Notes from a Desert Island
I recently spent a week on a remote island off southwest Cambodia. With no running water, mains electricity or - gasp, horror - WiFi, it was a true lesson in life's essentials
It’s 5.30am and I’m woken by the light of dawn. Quietly pushing aside the mosquito net as my companions slumber, I slip into my boardies, grab my dry bag, and head down the beach. Picking up my board from the sand, I push off and quietly paddle towards the east, the sun a bright red orb slowly emerging from behind shallow hills.
Welcome to Nomads Land, which occupies the tiny Cambodian island of Koh Totung, part of the hitherto jungle-clad province of Koh Kong (sadly, the mammoth Chinese-funded Dara Sakor development is slowly hacking away at the wilderness). Although it’s only 250 kilometers from Phnom Penh, the journey by road takes around 6 hours. That may change soon when the new expressway from the capital to Sihanoukville opens later this year, but for the time being means most sensible travelers choose to break up the trip by stopping for lunch and a coconut at places like, well, The Stop.
I’d been to the island once before, and - although wary of its eco-resort credentials and lack of amenities (always let it be said travel writers are spoiled creatures) - had greatly enjoyed my time at Nomads. Run by Australian couple Kim and Scott, arriving here is like being welcomed into their home, which admittedly it is. As your boat pulls up to shore, Kim is usually there waving, alongside one or both of their dogs, Scooby and Wombat, before helping you with your bags and taking you along to your digs.
There are five bungalows altogether, their faded red walls dotted along the seashore, interspersed by palm trees and native vegetation. With offbeat names like Hop Bay Now and Fish in the Sky, each dwelling is different in layout, though they all have wooden walls, thatched roof and open fronts - all the better to take in the sea views. They’re simple but well-cared for, with comfy mattresses and mosquito nets, with the addition of small electric fans to provide air circulation on those hot, summer nights.
While the generator does run in the evening to power the fans, there are solar panels during the day, and for the most part this eco-resort is true to its credentials. Firstly, there’s the compost toilets - not nearly as bad as they sound, these consist of toilet seats over a deep bucket, accompanied by a sack of coconut shavings which you scoop on top of your business, leaving no smell at all (they’re changed out regularly). For showers, rainwater is piped down to a basin which you then can splash yourself with for a rural Khmer-style rinse. With a strict no plastic policy, drinking water is triple filtered rain water provided in glass bottles, which you can fill up at the restaurant.
Speaking of food, meals are included in the price of your stay, with three choices of breakfast (I can’t get enough of the spiced Kakadu eggs served with homemade bread), a daily changing set lunch accompanied by Kim’s delicious cookies of the day, and a communal buffet style dinner which is served promptly for everyone at 7.30pm. For the latter meal, make sure you ask Scott about the evening’s special dish, I promise you’ll be surprised. With beer and wine also available, you don’t really need much more sustenance, though that may depend on what you get up to during the days.
For most guests, this likely goes something like this: wake up, get dressed, go for breakfast, go back to the bungalow, go for a swim, read a book, go for lunch, go for a swim, read a book, have a nap, go for a swim, have a bucket shower, go for dinner, have some drinks, go to bed. And repeat. It’s not exactly the Truman Show though, with a SUP board and tandem kayaks just waiting to be taken on paddles around the island, or only around the bay if you’re feeling lazy. Circumnavigation of the island takes around an hour if the sea’s calm, but more like two if you pull in for snorkeling and exploration along the way, which includes a small pebbly beach full of seashells.
With no WiFi on the island, it’s the ideal place to take a digital detox, so hopefully you’ve packed your own entertainment. For us, this meant bringing a bunch of board games (including Scrabble, Blokus, Sequence, and a pack of cards), as well as a beach bag full of snorkeling gear, beach balls, cricket bats, and pétanque. The longer you stay though, the shorter the days seem to become, and you find yourself sitting at dinner awaiting Scott’s special dish announcement wondering where the day went. That’s before you sip your drink and remember to just relax, you’re on island time.
For that (along with Kim and Scott’s warm hospitality and the Kakadu eggs) is the quiet charm of Nomads Land. On this little Cambodian island, marooned from your regular life, you’re reminded of the importance of slowing down and switching off.
When can I go back?