The Rong Island at the Right Time, Cambodia

With all this talk about ASEAN integration and the AEC (ASEAN Economic Community), you’d think that driving a Thai vehicle into Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar or Malaysia would be easy – but it isn’t. As we approached the Cambodia border down a narrow finger of Thai territory, we still weren’t sure if we had all the necessary documents. Google didn’t know. Lonely Planet’s “Thorn Tree” had more questions than answers. And even if we DID have everything, there was still no guarantee that Cambodian Customs & Immigration officials would let us drive our right hand-drive vehicle all the way to Sihanoukville without greasing a few palms.

Our goal was Koh Rong, Cambodia’s second-largest island. But that meant a four-hour drive through the countryside to reach the port city of Sihanoukville, the country’s second-largest. From there, we’d catch a speedboat for the one-hour journey to Koh Rong. At least that was the plan. The afternoon before, I’d driven three hours from Bangkok to Rayong, where stayed the night. The next morning, it was another four hours to the border. Pulling into the chaotic, dusty border post, I scanned the crowd for a “fixer” and locked eyes with a Khmer-looking man.
 
While Nori took the boys to start the Thailand exit process, I parked the van in a big lot behind the ramshackle shops. This was clearly what most people did: leave their car on the Thai side and arrange transport on the Cambodia side. I saw in my rear-view mirror that the “fixer” had followed me.
 
We shook hands and introduced ourselves. His name was Vatana. When I told him that we hoped to drive our vehicle into Cambodia, he looked worried.

“Is this your car?” he asked. Yes.

“Is it registered in your name?” Yes.

“Do you have an international driver’s license?” Yes.

“Do you have the car passport?” Yes, barely. The previous morning a friend had warned Nori that this document was required. She rang me at the office in a panic. We were supposed to leave Bangkok in five hours! Our plan was falling apart. She rushed to the motor vehicle department in Chaeng Wattana and, miraculously, obtained the car passport in less than two hours.
 
“OK,” he smiled, “then I can help you. But you can only drive in Koh Kong Province.”
 
The border province – named after Cambodia’s largest island – contained more than half of the country’s coastline and a huge swath of forest-covered, low mountains. But to get to Koh Rong, we first had to get to Sihanoukville, which was 80km past Koh Kong Province.
 
“We’re going to Koh Rong,” I explained.
 
 
“Don’t worry,” smiled Vatana, “I will tell the immigration people that you are staying in Koh Kong Province. I don’t think any police will stop you on the road. But if you do get stopped outside of Koh Kong, just say you’re lost or get some tea money ready.” I couldn’t help but laugh.
 
An hour later, we were on our way with a big red sign on the dashboard indicating that our vehicle had “temporary import” clearance. As soon as we crossed the border, the road quality plummeted, traffic switched to the other side, development plunged, there were water buffaloes on the roads and the only signs were for Cambodia Beer, Angkor Beer and political posters with Hun Sen’s sort-of smiling face. Things also got a lot greener. Flat-topped jungle-covered ridges extended to the horizon. In the valleys, rice paddies reflected the golden glow of the fading sun. It was a bumpy but beautiful drive, not that my four boys noticed. They were too busy watching Lego Batman: Gotham Break-Out for the fourth time.
 
We arrived in Sihanoukville after sunset. First impressions weren’t positive. Neither were the second or third impressions. Considering its location at the tip of headland, with hills behind and beaches in front, the city has a lot of natural potential. But man, was it ugly. Our hotel was in the middle of a backpacker ghetto next to the island ferry pier. I expected the dreadlocked neo-hippy couples wearing Thai fisherman pants. I expected the grizzled white ‘sexpats’. But I didn’t expect to see so many Chinese – the thick-jowled, buzz-cut men walking up and down the strip with their shirts pulled up over their bellies.

 

We caught the first speedboat to Koh Rong the next morning. I felt uncomfortable leaving Black Bull (our beloved Hyundai H-1) parked on the street, but the road was choked with cars, buses and tuk-tuks dropping off passengers so I had no alternative. It was mayhem at the pier: a man shouting out departure times through a distorted loudspeaker, nervous backpackers trying to look unperturbed, excited Cambodians building suitcase altars and taking photos with bemused bearded Europeans.
 
