At each destination I tell myself I will have the opportunity to return if I wish. With this attitude I avoid the sense of worry brought on when the goal is “to see everything.” My visit to the island Koh Rong Sanloem about 16 miles from mainland Cambodia in the Gulf of Thailand was the first time I felt I might never see a place like this again.
The Cambodian islands, unlike more well known islands in Thailand, are a new tourist destination. The first structures on Koh Rong Sanloem were built within the last 3 years and settlements began in Koh Rong starting in 2000. Previously, the islands were used by the Cambodian military. The island I visited has no roads, is not connected to the power grid, does not have ATMs or banks, has slow internet service only via satellite, and water only through wells. Every building material, item of food, and piece of furniture is transported from the mainland via boat to the island. Some beaches are accessible only via boat because the jungle is so dense.
I imagine if I return to Koh Rong Sanloem, this place may no longer feel untouched and wild. Plans are underway to build guesthouses with 40 or more bungalows. There is talk of bringing an ATM to the island and I saw construction in three sites in Saracen Bay. For now, the water is clear and the land feels mostly unspoiled. I could see the pollution from construction sites and garbage in some places but nature is still winning.
Wearing my MBA hat I wondered, what will this island be like in the future? It is a real prisoner’s dilemma, especially given the lack of a government presence. Only if all the property owners on the island cooperate (a challenge given the diverse cultures, languages and nationalities of this group) can they monitor for inappropriate behavior from day-trippers, limit and regulate future construction, and ward against regular requests for payment to support island police. However, if one owner does not trust the group, she may profit handsomely by continuing to prioritize her own self-interests for island development.
I believe this island will remain a tropical beach paradise. I have a feeling the paradise could look more like Phuket and less like what I enjoyed.