Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cambodia’s Song Saa Islands: An Isolated Eden

A few nautical miles from the scabrous Cambodian port of Sihanoukville lies a little pair of islands known in Khmer as Song Saa, “the sweethearts.” Among the 60 islands of Cambodia’s secretive coastline, they are, as brochures put it, lost. No one would know they were there were it not for the motor launch that leaves in the afternoons from the Sihanoukville port laden with the odd solitary millionaire in a linen hat and Prada espadrilles.

The sweethearts are uninhabited. They are Koh Ouen and Koh Bong, now occupied by a single “resort”—though the word seems over-hustled for a place that remains quietly separated from a coast that war and civil war have preserved in a state of beautiful ruin. A place made beautiful, if you like, by failure.

When I was living in Phnom Penh, I used to come to Kep, the old French provincial capital further along the same coast. The islands have much the same aesthetic: the French houses standing in isolate and magnificent desperation, the mangroves and narrow beaches and slopes of rainforest bristling with cashew trees. Ravaged by the Khmer Rouge, Kep had not yet recovered. But its charm was invested in a slow-burning decay, which expressed its isolation from an outside world that could never—in its imagination—separate Cambodia from her genocide and her unwilling role in the Vietnam War. While Thailand rushed to despoil her islands, Cambodia was left to abandon hers.

Pol Pot had the Cambodian islands evacuated in 1977. For a time they were home to Khmer Rouge fighters and no one else. On Koh Rong, a larger island next to Song Saa, with its rainforests the size of Hong Kong, they set up their base camps and gun emplacements. (In an obscure incident of that time, 25 American Marines were killed in an ill-timed island fire-fight.) But history moved on. The fishing families returned, and 30 years later an Australian couple, Melita and Rory Hunter, stumbled upon the sweethearts, like a vision—if you’ll forgive the cliché—from the movie Castaway.

The Hunters had founded a company called Brocon, which pioneered the renovation of French colonial buildings in Phnom Penh. Brocon set out to create an island resort that would, like its developments in Phnom Penh, hold together the fragile texture of Khmer society. For one thing, they nobly decided to create a marine reserve inside which the locals were no longer permitted to fish by dropping cyanide into the water to stun their prey. But what did the Western rich really want when they ventured down to the seascapes of a country like Cambodia? What were they looking to escape from, and what did they want to intrude into?

Song Saa, Private Island Resort
The oceanfront villas in splendid solitude., Sunya Thadathanawong

Americans know the Tom Hanks film version of Castaway, made by Robert Zemeckis in 2000 (alas, because the earlier, Nicolas Roeg version is far better). The original novel, however, was published by a young Englishwoman named Lucy Irvine in 1983. The 25-year-old Irvine had answered an ad in a London paper placed by a middle-aged adventurer named Gerald Kingsland asking for a “companion” to go live with him on a deserted island in East Asia. Kingsland and Irvine spent a difficult year together on the island of Tuin in New Guinea. It was the Crusoe fantasy with a sexual edge. The human couple forced together by their isolation, by the material magic of a tropical island from which there was no easy escape. It is, on rereading, a beautiful and haunting book, and it holds the clue to a peculiarly contemporary longing: a yearning for a temporary but primitive solitude defined by the sea. That, and a much-needed simplification of sex.

There have been so many versions of this myth—Swept Away is another—that one wonders if industrial society’s unhappiness is leading it to search further afield for a release that now has to be contrived with the aid of technology. The original title of Lina Wertmüller’s 1974 original was Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August. Here, the paradise island was a rougher place that stripped men and women down to their biological roots. Yet all the time I was on Song Saa I thought of those Wertmüller landscapes. The rocks, the deceptive waves, the somnolent forests, and a subtle strangeness—a kind of species memory—emanating from them. Islands represent something mysterious to us because they offer the hope that we can be human in our original Eden, but without other humans. We know that this is neither true nor possible but, wonderfully enough, we are poetically indifferent to our own realism.
From each ocean-facing villa one sees nothing but the silhouette of Koh Rong. From mine, I watched coconut palms along beaches that must have remained unchanged for thousands of years, the forests of uncataloged butterflies and rare pythons rising behind them. There was no commotion but the shrimp boats from the village, whose green lights shone on the waters at night underneath tremendous rainless thunderstorms. Yet one is not alone. An invisible staff caters to every whim.

