Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Getting Off the Boat

One of my goals for this website is to post completed stories rather than breaking up an experience into narrative sections that start out ambitiously but taper off into hasty conclusions when they should be gearing up for a climax. That said, I can't resist posting the first half of a piece tentatively titled "King's Island," about my journey to an isolated archipelago off the coast of southwest Cambodia. Part II will follow later this week.

King's Island, Part

Thunk! A green coconut lands heavily at my feet, splashing white sand onto the hammock I’m rigging in the shade of two towering palms. Craning my neck and squinting upwards, I can make out the brown legs of Maran, a teenage fisherman who accepted $4 to ferry me across the channel to this putting-green sized atoll somewhere off the thickly forested coast of Southwestern Cambodia. Two more coconuts (whump, thomp) drop somewhere in the underbrush to my left. Abandoning my hammock for the moment, I hastily backpedal a few steps further into the grove to join Maran’s friend Kuhn on the porch of a driftwood shack, where he sits cross-legged, carefully twisting chicken feathers around a weighted wire hook to make a squid jig. Running my fingers across my scalp, I wonder for the umpteenth time where exactly I have managed to lose myself.

The idea to explore the scattered islands that lie between Sihanoukville, a beach town 150 km southwest of Phnom Penh, and the Thai border was, like most Cambodian projects, easy to put into motion but impossible to plan. Starting out, the only thing I knew with certainty was that the islands were out there somewhere beyond the sunset. The maps I checked agreed on the general position of two large islands at the eastern edge of the Gulf of Kompong Sohm, but each cartographer had apparently inserted a sampling from a different Jackson Pollack painting to represent the archipelago that lay beyond. How many islands there were, what they were shaped like, whether people lived on them and how it was possible to get there and away – the details, if you will – were a mystery that only grew foggier as I roamed about town searching for the informed sort of speculation.

“Yes, no problem,” said the first local I approached for information, pounding the backseat of his motorbike. Remembering my experience in Phnom Penh the week before, when, over the course of an afternoon spent looking for the Japanese embassy, I was dropped off in front of a brothel, outside a karaoke club and (close but no cigar), at the Lucky Sushi Bar, I hesitated before hopping on the bike.

“Islands,” I said, having long since abandoned my Khmer phrasebook in favor of exaggerated gestures and broken English. “Do you know where I can ask about a boat?”

“Islands, islands,” he replied, nodding enthusiastically and waving a hand in the direction of the Ecstatic Pizza Restaurant and Massage Parlor. “No problem, I know.”

He didn’t know, of course, but en route to whatever destination we were rumbling towards, I spotted a hand-lettered sign reading DIVE TRIPS. Leaving the bike and driver puttering at the curb, I ventured inside and found a deeply tanned old man with long white hair pulled back in a neat ponytail standing against the back wall gazing at a nautical chart of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Henri had nothing to do with any dive shop, but he had sailed around the world twice in his youth, and more applicable to my quest, had seen the islands I was searching for.

“There is a boat, you see,” he told me, searching carefully for the English words. “Between this town and the Thai border. It is popular with the travelers. I have taken it twice, and both times we made a stop at an island, perhaps off the headland, perhaps further along. There was a small village. I did not get off, but it seems to me that you could do so without trouble. But my memory is not so good and I am drinking absinthe since yesterday, so perhaps you should make certain at the ferry docks in the morning.”

Somewhat skeptically, I thanked Henri and motored back to my guesthouse, where the manager of the Endless Summer restaurant confirmed that the boat to the Thai border did exist, although he had never heard of it making a stop anywhere. Figuring that at worst the ride would give me a chance to scout the archipelago firsthand, I purchased a ticket and soon found myself squeezed between four Canadian women, a hung-over Cambodian fisherman, eight sacks of rice and a clump of extremely unhappy chickens on the roof of a narrow riverboat as it chugged across the harbor and into the open waters of the Gulf of Thailand.

As we rounded the cape that separates Sihanoukville from the Gulf of Kompong Sohm, I suddenly understood the mapmakers’ dilemma. Islands were scattered about in all directions as far as the eye could see – some big and mountainous, others barely more than sandy reefs protruding from the gentle waves, each and every one calling out for exploration. The boat splashed along through a shallow channel separating two islands that I nicknamed Jekyll and Hyde, one a morass of steamy green jungle and rocky cliffs, the other offering an empty white sand beach backed by coconut palms and banana plantations. A few fishing huts were tucked into quiet bays on this peaceful island, but few others betrayed any hint of a human presence. Even the mainland, visible in snatches where the chain of islands parted, showed no trace of road-dust or power-line scars in a verdant forest canopy smothering the rounded hills.

After two hours, with the noon sun reflecting hard off the boat’s white roof, it became nearly impossible to tell the difference between bay and channel and between island and coast; where one patch of sand ended and another began. I was watching dolphins romp in the bow wake when suddenly, a sign of civilization intruded upon the sublime - a red and white radio tower protruding from a nondescript atoll scarcely wider than an interstate highway. Peering over the bow, I could make out a cluster of tin roofs hugging the coast at the base of the tower. As we drew closer, two crewmen began throwing chickens and rice onto the lower deck. The Canadian women had their guidebook out and were frantically scanning the horizon for Thailand. Amidst the flurry of activity, I jumped over the rail and unto a rickety dock extending back into a warren of wooden shacks perched on stilts above the shallow little harbor. With a belch of black smoke and one or two feeble chicken squawks, the boat was suddenly gone, leaving a vague scent of sunscreen and paint lingering in the salty air.

Here I was.

Wherever that might be.


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