"Bat Country" is the newest chapter in the Cambodia book.
The chapter takes place on Koh Rong, a large, mountainous and totally undeveloped island 2 hours by fishing boat from Sihanoukville. "Bat Country" describes the events of one of the more interesting days I've spent in Cambodia - a day that featured a sinking boat, 8 kilometers of deserted white sand beach, a raging thunderstorm, menacing drunks with hatchets, thousands of giant bats and lots of pooping outside. It's not a very philosophical chapter, but I hope it's entertaining and maybe even a bit suspenseful. Please comment if you've got the time and inclination!
"Bat Country" isn't up yet on my website, although close readers will recognize part of the story from "Notes from the Road."
Rain is falling for the first time in two weeks and I’m tent-bound with Ryan on the Southwest shore of Koh Rong Island. No sunset tonight, just a flyover of thousands of giant bats and now this building storm.
We’re really out there, camped in the middle of a sweeping eight kilometer curve of totally undeveloped white sand beach. The bats that flew overhead were big ones, with bodies the size of footballs and four-foot wingspans. We have one bottle of water, a package of ‘Best Tasted’ Vietnamese instant noodles and a whole case of Flying Horse Brand La La Choco Crisp Breakfast Cereal, produced here in Cambodia. We may not be well-provisioned, but at least we won’t starve.
Getting to this beach was a trip. The fishing boat we chartered yesterday took us as far as a row of shacks on the south shore, where we slept in the attic of the village chief. Dinner was whole fish boiled in lemon-grass broth, big bowls of rice, and scrambled eggs with onions. We ate with the chief, a thin man with congealed globs of black hair dye at his temples, who threw everything down in about five minutes, spitting chewed hunks of fish onto the floor for the cat.
The only decorations in this house are three posters tacked to the wall, all donated by various aid agencies. One shows cartoons of happy children washing their hands, another features a mother horrified to find her child playing with a dead chicken. The third promotes OK Condoms and shows a young couple sitting on a couch, the woman holding a TV remote and wearing the same knowing expression you see in makeup advertisements.
The amoebas colonizing my gut keep me awake during the night, thrashing with stomach pains under the mosquito net. At some point, I fall asleep, only to wake up again with the most urgent of needs. Hunched over and burping, I skulk downstairs in the dark, past the sleeping chief and his wife, through the kitchen and out back into the garden, where, fearful of snakes, I squat among the bananas under a full moon.
Before our dinner with the chief Ryan and I hiked up a logging trail in hopes that it might connect with the far side of the island. The trail wound through hacked brush along the shore before turning uphill at a shack with the words ‘COAST GARD AND POLICE POST” lettered on the wall.
The trail was steep and the dry jungle rang with the grating screams of insects. Rough-cut boards lay in clearings next to piles of sawdust. Here and there we came across snares set on fallen logs and baited with bits of fruit.
“I’m glad this is Cambodia.” said Ryan. “Illegal logging is a much bigger deal in Thailand. I wouldn’t feel safe walking up on a logger’s camp there. Here we know that the police are in on the business so whoever is doing this cutting can’t be worried about getting caught.”
Still, the signs of logging give us the jittery feeling of trespassing. The trail is now a dark tunnel, the jungle pressing in close on all sides, and the snares begin to seem like warnings of bigger traps ahead. Wiping sweat from my eyes, I hear something crashing through the brush ahead, accompanied by the shouts of men.
“ELEPHANT!” Ryan and I yell at the same time, falling over ourselves to get out of the way.
But we’re wrong. A massive male water buffalo lurches down the trail, straining against a load of boards. Three ragged young men follow behind, yelling at the buffalo and smacking it with sticks. All three are smoking cigarettes. They must be surprised to see us, but seem too worn out to react.
“Where are you going?” asks one of the loggers as his companions pass around a small bottle of menthol and take hard sniffs.
“To the sea,” says Ryan in Thai.
“This way, no go sea,” he replies, no doubt wondering what kind of idiot follows a trail UP a mountain and expects to reach the ocean.
So we follow them and the buffalo back down. Once, the boards get stuck on some roots and the men hit the buffalo until its eyes roll back in its head and with a mighty asshole-puckering jerk, it wrenches the load free.
Two men and a boat are waiting for the boards at the Coast Gard Post. Unhooked from its harness, the buffalo trudges into a pool of brackish water and lies there like a hippo, with only its eyes and snout showing above the surface.
