scaffolding to build another bar or reception hut.

Just past the Dream Catch Inn, part way up the path to the forest, the mood changes. The tourists are out of sight, and the path is lined by village huts. Through an open doorway made from a hung tarpaulin, a group of women laugh and talk. The backsides of the bungalows, visible past the houses, reveals bare dirt and rubbish, slabs of beer and soft drinks, plastic buckets catching runoff. The reality behind the party.

The path is not so much a path as a suggested staircase of escalating rocks and tree roots. At the top, at the cusp of the forest, two thin trails split away into the trees in opposite directions. I head down the wider trail, ducking branches and climbing over rocks, until the island is reduced to the quiet unknown of what’s ahead of me, and I turn back.

 

*

 

The significance of each of Survivor’s filming locations has diminished as the show has become more concerned with its own mythos than with the outside world. The American series first aired in the year 2000. In its initial seasons, locations in Africa, Australia, South America and the Pacific were promoted as offering distinct conditions for contestants to endure. When the show passed its twentieth season in 2010, the configuration of the cast became a more important feature. Former contestants returned, or family members were pitted against each other, or the cast was arranged into social groups such as ‘white collar’ versus ‘blue collar’, or ‘brains’ and ‘brawn’ versus ‘beauty’.

Though it wasn’t the first season to do so, Survivor: Kaôh Rōng divided its contestants into the latter categories. It might have also been the final season of Survivor to include its location in the season’s title: the subsequent season was titled Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, the one after that Survivor: Game Changers, then Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. Each of those seasons was filmed on the Mamanuca Islands of Fiji. Probst told Entertainment Weekly that he wanted the show permanently filmed in Fiji, where there are ‘beaches that are amazing, a government that is working with us, local labour that loves to say “Bula!” every day because they are just happy you are here.’ This came a year after another Entertainment Weekly interview in promotion of Survivor: Kaôh Rōng in which Probst said, ‘This is the most frightened I’ve been in all my time on Survivor.’

Probst might have been beating up a story, but more contestants were evacuated for medical reasons from Koh Rong – three out of eighteen contestants – than from any other location in Survivor’s previous sixteen years.

The first medical evacuation for the season, and by far the most dramatic, occurs in the fourth episode. The contestants are challenged to complete an obstacle course that requires them to jump and weave a series of beams, then dig plastic balls out of sandpits, and finally roll the balls up a freestanding wooden lane to a pattern of holes, like an extreme version of skee-ball.

By Survivor standards, the contestants take a long time to complete the course. The balls are hidden deep in the sandpits and are spread apart. Forty-five minutes pass in a scene fade, then an hour. The show’s soundtrack chimes like an old western heralding a sundown shootout. A Hitchcock shot of sun glare, a flit through Hollywood’s cerebral archive of peril. Probst watches on from the sidelines. ‘Absolute exhaustion,’ he narrates in real time as the contestants, skinny from little food and burnt from exposure, continue to fossick in the sand.

Before everyone can finish the course, a forty-nine-year-old chemist named Debbie collapses. An aerial shot shows Koh Rong obscured by cloud, the island of Dr Moreau. Probst calls in the show’s medical team, who monitor Debbie’s heart rate and cool her off by pouring bottled water on her forehead. But then Caleb, a twenty-eight-year-old army veteran, also collapses. Then Cydney, a twenty-three-year-old body builder, goes down. Though what airs on television is an edit of events, it’s evident the situation is more serious than Survivor’s production usually allows. The camerawork is shaky. Probst shouts for all staff and personnel to get on set to help the three contestants, who are shivering, eyes closed, now surrounded by women and men in headsets clutching umbrellas to shield them from the sun.

Debbie and Cydney are ‘stabilised’, but Caleb’s temperature continues to rise and he won’t come around. The other contestants cry as the doctor injects Caleb with cold saline solution, crewmembers holding his feet in the air and pouring ice over his chest. ‘All right,’ Probst yells to someone off-screen, ‘we are going to have an evacuation. Call for the chopper.’

