The time travel machine that is Cambodia continues it’s jarring shifts between eras and the varying faces of this little country that continue to surprise. From the 12th century in Angkor to the late 20th in Phnom Penh, Cambodia has so much history unobscured, placed in such bold light that seeing a Cambodia today isn’t always obvious. From the heart of the country and the heart of past glory, and tragedy, we ventured to the coast and in Kampot we caught a glimpse of Cambodia today; ready views to the past backdrop a window to the present. Fittingly the balance of old and new is delicate and poised, Cambodia neither rests on nor ignores a complex past story to take just the right elements into a future so hopeful. The story gains layers by the year and never a page is forgotten or discarded; such a little country for such a grand saga.
Time travel really is the order of the day, the boat rocks on a passive swell as we climb aboard towards what few people think of when thinking of Cambodia, tropical Islands. Pristine beaches, pure white sand turquoise seas are the staples of postcards and calendar pages for the summer months. They never seem to be taken in Cambodia. People come from far and wide to visit neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand and sometimes accidentally venture back in time through Cambodia on the way from one to the other. I wonder if in the future more than the occasional hardy traveller will come to this part of the world with Cambodia as the first thought rather than the after?
The best part of an hour sees the past and present behind us and the future beneath our feet in fine white sand. Opting out of the party island, Koh Rong, we’re on Koh Rong Sanloem; the calmer cleaner little brother. As if getting off the track and out to the islands wasn’t enough, or onto the less trodden island wasn’t sufficient adventure, we’re walking a bush track across the island across to the quieter of the quieter beaches. Humid wet heat surrounds us as we brush past large tropical plants in a scene reminiscent of William Golding’s classic novel, Lord of the Flies. We aren’t abandoned, lost or fighting for our lives but this separation from the world leads to the frontier adventure feeling that fits so snugly into our off piste tendencies.Eventually the jungle relentlessness gives way, light is visible through the density before us, not just above us as the world opens up not so much to a beach, but a discovery. The more visited side of the island faces the mainland, protected in a sheltered little nook but this side, the side for those who venture further faces the open ocean. A rickety pier reaches out bravely through a churning ocean more choppy froth than turquoise serenity, a gathering storm front builds over the ocean as only tropical storms can. A deeply drawn breath, the familiar salt carried on a breeze that feels like it’s a permanent fixture whispers to us the worth of the trek, the voyage. It’s a voice from home heard so clear this far away, a story told over oceans by generations of salt water people.
Just a short walk, not far up the beach to our bungalows on sand a little more golden than white but fine and soft all the same. Sand that swallows your foot in the wet areas near the shore rather than holding you aloft on firm rings of dry sand as each footfall compresses the water from it. The sand swallows each foot only to give it back without protest, so willingly. We Australians take beaches for granted, we’re spoiled for what so many find such wonder in, but in an odd travelling quirk we’re desperate for some beach time; the cleansing salt, water with some life in it, a sun that sets ahead rather than above. It’s a short walk really, this flirtation with home told on a breeze so far away from home but we’re climbing the stairs now to our timber bungalow carved so timidly into a forest that doesn’t want to give it the space but like the sand gives graciously.I think of the Caribbean, the Greek islands, Thailand, Australia even; this scene could be in any of the places that snatch up a reputation that should be shared a little more liberally. It’s only a matter of time really; soon enough there will be TV advertisements to discover the islands of Cambodia, the tropical oasis yet to be discovered except that by then discovery will have moved on. The storm breaks as only tropical storms do, suddenly and with all the vigour of an ocean alive commanding the air above it. In the moments before the flash drenching washes over us and a few splatters threaten through our thatch roof the churning ocean that refuses to be tamed thunders down it’s promise. The world knows little of this rage but in time it will, the complex story that is Cambodia is yet to have the new chapter written but the next layer to the story is surely full of promises of a salt breeze and choppy seas crowned by a hopeful horizon at a days farewell.