If you’ve ever wanted to visit a secluded paradise island….prepare to become very green. Our latest adventure took us to Rabbit Island, just off the coast of Kep in South Western Cambodia.
We arrived in Kep late the other evening, after a group weekend spent motorbiking, river- cruising, and Mad Monkey-ing it up again, this time in Kampot– I’m one ‘passport’ stamp away from a free t-shirt!!
The next morning, we broke away from the group to spend a few days in Kep, the bus via Kampot leaving The Mad Monkey in true Khmer fashion an entire 45 minutes later than scheduled. We had to get talking to a local American teacher who shared our bus to direct us to our accomodation for the evening, yet as I’ve found since coming out travelling, people are generally so willing to help and show a bit of kindess to those who ask with a smile, and fellow travellers are generally always a safe bet. We’ve also been on the opposite end of this aid, when visitors unfamiliar with an area we have recently travelled have required directions and recommendations, and even local Cambodian people asking for help understanding English translations and signs around us have really just left us feeling quite positive about a lot of day-to-day interactions in the Kampot/Kep area. At the end of the day, I feel if you can help someone else, no matter what the area or nationality, a vast majority of people will go out of their way to do so, and most kindred spirits encountered whilst travelling have also embodied this belief.
We eventually found our way to The Oasis Guesthouse, a place we’d booked online having had no previous knowledge or recommendations of it, let alone awareness of its facilities. It actually proved not to be too far from
all the main attractions of the small holiday town of Kep – many wealthy Cambodians come here with their families on short vacations from their busy lives in the cities. Sure enough when we eventually found it the beach was full to the brim with young Khmer families, all sitting at intervals along the pathways on thin wooden mats, sharing meals consisting of rice, crabmeat, sugar cane juices and fruits. This huge variety of food is eaten in Cambodia no matter what time of day it is – I still haven’t gotten my head (or stomach) around having rice for breakfast, but it seems to be that anything goes here! I’ve gotten used to the stares at my ghostly white skin by now, the children loving a wave from any Western-skinned person, and always responding to a smile with an even bigger and toothless one (literally everything here contains sugar).
True to what the sky had been threatening all day, our arrival was applauded by a downpour of rain, and the bikes available for free from the Oasis Guesthouse we’d taken to explore the town on our first evening getting drenched as we sheltered in a local pop-up night market. It might have been the rain, or it might have been the fact that we were the only Westerners for miles around, but this market was honestly one of the strangest experiences I have had since arriving in Cambodia.
Everything from pyjamas, to clocks, to sanitary towels and dried bananas, not to mention of course the live mini-rabbits dressed in tutus and on display in an assortment of coloured cages with spindly wheels were available to purchase as casually as you’d stroll into Tesco of a Sunday morning for some milk. Many of the vendors mistook our fascinated pointing and laughing for interest, and I lost count of how many children gleefully waved and laughed as they watched us duck from canopy to canopy to avoid the torrents of water flowing from the roof.
I ended up precuring some free bananas and also a taste of some roasted chestnuts, (delicious) again in a weird out-of-place kind of way reminding me of Christmas. Our cycle home was punctuated by some of the most beautifully odd and silent lightening that seems to accompany the purpling night sky every evening during the end of rainy season here. It was oddly peaceful as we pedalled home through the darkening streets, completely vulnerable yet strangely dominant over our own space upon the road, the only things and belongings we could be sure of resting precariously in the baskets on the front of our bikes.
Siang the tuk-tuk driver from the day before met us as scheduled outside the guesthouse the following morning, his two young daughters giggling as we re-entered the vehicle and greeted them with a familiar smile – it seems they travel around his work with him during the day, taking travellers and locals alike from A to B. Siang helped us book tickets for the boat out to Rabbit Island, and arranged to pick us up from the same shop as the day before after lunch. This left us with a morning to explore Kep and also to relax on the sands of the first beach I’ve encountered since coming out here!! It was hot and terrifyingly dangerous for gingers (burn potential was seriously high here, and I’m proud of how I managed to avoid it!), but I stayed in the shade and read a book, finally finding a mangostein fruit (out of season) at a stall along the road after weeks of fruitless searching for one in the city (pun entirely intended).
It was as we sat along this low stone wall under the minimal shade available from extremely naked looking trees that a local man enlisted our help understanding a YouTube video of the son of Cambodia’s Prime Minister talking on a TV news station. An Australian interviewer was asking him (in English) about his father’s rule and whether or not he would consider ‘continuing on the mantle’ when his turn came. The man we met had excellent English, far better than many other locals we’ve encountered, yet he informed us he’d learnt it all from the internet, and I found it fascinating to even consider the fact that although he was doing his utmost to make himself aware of his country’s political situation and be knowledgeable of their current affairs, the language barrier presented by the government themselves was preventing the majority of its’ citizens from understanding what their leaders’ incentives are.