 

In an early episode of the season, Tai, a fifty-one-year-old gardener, tells his fellow contestants that as a child he was a refugee of the Vietnam War. He and his family had travelled by boat to Cambodia and lived in a camp for a year before being resettled in America. Segments of those first episodes focus on the developing bond between Tai, spectacled and inquisitive, and Caleb, butch, corn fed and agreeable. In one scene, Tai describes how he cuddles with Caleb at night to keep warm. Tai says to Caleb, ‘You are cuddle-icious.’ Caleb says: ‘Yeah man, you can hold me to keep warm. There is no such thing as homophobe in this guy right here.’ Tai shows Caleb how to kill a chicken. Caleb holds a piece of fish in his teeth and Tai leans in to bite it. Tai says, ‘I was going for the kiss.’

When Caleb is semi-conscious, an oxygen mask strapped to his face, the camera lingers on Tai, who looks on and sobs. Probst joins Tai and other contestants away from Caleb to explain that a helicopter is going to land and take Caleb to hospital. Probst gestures to the approaching chopper in the sky: ‘That bird is for us.’ As crewmembers carry Caleb to the chopper on a stretcher, Tai grabs Caleb’s hand and lets it drop away. It’s a train-departure farewell, a drowning goodbye. ‘I will hold him in my heart for a long time,’ Tai says to the camera, knowing that the island doesn’t really exist.

 

*

 

Koh Rong doesn’t feature in any of the Cambodian history books I have read. It’s nearing three years since I visited the island and I am trying to tie the imagined place to Koh Rong’s past, to somehow tether the metaphysical to the historical, but there are no documented accounts of inhabitation or occupation. Even the origin of the island’s name is disputed: the confusion is cited on online booking pages for bungalow resorts and scuba operators. Koh is Khmer for ‘island’ and begins each named form of Cambodia’s archipelago: Koh Tang, Koh Thmei, Koh Wai, known also by its Malay name, Poulo Wai. Rong might be an older variation of roung, translating to ‘cave’, or it might be a family name. A blog dedicated to the islands of Sihanoukville province lays out the situation like this: ‘Comprehensive, verified information is hard to come by.’ Holes and inconsistencies trail through the histories of a nation whose borders shifted wildly through the rise and fall of empires, through civil wars with barely traceable starts and ends, and whose intellectual networks were all but disappeared by the Khmer Rouge.

In 2008, Koh Rong found its way into Cambodian newspapers when it joined a growing list of islands leased out by the government to private and commercial interests. The Royal Group, a development and investment conglomerate chaired by Kith Meng, one of the wealthiest men in Cambodia, was granted a ninety-nine-year lease on Koh Rong. The size of the leased area varied between reports, ranging from a third to two-thirds of the island. The Royal Group set out plans to build a sprawling five-star resort overlooking Long Beach, with its sights set on a seaport, airport, casino and golf course, as well as infrastructure for water treatment and electricity.

The global financial crisis stalled the development, as did disputes over land titles with some of the island’s 2500 villagers. A number of residents held titles to land they had purchased, some did not. As the Royal Group broke ground on its resort, villagers living within the conglomerate’s concession reported being threatened with eviction by Royal Group representatives and provincial police.

A friend working as a journalist in Phnom Penh tells me of a project, begun in 2008 and overseen by Toll Royal Railway, a partnership between the Royal Group and the Australian-based Toll Group, to overhaul Cambodia’s rail network. The project received funding from the Australian government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Under the eye of Toll Royal Railway, families living along the rail lines were evicted from their homes with no or inadequate compensation. Thousands, my friend says. On Koh Rong, he says, ‘it’s a safe bet the leases were followed by the eviction of at least some of the archipelago’s long-term inhabitants.’

An online brief on the construction of the resort displays a picture of an excavator on a cleared plot of land, crystalline waters skirting the shore. Photos to promote the completed resort depict an open-plan villa framed by palm trees, a galaxy of stars overhead. Others show an inviting view of water from behind a platform bed dressed in earth-toned linens, and an under-lit staircase leading to a lavender sunset.

I’m on my third inspection of these photos when I notice that some of them are digital compositions, collages of trees and skies taken from other images, a response to the directive imagine an island, any island you like …

 

A month after Survivor completed filming on Koh Rong, journalists from the Cambodia Daily visited the island to see how the production had effected life for the residents. The journalists identified Sok San village, west of Koh Tui village, as the base camp for the American production. It’s telling that to establish their story, the reporters began by asking Sok San villagers how long anyone had lived there. Villagers told them the bay was settled sometime after the civil war of the 1970s; those interviewed arrived in the early 1990s. The village chief, Ear Song Kheang, said foreigners arrived in 2006. ‘With no bungalows or restaurants, they slept on my jetty,’ he explained.

