It’s sometimes funny how different are your expectations before the trip. Back in Taipei, I was planning to go to Sihanoukville in southern Cambodia to witness the full moon party on Koh Rong island. The full moon party – as the name suggest – occurs when the Moon is in the full lunar phase. The party originated in Thailand and is now blown up to ridiculous proportions (about 10 000 – 30 000 people on Koh Phangan). Koh Rong should still be less touristic and resemble the full moon party in its beginnings few decades ago. Later I discovered the party is going to be in 14 days and I won’t be able to make it. I was ready to skip the place completely. But I was convinced by a friend that Sihanoukville is still a great place to visit.
When we arrived at Sihanoukville it was a typical party place for foreigners. The bars offered Happy pizza with special weed ingredients. And if they didn’t have it on the menu, you could just ask them to make the normal pizza more “happy”. There was even a bar selling rolled up joints. In the evening the bars on the beach get loud with all different types of music. There was even a bar where you could play the beer pong.
Back then I was travelling with my friend Hannah from Taiwan, group of Icelanders and Swedish girl we met in Siem Reap. We decided to take a trip to “some small island near Sihanoukville”. The actual name is Koh Ta Kiev. I didn’t know anything about it but I expected we will spend one night there, enjoy the beach and head back on road to see northern Cambodia. Little did I know that the island had completely different plans with us.
We took a “party” boat there. Actually there was not much of a party, just a few beers and some snorkelling on the way to the island. The beach looked beautiful and we got couple of hours to stay there. This is what most of people get from the island. They spend few hours on the beach and head back to Sihanoukville. But we discovered there is much to the island than just a beach.
Hidden in the jungle – there is the absinth distillery. Its owner Johann build the high tech distillery in the middle of nowhere. Now it has two floors with chill-out area for visitors. I am not even trying to pretend that I understand the process of distilling the main ingredient – thujone (or wormwood). Johann once made 95% pure thujone extract. That’s quite impressive in the middle of the jungle. Even Walter White had better conditions.
The absinth is quite different than the Czech one. Czech absinth is mostly high volume alcohol with some thujone. According to bartenders Czech absinth is shit. And if you try the Syn Absinthe you will know the difference. They usually serve it with cold water and sugar to balance the bitterness. It’s very relaxing drink, almost different kind of alcohol. I have to disappoint you though, the hallucination effects are mostly myth. They said you might get some if you drink it maybe few weeks straight.
The guys who work here are volunteers – they work for free accommodation and absinth. Some of them are there for 2 months already. The whole construction is made from bamboo and you can feel it’s not the most stable thing in the world. I was there once with 20 other people and the distillery tilted as people walked around. “Aren’t you afraid it will fall on your head one day?”, I asked. “Well yeah, sometimes I think about it … ” one bartender told me while sipping his absinth.
The best place on the island though is Crusoe island. The place is a bit distant from the harbour, maybe 10 minutes walking. That’s why a lot of people miss it. Crusoe island is run by Cambodian owner and is operated by volunteers from around the world. Same as distillery they work there for free accommodation, meals and drinks. I noticed that there is a shadow economy on the island. There are also few other places on other side of the island with volunteers. In Last Point they get free pizza, which can be exchanged for cheap beer on Crusoe island, free soft drinks, some food or absinth from the distillery and the other way around.
As a regular customer everything you drink or eat on Crusoe island is added on tap which is very convenient but also quite dangerous. One time I went to check my tap to find it was 13$ after night drinking. My friend also checked hers and it was 65$ for the same night.
The accommodation is either in bungalows, tents or hammocks. I slept in the hammock for three days and it was the best sleep I got in weeks. There is number of activities you can do, including jumping from cliff, walking to naked beach (just a name, no naked people :P) or to the fishing village. But the atmosphere is so relaxed that I had no need to leave. The omnipresent weed might be also one of the factors.
There is no wifi, no ATM and no worries on this island. There are only few boats coming to and from island every day. You’re stranded on an island but with awesome people. It’s kind of summer camp but for adults and without supervisors. I met some unique characters in Koh Ta Kiev. I can’t name everybody but there are few examples:
There was one Finnish guy who wanted to take a boat back to shore to get more money from ATM. There was no other boat coming back the same day, so everybody expected him to stay one night on the mainland. But instead he rented a jet ski and arrived in the afternoon. He paid more money but he didn’t want to spend night out of the island. The journey that takes 1,5 hours by boat he made in 15 minutes.
There was also a guy from Canada who was trying to take a morning boat at 8:30 AM to shore to also get money and go back. He didn’t have any alarm clock so every day he woke up and sprinted to the Crusoe island. “Did I make the boat?” he asked every day. “No, it’s already 11″, they responded. When I met him, it was his third failed attempt.
In the distillery, I talked to the bartenders about the Absinth, I started to talk about Czech absinth and discovered they are from Slovakia. Alan and his girlfriend Lenka worked there for 2 months already and didn’t have plan to leave soon.
In the night everybody gathers around bar, drink beers, play guitar or go try to find fluorescent plankton. The plankton appears all around island and lights up when disturbed. One night was the moon covered with clouds and I found big group of plankton. I swam in it for an hour and with every stroke the water just lid up all around me. It felt like in Avatar movie when they running through the jungle in the night.
The island felt like combination of The Beach and Lost. The Beach is one of my favorite movies and even though Crusoe Island is still far fetched from Phi Phi Leh where The Beach was filmed it certainly felt like it. I made a video and recommend you to watch it, it is no accident I used voice-over from the movie (thanks Leo).
And why Lost? The island doesn’t let you leave. It took me 3 days to do that. There are few options how to leave the island. Either morning boat at 8:30 or afternoon boat at 2 pm. But everyday I went to say goodbye to all the people and lost track of time and miss the boat. In the end it was simple procrastination. Either I will take my luggage and walk to the harbour to hassle with boat captains about the price or I will just stay one more day. No wonder some people stay for weeks or months. My friend Hannah and two more friends decided to stay and work at Crusoe Island. That made the departure even harder. I wasn’t travelling “for indefinite time” and had to be back in Taipei in a month. I still wanted to see Laos and Thailand in the meantime.
I am sad to have to end this article on a bad note. As a lot of islands around it is rented by foreign companies. One of them is Chinese and they decided to build a casino on the other side of the island. Here is an excerpt from the blog of Crusoe island.
Two years ago while we were putting the finishing touches on Crusoe, we witnessed a Cambodian naval landing craft unloading a handful of excavators, bobcats and other equipment onto our beautiful, then untouched beach. The destruction that followed was heartbreaking. The original dense jungle paths were obliterated into bare, wide roads to make way for the Chinese development. Every day we would wake the the “beep, beep, beep” of an excavator in reverse, then listen to trees being felled and general mayhem for the rest of the day.
The development now stopped, but who knows how long it will take them to start again. I recommend you to visit this paradise while its still there.