Lessons from the island

Above all, it takes time…

We stumbled upon a place like no other, one we didn’t expect to find in Cambodia, where its people live by the rules of the Sea, the Sand, the Wind and the Sun. Life here isn’t about hardship, not solely at least. It’s about tuning inward and trying to listen with your heart, instead of your ears.

How fascinating it is to learn about other ways of living, how refreshing to bask in the sense of trust and safety of a small community. We found all this in the village of M’Pai Bay on the island of Koh Rong Sanloem. 

There is very little that can prepare you for discomfort other than discomfort itself. And this is the reason why most of us find it hard to take the first step, to grow out of something and start afresh. 

As with everything that is deeply rewarding, moving somewhere new requires patience, openness and commitment. It takes time to get settled elsewhere, to make a home out of your suitcase, to meet people, memorise new paths and take on different habits.

Backpacker girl waiting fro the boat to Koh Rong Sanloem, Sihanouk ville while

But it’s a learning curve and it’s proven to widen your comfort zone in unexpected ways; even if we didn’t know it at the time, it might have been one of the reasons why we chose to move to the island.

Life on Mars

Lodged in the gulf of Thailand, facing Sihanoukville, the island of Koh Rong Sanloem birthed a village called M’Pai Bay. It’s not clear how many people live here, the last census, in 2019, stated that there were 558 people on the whole island. However, as a consequence of the pandemic, the face of the island has changed greatly and many people have left. 

View from the pier of m'pai bay, Koh Rong Sanloem
Sunset on the pier of M’pai Bay in Koh Rong Sanloem

We believe a little over a hundred people live M’Pai Bay these days, but it is difficult to know the exact number. Nevertheless, other than the locals, a fair amount of westerners chose this place as a home, contributing to the life of this vivacious community.

Challenge of the sand

Despite Koh Rong Sanloem being a wonderful place, living here comes with many challenges: power cuts three times a day, possible shortage of supplies, lack of immediacy and a more realistic feeling of how long it takes for things to happen.
Adjusting to these little things, means working on making the inconveniences manageable, getting used to sleep in a new bed, in a room and a house without doors, in a place where the latter seems to be superfluous. Most places in this neck of the wood don’t have entry doors per se, lots of people live above their business and, when it’s a restaurant, a bar, a guest house, no need for doors, just an open space, a dog-based alarm and a flight of stairs to separate the outside from the inside. 

It’s funny, spending the first few days thinking of it when we go to bed, and soon realising it became normal, because here everyone knows each other and not trusting people doesn’t feel like an option, somehow.

As it’s often the case in places surrounded by so much nature, many of the decorations in the houses come directly from there. Huge seashells are used as knick-knack boxes, soap holders or ashtrays, drift wood is cut to make picture frames, shop signs and road signs, jewellery is made from seashells, stones and macramé. For instance, for my birthday I received a seashell, a bouquet of beautiful wild flowers, a colourful dress and a bottle of rum. Just like a true islander.

It takes a village to raise a child!

Even though many of us lost this knowledge in the folds of progress, there are still places on earth where the value of togetherness is held high and tight.
No child is overly cocooned, everyone looks after them as if it were their own, so no one needs to be always present and the kids end up being quite independent at a very young age, sitting on a porch like little Buddhas, while the adults are busy around them.

Little ones aren’t scared of being with new people, they open their eyes wide and they look at you with genuine curiosity, they crawl, stomp and waddle, and never worry about being left to themselves. It’s not uncommon in M’Pai Bay to find yourself with a child in your arms while the shop owner goes next door to get some smaller change.

Through the lens of western glasses

Some family live alone​​​,​ next to the beach​, ​in makeshift sheds surrounded by jungle​​. One day we ended up in someone’s house by following a broken cat​’s​ voice blasting out of a Karaoke​ machine​, ​and ​we got greeted by kids and women saying “hello”​ and smiling at us​​. The front​ part​ was a playground for the children, nothing that would be socially acceptable in the west​: barefoot kids, rusty metal scraps, polystyrene ​raft​s​​, ​a​nd old plastic container​s​… It would be easy to judge or to be concerned for their well-being if we were to judge with our own standards.

But if we remove our westerner glasses​,​ the first thing we can see is happiness and kindness, sisterhood, motherhood, childhood, friendship … The energy of ​a ​family​, of people​ who care for each other​, who support, accept, play, hangout, laugh and live​ together.​ It’s a simple, laid-back way of living and the playful randomness of life, the bond between families and villagers, seems almost palpable in the air, as if nobody would ever feel unsafe here. It’s a good lesson to learn today, since we tend to forget: together is better.

Laws of the sea

If you live on an island and you have a boat, you can sail anywhere; you can go on a beach on the other side of the island to visit a friend, get to the mainland or to a secluded smaller island, barely visible from your starting point. But you need to be ready, the sea can be a riot, there may not be a pier at your next stop, and then, the only thing you can do is getting as close as possible to the shore without running the boat aground, and get into the water, carrying your possessions above your head.