 
I was glad we didn’t disembark at Main Beach (where all the Chinese got out) or Natural Beach (everything looked run-down). Instead, we got out at Coconut Beach, where Nori had booked two nights at Coconut Beach Bungalows.  “Wow!” Nori said, as we stepped out of the boat onto the long finger pier. The owner, Robby, was there to meet us and help with our bags. The beach was amazing, with sand so clean and fine it squeaked, and water so clear that we always found the goggles that the boys were constantly losing. We spent most of the next two days in the water, riding the waves on inner tubes and looking for crabs and prawns in the tide pools.
 
 
Cheerful and plump, Robby was an extraordinary host. He amazed the boys with his double-jointed antics. He taught Logan a magic trick with a loop of string and a soda can. He set up domino chains with them. If they wanted to tell him something, he stopped and listened. And his even fatter father was smitten with the boys: he let them punch his jelly belly, he hugged them and pinched their cheeks, he would spend hours happily watching them playing, drawing and interacting.
 
He kept grabbing my hand and repeating something. I don’t speak Cambodian and he didn’t speak English or Thai. But I know what he was saying: your boys are beautiful, and you are so very lucky. Yes, indeed. I think about that all the time. Not so many years ago, I was devastated because I thought that I would never be a father. I started writing a book, dedicated to my unborn children, as if writing about the parent I’d like to be might dream them into existence.
 
The restaurant/bar of Coconut Beach Bungalows had a beautiful deck overlooking the beach. In the middle of the day we spent a lot of time there: reading books, drawing, playing board games. On the first night, Robby showed the guests how to light and fly Thai-style paper lanterns from the terrace. Two got stuck in the trees, but no one seemed worried; apparently the trees are so moist that they don’t catch on fire.
 
 
 
After that, he led a group of 15-20 guests down to the beach. Koh Rong is famous for its bio-luminescent plankton. The skies were clear and dark and the moon was nearly full, great conditions for the living light-show. As we waded into the black water, Nori said, “Taking our four boys into the ocean at night…this is Parents-of-the-Year material!” She was being sarcastic, but I was on edge. It was very difficult to keep track of the boys.
 
We stopped about 15 meters from shore and Robby made a pouch with the bottom of his T-shirt. He dipped it into the water and when he lifted it up, water straining through the material, a mini-constellation of green stars appeared. The effect was even more impressive with my black rashie. The boys ducked underwater, their paddling hands stirring up green flashes. They’ll never forget this, I thought. 
 
 
It had been a long, hot and fun-filled day so we went straight back to our bungalow. Then night chores: shower off the salt water, hang up dry clothes outside, brush teeth, pee. There was no AC – only a fan – so I was dreading a night of sweaty, fitful sleep. All four boys were wedged onto one mosquito net-covered bed, and they were making a racket as limbs overlapped and squeals of outrage pierced the night. I focused on the sound of the fan, lifted my arms to be closer to its cooling vortexes and soon fell asleep.
 
The next (and last) day on Koh Rong was a delightful blur of sun, swimming and laughter. I taught the boys how to use their bodies to link together the inner tubes. “Who is the weakest link?!” I shouted as waves threatened to break their chain. They built a sand fort with rock battlements and a dead crab atop the tallest turret. They chased nearly transparent ‘ghost’ crabs down the beach.
 
After an ill-conceived run under a blistering noonday sun, I returned to the beach and waded out to where Nori was playing with the boys.
 
 
“OK,” I asked, “who wants to go [dramatic pause] jump off [even more dramatic pause] the end of that pier?”
 
The boys shrieked in confirmation. Soon the six of us (Tai had made a friend) were racing down the beach, causing a quite a stir among the sun-tanning tourists. I had already checked with Robby: the water was deep enough, local kids jumped off there all the time. With no hesitation, the boys leaped off the 4-meter high pier into the sea. Logan did a flip. I always feel proud when the boys are so adventurous and trusting.

 

The boat ride back to Sihanoukville the next morning was very rough. Some passengers were shrieking; others were vomiting. Sigh. I had an eight-drive ahead of me, assuming Black Bull was still where I had parked it. It had been a very inefficient trip: two days on Koh Rong and two days of driving. It would have been much easier to fly to Phnom Penh and arrange transport to Sihanoukville. But where’s the adventure in that? We had proven that it could be done. We had seen parts of Thailand and Cambodia that most people would never see. And the beauty of Koh Rong and Coconut Beach far surpassed our expectations

 
Note: While backpackers are already doing this the slow way, I think within 5 years there will be regular ferry services that connect Koh Chang / Koh Mak / Koh Kood (Thailand) with Koh Kong / Koh Rong (Cambodia) and Phu Quoc (Vietnam).
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