In 2011, the French production of Survivor arrived, building bungalows to house its crew. The American production expanded the bungalow count, adding over 100 new rooms to the existing fifty-four, according to the manager of what became the Sok San Beach Resort upon the crew’s departure. According to the manager, 380 Cambodians were employed to work on the set. The population of the village stood at 360, meaning a significant number of locals were employed. Villagers went back to fishing or farming once their brush with US television and higher wages was over, or they took jobs at the resort.

Around the same time, articles proliferated about Koh Rong’s inevitable transformation into a tourist attraction, one to rival Thailand’s Koh Samui across the gulf. Get in now, they exclaimed, before everyone else!

 

*

 

I scan online tourist accounts of Koh Rong while sitting in the restaurant of a small resort on Otres Beach. The resort is owned and run by a Khmer woman and her German husband, who visited the coast on holiday years ago and decided to stick around. My attraction to the resort is its distance from Sihanoukville’s central hive of casinos and nightclubs. Most of the guests are singles or couples in their thirties and forties, reading books on deckchairs or staring blankly at the lapping seawater. There isn’t much else to do. A crown of trees – Koh Tres – rests on the horizon.

On my second day, the German asks if I want to join him and a few other guests for an outing around the bay. We putt out in a dinghy past a number of tiny landforms, some with extravagant houses peeking out from dense jungle. These hideouts have been sold off to private owners, mainly Russians and Chinese, the German tells us. We stop in deep, choppy water and dive in, and again on the way back, in the shallows near one of the islands. A few of us swim to shore and wander up a dirt path to a construction site, where the cement shell of a building looks over an in-ground pool decorated with patterned porcelain tiles, beyond the pool’s edge an uninterrupted vista of the sea. The German calls us back. We should be careful not to linger, he says on our return. Police patrol the waters, keeping watch over investments.

I spend the night on the bathroom floor in my bungalow, my body convulsing at half-hour intervals. When I surface two days later, having extended my stay with a rushed visit to reception, the German sits with me in the restaurant and orders me a vegetable broth.

‘It could have been the water from the shower, or maybe the ocean water,’ he says. ‘See out there?’ He points to the sea, southeast of the horizon. ‘That’s where the fuel ports are. The ships dock and pump fuel to the mainland. Sometimes you can tell if there has been a leak. The whole ocean has a shine to it. It sparkles.’

 

In Phnom Penh, I try to explain to my ex what has led me to Cambodia, but he smiles and waves a hand. ‘The best thing to do is not worry about any of it for now,’ he says. ‘Wait until you’re back in Melbourne.’

An island is a future that has been cut off and set adrift, an old intimacy with all crossings closed. An island is a conversation about needing to have a conversation about what you want from a relationship. An island is saying but we should talk properly soon over and over and over until someone gets up and leaves the country.

An island is weeks in bed. It’s a trip to your doctor to be told that if you keep up this kind of drinking, mate, you’ll make yourself very sick. Maybe an island is taking yourself to an island.

An island is all of these things; an island is none of them.

 

I am looking for the thing that is not quite the island, but which is similar to what the island once was, to what it has been. If Koh Rong’s inhabitants arrived after the civil war, later to become production crewmembers and resort workers, then what before? Cambodian life has historically been concentrated inland, thanks to the Mekong River’s pivoting towards Vietnam in the country’s central southeast, and the Tonlé Sap Lake providing means for fishing and agriculture in the central north. The earliest mentions of the south coast in official records appear in 1955 when Prince Norodom Sihanouk, having come to power in a corrupt election following Cambodia’s independence from France, used foreign aid to build a modern port at Kompong Som, later renamed Sihanoukville. French Indochina had also dissolved and so alternative trade routes were sought away from the Mekong River, which was controlled by Vietnam. One account suggests that Kompong Som and its surrounding coast were inhabited sparsely by fishing communities before the port was established.

The port itself has had an eventful existence, used to transport weapons and supplies to both American and North Vietnamese troops in the Vietnam War, and as an entry point for international aid during the Khmer Rouge years, in efforts to support the regime and to replenish the country’s hugely diminished food stores. The port’s nearest island, the province’s largest, is nowhere to be found in these stories. A search for Koh Rong brings travel tales from recent years: beach walks and beachside dinners in spare company, diaries expressing gratitude for untouched places that allow us to look into them and see ourselves beyond the world, to look out and see the world from beyond itself.