Our fascinating conversation was cut short as the tuk-tuk driver pulled up, a gobbledeegook gesture and nodding towards his phone and the tuk tuk supposedly suggesting that Siang had been held up, and that this new driver was to take us to the port. Actually getting used to leaping blindly over the language barrier of communication that is required to successfully secure a seat in a tuk-tuk here, we hopped in and hoped for the best.
As we neared the port for the crossing to Rabbit Island, ‘ferry’ being too strong a word I feel for the long-boats used to cross the 30-minute distance from the mainland, the smell of the sea did it’s salty dance up around us again, and I relished the cool spray of the waves as they jostled between the boats we clambered into. A few minutes’ confusion again as the local ferry drivers laughed and joked amongst themselves, presumably at us – a small group of white people not having a clue what they were saying and yet entrusting them with their lives on fairly old and dodgy-looking wooden boats – and we were off, the small green lump of foliage in the distance slowly becoming greener and larger as our proximity neared. Phu Quoc in Vietnam was visible off to our right, Cambodia behind us, and Rabbit Island up ahead. The Gulf of Thailand expanded off ahead of us between the various chunks of land, and the boat sped ahead, spraying us with fresh salty water and shielding us from the preying and sneaky rays of the sun by providing a cool breeze that would easily fool a rookie ginger under its’ gaze – I’d brought my scarf to cover up just in case this happened!!
Stepping off the boat and onto Rabbit Island was honestly one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve been on a secluded island before, Samuka Island in the middle of Lake Victoria, Africa, yet this was something entirely different. All along the narrow strip of beach below the palm trees and in amongst the secluded beachhuts with hammocks stood individual huts and houses on stilts at least a metre or so off the ground. Each wooden dwelling had been carefully constructed plank by plank and thatched daintily from above – as we wandered further down the sands we saw a group of islanders re-thatching an older looking hut, and I was struck by just how delicate and impermanent everything around me was. Each couple of huts was interrupted with a local ‘restaurant’, or kind of makeshift kitchen where noodles, rice, and various fish or fruit-based dishes were being served, along with several Western options. I eagerly ordered a portion of ‘grilled fish’ at one, my fairly legitimate question of ‘what kind of fish?’ falling on deaf and language-barriered Khmer ears as the waiter smiled and shook his head as if it was the most normal response ever– a reaction I’ve become accustomed to receiving on posing any sort of question here.
Accepting that I was about to receive a nameless and mystery plate of seafood, I settled back and took in my surroundings again, several hens clucking around and clearing up the crumbs atop the table next to us.
Couples on holiday, singletons come to find a bit of respite from the madness of the mainlands, and then the random day-trippers like ourselves were dotted around the sparsely populated beach – although there seemed to be a fair few people around, I would not describe it as being ‘packed’ or ‘touristy’ in any way. It was peaceful, calm, and just…..chilled. I felt more at ease here than I have in weeks. There are huts every 100 metres or so where local Khmer women sit and wait for someone to place themselves in front of them for a massage. There are fresh coconuts ready to drink and eat off the branch. The fish had literally been caught mere few hours before it was served to me. There was no one yelling ‘tuk-tuk??” in our ears every couple of steps. There were no motorbikes. Just pure sand, sun, beach, hammocks……bliss. Nobody comes to Rabbit Island with the intention of anything but to relax, chill, and take in some beautiful beautiful scenery from the Gulf of Thailand whilst doing so.
I would happily retire tomorrow from my non-existant job and live happily ever after on Rabbit Island, but our ferry had been booked back to the mainland for 4pm, and we reluctantly picked our way through the discarded coconut shells and sea shells alike to meet our boat driver back at the dock. Clutching a mini can of Angkor beer, he expertly pushed off from the jetty with one hand and steered us back out to sea, the unchanged perfection of the island slowly getting smaller and smaller as the sun lowered closer to the horizon. Time to go back to reality.
Our tuk-tuk driver arranged the tickets for us out to the Island from a local company with an office situated in the main square of Kep, and we travelled Kampot – Kep with Giant Ibis transport. The tuk-tuk man we were lucky enough to get talking to right where the bus had dropped us off – again, it pays to be friendly to the locals and make acquaintences! It saved us a lot of painful negotiation and frustration having a set driver planned!
Oasis Guesthouse is a family-run compound of twenty or so wooden cabins just outside the centre of Kep, situated in a beautiful garden with so much greenery it’s difficult to see between cabins! We never found out what kind of creature walked over our roof several times every night but I remain convinced it was a large ape of some sort – apparantly the surrounding forestry is home to more than just birds!