In the morning I wake to the sound of Jingle Bells playing on the chief’s cell phone. Ryan is in high spirits.
“I met a kid who speaks good English,” he says. “He can take us out fishing and then drop us off on the far side of the island before the wind picks up. He said there are bungalows on the beach over there.”
“Great,” I say, trying to mean it, but wanting to groan. “When do we leave?”
“He needs a little time to get the boat ready. Maybe an hour?”
“Really great,” I mutter, then drag myself over to the chief and ask where the toilet might be.
“Mountain,” he replies through a mouthful of rice.
And so I sneak into the garden once more, trying to avoid eye contact with the women at work among the vegetables.
It was basically a situation where the boatman and his two friends had planned to take tourists on fishing trips, but never actually done it before. The three young men worked furiously to get an old long-tail boat seaworthy, patching cracks with gummy sealant, burning incense and arranging an offering of fruit and tea in the bow. A bunch of kids stood around watching, along with an overly friendly toothless drunk and a few older folks wearing a parental expression that I recognized well:
‘This is your project and we won’t interfere,” their faces said. ‘But we’ll be here to help if you get into trouble.’
With a heave ho we drag the long-tail into the sea. The bilge immediately fills with water.
“No problem,” says the boatman, bailing energetically while his friend takes off his shirt, tears it to pieces and stuffs the strips of cloth into the biggest cracks. The last thing to get attached is the long-tail motor, which looks like the corroded hulk of an old weed-whacker. The village mechanic carries it over his shoulder and straps it to the stern, handing the boatman an extra sparkplug. With incense smoke rising, we pile into the shabby little craft, feeling lucky to have left our computers and extra clothes in the headman’s attic.
Getting started is an adventure. The motor sputters, catches, sputters and dies as the boat slowly fills with water. The whole village gathers on the beach to watch the drama unfold, alternately yelling advice and shaking their heads. The boatman and his friends yank on the start cord and bail, but we just limp in circles around the harbor.
Finally the motor spins long enough to bring us alongside a squid boat. The captain is the friendly drunk with no teeth. His son strips off his clothes, swims over to our boat, fiddles with the motor, gets us going and then swims back to the squid boat again. The village waves and cheers and in a few moments, we’re out in the open sea.
Our boat is drifting in about ten meters of water halfway across the strait that separates Koh Rong from its sister island, Koh Rong Samloem. Big swells roll through the channel and the long-tail dips and rolls with the waves.
We fish with hand lines. Mine is wrapped around a motor oil container, rigged with four hooks and a heavy lead sinker. The fishing is easy but unexciting. We bait the hooks with bits of flesh, lower the rig to the bottom and haul up one small red fish after another, the same kind we ate for dinner with the chief last night.
The buckets in the bilge are overflowing with fish. The boatmen put away their hand lines and tuck into the fruit from the makeshift shrine in the bow. I wonder if eating the offering might be a bit rash, seeing how our motor needs to start again if we’re going to make it back to land, but when they offer me a banana, I chomp with sacrilegious relish.
After bobbing around for a while the swells start to pick up and we begin to drift beyond the strait and into the open ocean. The drunken squid boat captain comes out to see if we need any help, but our friends wave him away.
“We’re fine,” they say. “ We’re just going to drop the foreigners off around the bend and will be back home in time for lunch.”
The captain looks skeptical, but turns his boat around and chugs back towards the village.
Our motor does not start. It doesn’t even sputter. The waves are getting bigger. Next stop: Malaysia.
The boatman pulls at the start cord with vigor, but nothing doing, just a flat, dry, whir. We’re sinking lower and water is starting to pour in over the gunwales. The young man still wearing his shirt now takes it off and starts waving it around his head, hoping to call back the squid boat, which is now visible only when we rise to the crest of a wave.
Ryan and I calmly pack our important things in dry bags and get ready to swim. This is where we make a good team; neither of us is prone to panic – Ryan because he has experience, me because I have no common sense.
Praise be! The squid boat has seen the distress signal and is chugging on back. The captain leans over the side, grinning toothlessly as his son tosses us a rope. The young boatman and his two friends look glum as our little long-tail is towed back through the waves to the crowd waiting on the village beach.