Lift the telephone and you can order fresh oysters, Khmer beef lok lok and salt-cured fish around the clock. Everything is delivered by beautiful boys carrying pole baskets. Nevertheless, there is no money on the island. Guests are never presented with a bill; they never sign for anything. They can eat whatever they want, but since everything has been paid for in advance it seems to all be weightlessly “free” and separated from the wearying friction of hard cash. This is so unlike real life that one sinks into a voluntary trance. Could life ever be like this, a series of sweet barters and gifts arriving out of nowhere? We are, in fact, programmed to both disbelieve in Utopia and to accept its premise.

I walked across the wooden walkway that now connects the two sweethearts. It is lined at night with a row of bamboo lanterns set to steer the loner. There seemed to be no one there, though at the far end lay a wide designer sofa with dark gray cushions and a table with silverware waiting for the Three Bears.

There is a sultry return to boyhood implicit in being alone in a place that looks after you but that leaves you unmonitored. The island’s effortless enchantment, not to mention the curious lack of flies, also made my dreams more vividly intimate and terrifying: my dead mother came every night and sat on the end of my bed. In one of these, she was eating peanuts from an ashtray and talking to me in Khmer. In another, she was covered with a funereal white suncream. But why here?

In the hot afternoons, meanwhile, I took a boat around Koh Bong. Exhilarated lemon-colored butterflies came out to greet us. They seemed to be winging their way out to sea in pursuit of the squid boats, but who knows what butterflies can smell, or how they wish to die. On the far side of this wild isle there was also not a single man Friday footprint in the sands. The rainforest comes up to the little dunes but does not cast any shadow onto the beach. The resort accordingly sets up a shaded lunch with an icebox, and you sit there like a Crusoe who doesn’t have to shoot his own food. It is solitude with crisp ice on hand. One dissolves and seeps away, and before long it occurs to you that you are going to die somewhere in a place far less perfect than this.

Nights on Song Saa are more uncanny than the luxury. Lightning and thunder like distant artillery barrages, the tiny striped fish jittery in the dark waters. I found that on many evenings I could be walking through my own thoughts as much as through a carefully honed construction intended to create a luxurious solitude, a secure ease with nature. How strange, then, that one has to pay so much money for something so simple. For this very condition, of comfortable isolation, now has to be crafted by many hands. It is no longer spontaneous, and we don’t want it to be. Even the wretched backpackers who sometimes appear like beaded ghosts on the supply boats from Sihanoukville seem aware that they are stumbling into something that they don’t deserve. They have a nervous, stunned look, like thieves who have not yet made off with the jewels.

I never tired of Song Saa. I only wondered what it would be like to be there with a woman, like the unhappy tormented souls of our fictional islands. Yet there was no need to wonder this, because even as I roamed around the sand tracks and jetties and walkways looking for someone to talk to, even as I felt myself tipping into gourmet monasticism—a unique “lifestyle concept,” you’ll have to admit—I was happy not to find anyone to talk to. The tiresome, exhausting conversation that one has with oneself was deflected outward—toward the silvery tumuluses piling up in slow motion on the horizons, toward the Khmers immo-bile in their long-tails, patient nets in their hands and filled with a glassy curiosity about this extraterrestrial dressed in creased tennis whites, toward the curve of the island itself, the place that holds you for a few days inside a chilled emptiness, a suspension of disbelief, and then keeps you alive.

Lawrence Osborne is the author, most recently, of Bangkok Days.

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