During my travels in South East Asia, I spent a memorable 6 weeks on the remote island of Koh Sdach in Cambodia. 6 weeks on a remote tropical island, easy, you may think but an outbreak of Dengue fever, limited water supplies, even more limited supplies of dairy produce and the perils of living in a tropical country in rainy season challenged me in ways I didn’t expect and I loved ever minute of it….
Koh Sdach is an island just off the coast of Cambodia in Koh Kong province, there nearly 4000 residents who are mainly fishermen and their families. The population live on the southeast coast in a large village made up mainly of wooden houses raised on stilts over the sea.
The interior of the island is thick jungle and the coastline is mainly rocky with a few small beaches. There are rumoured to be a small tribe of macaques on the island, although I did’t spot any, there are a few wild dogs to beware. The are no roads on the island apart from a concrete path through the centre of the village and up towards the schools and the monastery.
At the north of the island is the Belinda Hotel built as a luxury retreat by a western couple, it now stands abandoned.
The area of Cambodia between Sianokville and Koh Kong is wild and relatively untouched, there is little access to the area and infrastructure is very basic so conservation is not a priority but this is clearly an area which has a great deal of biodiversity, from mangroves to jungle and large grassy plains.
One of highlights of my time on the island was an exploratory voyage to a small archipelago called the family islands. On route headed out to try and find what the local fishermen call ‘danger rocks’ which could possibly be a reef. The weather was really calm and as we got to the area we saw a pod of around 30 short nosed dolphins! They were amazing and a real treat to see, there is hardly any macro fauna (big stuff like dolphins turtles and sharks) left in the area due to over fishing.
After that we found ‘danger rock’ , it was less than a foot underwater and surrounded by a reef where we saw turtles jelly fish and the biggest fish we had seen in the area! There are very few charts of the area and no one really knows what’s there.
Next stop was one of the family islands, and it was paradise. Crystal clear turquoise sea, millions of fish and on land a dense jungle. We found a fresh water spring, it felt really special being there, especially knowing that few westerners had ever been to this part of the world.
A favourite spot of mine was Coconut beach it’s a pretty idyllic place at first glance, a sandy beach shaded by coconut palms all the way down to the water’s edge, but when you look closer it’s full of plastic and a lot of the sand has been stolen by the locals to use for building materials, so much so that there is now a nasty rip tide in the middle of the beach caused by the trench if missing sand. In calm weather the beach was lovely and a great place to relax, one of my most memorable moments was swimming at night after a campfire with friends on the beach, the sky was full of stars and the water full of bio luminescent algae!
Koh Sdach and the surrounding archipelago are beautiful, very few travellers make it to this remote part of the world. Not being able to be cool or feel clean was something I got used to, but sometimes the smell of the fishing boats was almost unbearable, and for the first few weeks before rainy season ended it was impossible to stay dry for longer than a few seconds, it was a relief when the rain stopped, The relief was short lived as soon we ran out of fresh water. Things got more challenging when a number of us started to feel unwell, due to the climate and initially we all convinced ourselves that we were just suffering from dehydration and the unfamiliar diet, the strange rash we developed we put down to wetsuits and heat rash, but then two volunteers left the island believing they had Malaria only to be diagnosed with Dengue fever! There is no treatment as such for the virus, advice is to keep hydrated and rest, the nearest hospital is in Phnom Penh a gruelling bus ride away which can take up to 8 hrs…
It was clear that we were always going to be considered to be outsiders, the locals took great interest in the ‘Farangs’ , walking through the village it wouldn’t take long before you had a gaggle of children following you, people would openly point and laugh at us, most of the locals made us feel welcome and went out of their way to be hospitable and friendly. Just when it was starting to feel like home, I watched a dog being butchered for meat at the market and realised that I was a long way from home…
I found the realness made the experience of being on such an island so rewarding. Spending time in a remote part of the world makes you appreciate things that we take for granted in normal life, and makes you realise how spoilt we are…
Getting to the island: The new road built by the mysterious Chinese hotel company now runs to Pon Yappon beach on the mainland, but there are no official public busses I travelled from Phnom Pen in a very full shared taxi which worked out at around $10 a head, a private transfer would have cost around $80 dollars. From the mainland speed boat taxis line up to take people across to the island.
My volunteering experience was arranged with Projects Abroad see my post about how I spent my time on the island…Into the blue – Diving and Marine Conservation – Cambodia