The people who own a business here all have one contact on mainland that will run errands for them and make sure the cargo is on the next supply boat. A new fan, a computer, 5 kilos of chicken breast, a backpack, anything. They make arrangements with their contact, who makes a deal with the captain of the ship, and it’s a whole cycle of knowledge and unspoken laws of sea life.

Long Boat driver and his son on the Gulf of Thailand
Arrival on isolated beach Koh Rong Sanloem
Fisher man on his boat in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Rong Sanloem
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It’s fascinating to observe life around the water. All people here, the ones who do have a boat and the ones who don’t, seem to know the rules, and play by it quite easily. They know that the last speed boat from here to the mainland leaves at 3pm; they all know that you can rent a long boat with a driver, if needed. They all know how to get organised, who to talk to in case of an emergency.
And yet, it doesn’t mean that people always get to do what would be best. Sometimes it’s hard to be lucid and make the right call, sometimes you think you have more time, and in reality you don’t.

The loss of a friend

Unfortunately, one night of April, our friend Jay lost his 4 years old dog Titan. In a matter of hours his health deteriorated and there was nothing that could be done. Jay would’ve gotten on the first boat in the morning to go to the mainland and see a vet, but Titan run out of time. In the morning we carried him for a few kilometres, dug a hole in the ground and buried him in the jungle, we brought incense and music, we collected flowers and offered some silence before we let him go.

Anyone who has ever had to bury a pet knows how emotionally-wrecking it is, and it was no exception for us, after that we all felt depleted, tired and emptied. Some of us sat on the shore, while the ones who did the carrying and the digging went to bathe in the sea. They rested there, and let the waves rock them, cleanse their pain and their sweat, surrounded by the whispering nature. The island can be unforgiving, and all of us who come from the western world don’t even think about how much of our life is made up by non-essentials. Moving out here equals knowing that you’ll have to learn, sooner or later, to deal with this harsh reality of life. 

Learning from the waves

But we learned our lesson, and the day one of our friends got sick late in the evening, we didn’t hesitate to send him on a 3 hours longboat ride to get himself checked at the hospital. It turned out to be the right call: he needed urgent medical assistance and got his appendicitis removed first thing in the morning. 

It is quite complex to find the right balance, to navigate life on an island, to know when to trust and when to push, and I guess it comes down to knowing yourself too, and this is where having so many restrictions gets more interesting.

The song of now

When you spent all you life here, though, when you are a local, the perspective seems to be different. Observing Cambodians going through what we see as hardship, everyday, without breaking a sweat, is like watching a magnetic folk dance whose steps you do not know. You don’t but they do: their effortless, natural choreography seems like a tribute to spontaneity and living in the moment, something we write in calligraphy on the pages of our journal but fail miserably to embody when we have a real chance to experience it.

Living in the present is not always about blissfully sitting in a park bench while people-watching and thinking how wonderful it is that you are alive now, it’s having your electricity cut while you’re cooking with 32° and the fan goes off, running out of tofu and realising that the next supply boat already left, or getting a cut in your finger and knowing there is no doctor on the island.
And you learn, you do what you have to, you breathe in and out and you let the elements wash away your annoyance.

Making plans with the wind

One of the things you should pack when moving to South East Asia, other than mosquito repellent and a headlamp, is patience. No one stresses here, just you. If you make plans, they’ll change, they’ll inevitably crush somewhere between today at 6pm and an unspecified tomorrow, and the more you try to organise, the more chaos seems to propagate.

Just by observing people’s attitude around time, it is easy to spot someone who travelled for a while versus someone who just started travelling or is on a short vacation.

One day, Jyl and I had made plans to write for our website. It had rained and the heat was not so stifling, it was the perfect time to work with a fresh mind. It didn’t take long before our plans were overturned: Stefan, a friend, came to call us all to go and see the natural waterfall that only forms when it rains a lot. We would never see it again, it was now or never. We grabbed our bathing suits, a towel, forgot the camera and walked along a path and a piece of forest. The sound of rushing water was getting closer and closer and it was wonderful to share a bath and a blissful moment with friends in the small rocky basin where the waterfall flowed.

If we did not try to live in the present, to prioritise moments of living and sharing, we would miss out on a lot on this journey and in this life. If we did not try to be open to diversity, to understand instead of stopping at frustration, to learn to live differently, every day, what would we learn?

Learning from discomfort

We, like many people from the West, are used to have access to comfort 24/7, we mistake our routines for normality, we take for granted things that are actual gifts, and privileges, but living in M’Pai Bay has been a great lesson for us. It taught us to navigate discomfort in a completely new way, giving us new keys to open those gates that were closed off by education, habits, social and geographical determinism, and this is a lot of what travelling is about.

Girl bathing on long beach in Koh Rong Sanloem
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At the end of our time in Koh Rong Sanloem, we ought to thank the island for her valuable wisdom.

Above all, it takes time, so where you are lost and where nothing makes sense, find your island, search for your North and listen to what they have to say to you. And if the one we found speaks to you too, we have written a bit more about what you can expect to do if you’ll ever decide to visit: on top of being old and wise, this island is also incredibly beautiful!

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