The boatman and his friends ask us to wait on the stoop of a shack while they find the village mechanic. Sweet, earnest young men, they still want to take us around the bend, but the wind is starting to whip up whitecaps beyond the harbor. An old man with eyes that shine like torches emerges from the shadows of the shack and pours us cups of tea.
A crowd gathers. The mechanic arrives, removes our rusty weed-whacker and pronounces it toast. A new motor is produced, from the bottom of a scrap pile by the looks of it, and after a few yanks on the starter cord and some well placed whacks with a wrench, it growls to life, nearly decapitating a puppy that was sniffing at the blades.
The mechanic shrugs, straps on the new motor and, to my relief, comes with us in the boat this time, expertly steering through the swells and around the southwest tip of the island.
“There are bungalows where we’re going?’ I ask the boatman.
“Yes,” he says. “I think so.”
Bungalow…the word was alive with possibility. Could we be about to stumble across a secret beach resort, one with showers and fruit smoothies and topless French girls drinking cold champagne? Tonight, perhaps, might we drift asleep between cotton sheets, listening to the soft strum of a guitar and the sound of waves…
We round the corner and see a great curve of trackless white sand backed by coconut palms. At the far end of the beach a mountain looms over the sea with a few huts tucked against its base.
“Village,” says the boatman.
“And the bungalows?” I ask hopefully.
“Bungalows here,” he says, pointing to the shore.
Sure enough, a bit of jungle has been cleared at the near end of the beach. And there are indeed bungalows, or bungalow to be more accurate, as only one appears finished. A group of workmen are hammering away at the frames of two others. Smoke rises from a pile of cut brush. The mechanic shouts for the boatman to drop anchor.
“I’ll swim ashore and see what the deal is,” says Ryan, who grabs the dry bag, jumps over the side and splashes through the heavy surf.
The boatman, his friends and the mechanic follow, tying the long-tail off to a coconut palm and leaving me alone with our bags.
The workmen have come down to the beach and everyone seems deep in conversation, when suddenly the rope holding me to shore snaps and the boat swings wildly in the waves.
“Ryan!” I yell. “Dry bag! DRY BAG!”
He plunges into the surf, followed by the mechanic and the frantic young boatmen. With the boat pitched to one side, I snatch the bag from Ryan’s hands, stuff it full of gear, hand $15 to one of the young men and jump overboard.
The mechanic pulls hard on the starter cord as the boat dips dangerously under a wave, but when I drag myself onto the beach and turn around, the little long-tail and its hapless crew are already chugging back around the bend.
“They’re going to think twice about taking tourists out next time,” I say, checking that the camera equipment and our wallets are dry.
“What did the guys building the bungalows tell you?”
“Well,” said Ryan, water dripping from his clothes. “They weren’t unfriendly. But we can’t stay here. That was very clear. They want us to go down the beach.”
I smiled at the four workmen. They were holding machetes. One was missing an arm.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” one of them replied. He wasn’t smiling.
“Well,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “I guess we’ll go that way.”
What a beach. It wasn’t spotlessly clean, because flotsam had drifted up to the high tide line, but the sand was so white that we couldn’t look down at it without wincing. Pale crabs skittered into the surf in terror as we walked along in a sort of daze, sand squeaking under our feet.
The land in back of the beach was flat, and here and there languid streams of freshwater pooled up against the dunes. We stopped for a drink in the shade of a coconut palm, ate a packet of dry ramen, and tried some of the Choco Crisps, which were delicious, in a sugary factory produced sort of way, but not exactly filling. Out over the bay, a sea eagle hovered over the green water, plunged like a stone, and emerged with a long, silver fish in its talons.
“Why don’t we have any of the fish we caught this morning?” Ryan asked.
“Because we were too busy wondering if the boat was about to sink,” I said.
“Bummer. Fish would taste good.”
I ate another package of Choco Crisps and considered our situation.
“We have a whole case of chocolate munchies, an empty beach and all the time in the world. Remind me why I threw out all the marijuana again?”
“I think it’s better not to smoke here,” said Ryan. “I’m going to catch some fish.”
He swam out into the bay with a hand-line and snorkel while I followed the dictates of the amoebas. He didn’t catch anything.
We walk up the beach for hours without seeing any sign of human presence, just a whining chainsaw in the distance and the scraggly huts of the village at the far end of the bay to remind us that other people live here.