Then a light in a dark forest, or the other way around: in one travel article, a Khmer taxi driver suggests that, before the civil war, Koh Rong was unpopulated, used for leisure by those on the country’s coastline: ‘It was all wild. But that all ended with the Khmer Rouge. They took the islands and nobody wanted to go out there. If you did, you never came back.’ At the suggestion of my journalist friend, I post to an online expat forum requesting help to find resources on Khmer Rouge activity in the archipelago. My friend warns me that the forum is largely a list of petty complaints about white life in Sihanoukville; my question is posted between queries on termite treatments and how to import illicit sex toys from Thailand.

My post attracts a single response: ‘There isn’t a whole lot of information on the islands,’ I am told. The respondent directs me to two offshore incidents that occurred at the end of the Vietnam War. The first took place a week after the People’s Army of Vietnam captured Saigon, in April 1975, when the Khmer Rouge manoeuvred to take the Vietnamese-held island of Phu Quoc, called Koh Tral by Cambodians. Leaning on Angkor Empire ties to the island that had also led to a diplomatic claim by Prince Sihanouk in 1960, the new regime went on the offensive to stake out Cambodian territory. Khmer Rouge soldiers arrived on the island of Tho Chu, to the south-west of Phu Quoc, and 500 of the island’s Vietnamese inhabitants forthrightly vanished. The Vietnamese fought back, killing and imprisoning hundreds of Khmer troops.

Around the same time, in a more famous skirmish, a Khmer Rouge gunboat captured an American container ship, the SS Mayaguez, near Koh/Poulo Wai, moving it offshore at Koh Tang, forty-eight kilometres south of Koh Rong. The Mayaguez’s crew were moved to Koh Rong Sanloem, where its thirty-nine seamen slept in a long stilted hut and were served bowls of rice by Khmer Rouge soldiers, before the crew’s release as a consequence of US counterattacks.

 

I contact the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, a Phnom Penh-based NGO that archives materials relating to Khmer Rouge crimes, as well as conducting its own research and interviews. According to the centre’s website, over 155,000 pages of primary documents have been catalogued, with over 400,000 pages yet to be processed. The centre’s director, Youk Chhang, a child survivor of a Khmer Rouge labour camp, replies to my initial request for information about the regime’s activity on Koh Rong. Chhang’s email signature is a quote from his own writing: ‘A society cannot know itself if it does not have an accurate memory of its own history.’

He directs my enquiry to an investigator for the centre, who tells me that in interviews with forty former sailors from the Khmer Rouge’s naval division, people revealed having been stationed on Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem. The investigator informs me, however, that these interview transcripts might be restricted as they relate to a protracted case against the naval division’s commander, Meas Muth, in the UN-assisted Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

As a somewhat confusing consequence, the investigator’s supervisor tells me I can request to view specific documents from the centre’s catalogue – an online database of 111,036 titles – but I can’t be directed to the documents containing the interviews. Searching the pages of the database, I note down documents with the naval division mentioned in their titles, though none are interviews. They are listed as the biographies of soldiers retrieved from the S-21 torture prison in Phnom Penh, all handwritten in Khmer. I request them and send a selection to a friend of a friend, a Khmer-Australian, who reads them and reports that Koh Rong isn’t to be found. The files are confessions of acts against the regime, a tiny sample of the many extracted admissions from the thousands of people who were held and murdered at S-21, where every experience was an unimaginable horror.

 

One by one, I phone and email the guesthouses and resorts on Koh Rong, an attempt to hear the voices of Khmer residents likely to have closer anecdotal insight into the island’s history. When I call, the connections are poor, the voices on the other end indecipherable. As to why I didn’t speak to these same people when I was on Koh Rong, I can only make the excuse that I was unwell and had taken myself to an island.

My connections to Cambodia, too, have faded or been removed: the Cambodia Daily journalists I was in contact with have left the country or found other work since the paper was shut down by the government in late 2017. My ex, last I heard, left when many NGOs viewed as critical of the government were suspended and expelled, and the main opposition leader, Kem Sokha, was arrested and his party dissolved by the Supreme Court.

