My Private Island

By Osborne, Lawrence | Newsweek International, April 30, 2012 | Go to article overview

My Private Island


Osborne, Lawrence, Newsweek International


Byline: Lawrence Osborne

Off the coast of Cambodia, the Song Saa islands offer Robinson Crusoe-like isolation in luxury.

A few nautical miles from the scabrous Cambodian port of Sihanoukville lies a little pair of islands known in Khmer as Song Saa, "the sweethearts." Among the 60 islands of Cambodia's secretive coastline, they are, as brochures put it, lost. No one would know they were there were it not for the motor launch that leaves in the afternoons from the Sihanoukville port laden with the odd solitary millionaire in a linen hat and Prada espadrilles.

The sweethearts are uninhabited. They are Koh Ouen and Koh Bong, now occupied by a single "resort"--though the word seems over-hustled for a place that remains quietly separated from a coast that war and civil war have preserved in a state of beautiful ruin. A place made beautiful, if you like, by failure.

When I was living in Phnom Penh, I used to come to Kep, the old French provincial capital further along the same coast. The islands have much the same aesthetic: the French houses standing in isolate and magnificent desperation, the mangroves and narrow beaches and slopes of rainforest bristling with cashew trees. Ravaged by the Khmer Rouge, Kep had not yet recovered. But its charm was invested in a slow-burning decay, which expressed its isolation from an outside world that could never--in its imagination--separate Cambodia from her genocide and her unwilling role in the Vietnam War. While Thailand rushed to despoil her islands, Cambodia was left to abandon hers.

Pol Pot had the Cambodian islands evacuated in 1977. For a time they were home to Khmer Rouge fighters and no one else. On Koh Rong, a larger island next to Song Saa, with its rainforests the size of Hong Kong, they set up their base camps and gun emplacements. (In an obscure incident of that time, 25 American Marines were killed in an ill-timed island fire-fight.) But history moved on. The fishing families returned, and 30 years later an Australian couple, Melita and Rory Hunter, stumbled upon the sweethearts, like a vision--if you'll forgive the cliche--from the movie Castaway.

The Hunters had founded a company called Brocon, which pioneered the renovation of French colonial buildings in Phnom Penh. Brocon set out to create an island resort that would, like its developments in Phnom Penh, hold together the fragile texture of Khmer society. For one thing, they nobly decided to create a marine reserve inside which the locals were no longer permitted to fish by dropping cyanide into the water to stun their prey. But what did the Western rich really want when they ventured down to the seascapes of a country like Cambodia? What were they looking to escape from, and what did they want to intrude into?

Americans know the Tom Hanks film version of Castaway, made by Robert Zemeckis in 2000 (alas, because the earlier, Nicolas Roeg version is far better). The original novel, however, was published by a young Englishwoman named Lucy Irvine in 1983. The 25-year-old Irvine had answered an ad in a London paper placed by a middle-aged adventurer named Gerald Kingsland asking for a "companion" to go live with him on a deserted island in East Asia. Kingsland and Irvine spent a difficult year together on the island of Tuin in New Guinea. It was the Crusoe fantasy with a sexual edge. The human couple forced together by their isolation, by the material magic of a tropical island from which there was no easy escape. It is, on rereading, a beautiful and haunting book, and it holds the clue to a peculiarly contemporary longing: a yearning for a temporary but primitive solitude defined by the sea. That, and a much-needed simplification of sex.

There have been so many versions of this myth--Swept Away is another--that one wonders if industrial society's unhappiness is leading it to search further afield for a release that now has to be contrived with the aid of technology. …

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