Not wanting to camp too close to the village, we pause at the midpoint of the bay and pitch the tent under a sea-pine just above the high tide mark. Someone has camped here before, and left a ring of charcoal at the base of the tree. Maybe this beach isn’t quite as deserted as we thought after all…another pine has a hand-lettered sign nailed to its trunk with a few lines of Cambodian script and two phone numbers.
“Does that says Land for Sale?” I wonder.
“I think it says Trespassers Will be Shot,” Ryan replies.
At first I thought the winged creatures flying overhead were birds, an epic migration of ravens perhaps, but as they drew closer there was no mistaking their furry oval bodies and broad leathery wings. These bats were huge and there were literally thousands of them. The first wave passed over as dusk began to fall and for twenty minutes they filled the sky. When the last one flapped by it was dark and a light rain had begun to fall.
Hunkered down in the tent, writing by headlamp, we feel the air begin to charge with the crackling energy of the approaching storm.
“Let’s move the tent,” says Ryan. “We’re too exposed right on the beach.”
“We’ll be fine,” I whine, lazy. “Everything’s staked down.”
Ryan shakes his head. “I really think we should move.”
But at that moment the storm hits, cutting off all possibility of breaking camp. Rain whips against the tent and thunder rolls across the bay as we shiver in the dark, sort of crouched apprehensively, nerves on edge. I believe ‘cowering’ is the right word.
The thunder moves closer and closer until - BOOOOM - a crack like a gunshot splits the air with a burst of lightning right on top of it and we both scream and hit the floor of the tent. For a few minutes the rain comes down as hard as ever, then slackens.
We lie back on the tent floor like heroin junkies relaxing after a big hit.
“First giant bats, then a lightning strike,” I say. “What’s next, a zombie army?”
This was when we heard the voices.
Four men, coming down the beach from the direction of the village. It’s pitch dark but we can hear them – they sound wired, or maybe drunk, the rain is still coming down and in a flash of lightning we can see our visitors, black shapes on the beach, looking down at our tent. They approach, standing on our doorstep as it were, and I fumble for the door zipper, stick my head out in the general area of their knees and say “Hello” in what I hope is an upbeat ‘Howdy Neighbor’ sort of voice.
A massive flash of blue lightning suddenly illuminates the whole scene and every last bit of adrenaline I have left rushes into my veins.
“He has an axe in his hand,” says Ryan, in a curious, abstract sort of voice, as if he were pointing out an unusually large gecko, or an albino cow and not a GLEAMING SHARP METAL EDGE BEING HELD SIX INCHES FROM MY NOSE ON A DESERTED CAMBODIAN BEACH DURING A THUNDERSTORM.
I squat into what I hope is a defensive position, shifting onto my toes, ready to dodge, or bolt through the door if necessary, but believe me, its hard to feel ready for action when you’re half naked and crouching at the feet of a potential axe murderer.
The men are definitely drunk. One of them says something in Khmer. “OK,” I reply, and after a few more attempts at conversation, they continue down the beach in the rain. Ryan takes out his Leatherman and opens the blade as we try to decide whether – rationally speaking – we should fear for our lives.
“I don’t think they’re dangerous,” says Ryan.
“Yeah. Neither do I. But this is the kind of thing it’s nice to be 100% certain about.”
“We could leave the tent and hide in the jungle,” he suggests.
“But it’s still raining.”
“Get wet or get hacked to pieces?”
“I thought you said they aren’t dangerous.”
“Well, probably. But we are in a vulnerable position. And they’re definitely drunk.”
“Who walks up to a tent in the middle of a thunderstorm brandishing an axe!” I moan. “It’s not very considerate! And where the hell could they possibly be going?”
“We’re probably fine,” says Ryan. “If they wanted to rob us they would have done it already. Unless they’re waiting for us to go to sleep of course.”
“You were right,” I say. “I’m glad I didn’t bring the marijuana. It would have been death by paranoia.”
We stay in the tent. Large crabs creep and rustle in the underbrush, sometimes brushing up against the tent wall and sounding exactly like a person sneaking around on tip-toe.
It wasn’t the best night of sleep I’ve ever enjoyed.
Like this true story? Check out Rucksackwanderer.comPhotos from Koh Rong!
Labels: Cambodia, Cambodian Coast, Expedition Cambodia, Koh Rong