In any case, the island’s history is blurry, resort workers inform me. The executive director of an ‘eco-luxury’ resort off Koh Rong’s north-eastern shore (the resort’s owners were among the first foreign tourists to visit the island in 2006) sends me everything he has gathered in his own prior research. Included is a maritime survey of the gulf by the HMS Saracen in 1856, similar to one I have seen in an old nautical journal, but this one lists Koh Rong and its surrounding islands as uninhabited. The ‘standard story’ about the Khmer Rouge occupation of Koh Rong, he writes, is that any inhabitants were evacuated and ‘a few soldiers’ were posted as guards. There are ruins of an old health centre near the island’s navy base in the northeast, however, that he thinks dates back to the 1960s.

Other guesthouse workers recommend I speak with Bun Te, the director of Friends of Koh Rong, an organisation that assists local communities adapt to the rapidly changing economic conditions on the island. One manager describes him as the ‘informal translator’ of Koh Tui village. I call Te, but the line is bad. Before the connection drops, I discover only that he has lived on the island for seven years and that he once worked at the Dream Catch Inn, the guesthouse near the path leading to Long Beach. I email him my questions instead. His responses, even when queried further for clarity, are concise. He also apologises if his knowledge of local history has been misinformed by other villagers.

Te tells me that the first inhabitants on the island were army personnel posted by Prince Sihanouk in the 1950s, around the same time he built the port at Kompong Som, to guard the archipelago from possible Thai invasion. The health centre was an army hospital also built by the prince. The navy base came later, in the 1970s, built by the Lon Nol government. The Khmer Rouge used the island as a hideout from government armies, and during the regime the island was full of dead bodies, Te writes.

When I ask who the dead were, he tells me they were soldiers of the Lon Nol and Vietnamese armies. It was in the 1980s, after the regime ended, that civilians went to the island and lived by fishing and logging. I ask Te if he knows if any residents have been evicted due to the Royal Group’s lease on Koh Rong. ‘Not yet,’ he responds, ‘but will be soon.’

 

*

 

On my last morning on Koh Rong I book a boat trip to Long Beach from a standalone counter near the jetty. The boy who sells me the ticket tells me I can go at midday, but when I return there is no boat and no-one else waiting to depart. The boy disappears down the jetty and when he comes back panting, he ushers me to a smaller dilapidated jetty where four men in police uniforms are boarding a motorboat. ‘Please, they will take you,’ the boy says. Three more men in matching red shirts – a tour company or resort – are already onboard, and as we move away from the dock, one of them fiddles with a radio until music plays, a wafting melody made from a tambourine and what sounds like a piano accordion.

We follow the bay around a wide rocky point, and when we reach the other side, twenty or so metres from the shore, the men motion for me to get out. I jump into the thigh-deep sea, and by the time I‘m on the beach the boat is long gone and the horizon is vacant. The beach is empty, too: no-one to be seen on a ribbon of white sand that goes on for kilometres, eventually curving off to foliage. The view out to the sea is spectacular: a vast pastel field seeping into the sky, immense explosions of white cloud shooting through the hues. Looking inland, vast hills frame a shoreline littered with rubbish for as far a distance as I can see: plastic water bottles, empty beer cans, shredded nets, lone shoes, torn detergent packets. Some of the rubbish might have washed up with the tide, but people have also been camping on the beach. A small timber sign hangs neatly from a tree trunk. Painted on it is the William Blake quote popular with Jim Morrison and a certain kind of stoner: If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

I idly search for Survivor detritus in the refuse – a loose pendant, perhaps, or a brightly coloured bandana – but nothing materialises. I spy a few clearings through the casuarinas, though nothing resembles an obstacle course or a made-for-television campsite. A few more figures have appeared on the beach, from where I can’t tell. I strip to my undies and wade into the water. Then I wait for the policemen to come.

I don’t know how long I have waited – two hours, maybe three. I sit on the sand and watch as the rain clouds metastasise out over the sea, until eventually the storm arrives and everything is soaking wet.

Maybe the stoners have it right. In the stories we tell ourselves, about islands or otherwise, maybe the limitations are only those of our perceptions, or at the very least our humanity, that which informs our imaginations and which is complicit in our deciding of what survives, and whom. Sometimes it has to be said: our imaginations need revision.

 

 

 

 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Adam Curley is a writer living on Wurundjeri land in Melbourne.

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