‘Robinson Crusoe‘ is a work of fiction, penned by Daniel Defoe and published in 1719. Despite this fact, there are to this day a number of tribes in the islands of the pacific who claim to be descended from him.
The novel’s enduring popularity three centuries after it was written speaks not of the quality of the writing, which even at its time was considered to be ‘simple’ at best. Nor is it’s success due to the storyline, with it’s puritan Christian overtones, it’s approval of cultural imperialism and it’s occasional racism, all of which ought to have consigned it to the murky depths of history alongside so many of it’s contemporaries, none of which I could name. And that’s kind of the point I’m making.
We remember this one book because the idea speaks to us. Now more so than ever. In a world where each of us is electronically connected to the globe, and where our lives are dependant upon, and to some extent controlled by, a myriad machines and technologies that we do not understand, so many of us long for something simpler. And what could be simpler than living alone on a deserted island, utterly self-sufficient and with no one to answer to? (* Yes, I know Crusoe wasn’t alone, but Alexander Selkirk, the real life character on which the story is based, was. For over four years.)
I want a piece of that life. I’ve wanted it for as long as I can remember, and so much of my time travelling has been underpinned by a desire to find my own such place. A little corner of the world, away from the cars and the iphones and the twitter feeds and the 24hr rolling news channels and the goretex underpants and the politics and the boil-in-the-bag beef stroganofs and the winter olympics and above all else, the fucking people. Yes, You. You right there. There’s too fucking many of you, and you’re all too obsessed with football, designer shoes and ‘celebrity big brother’ to be allowed on my island. Bog off.
Anyway, as I was saying, I wanted a piece of that life. Not forever, but just for a while.
And thus, we find ourselves in Cambodia. A place that until a few years ago was as remote and unlikely to be visited by me as say Somalia, Timbuktu or Triton, the third moon of Neptune.
I should also say that, after three weeks of island hopping in Thailand, it was not our intention to visit Cambodia’s islands just yet, we were supposed to be headed inland. But as we had to leave the bike behind and take a bus from the border, and this bus dropped us off in Sihanoukville on the South coast, we decided to reshuffle and go play the castaway game for a while.
Cambodia has many islands, and hours of painstaking research were undertaken to identify the right one. That’s bollocks of course, I actually googled the words ‘Cambodia’ and ‘island’, then stared at the image results page for approximately eight seconds before making a decision. Our chosen destination looked good. It was even called ‘Robinson‘ on the island of Koh Rong Samloem, which boded well.
And as the small motorboat chugged and spluttered it’s way into the bay of this island paradise, we knew we had chosen well. The long stretch of white sand was pristine and deserted, as was the jungle interior. We would be Crusoe. We would be Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway’. We would erect our shelter beneath the palms, we would fashion tools from bamboo and driftwood. Food would be what we could pluck from the sea or forage from the jungle, drink would be coconuts and seawater and . . .
“Ooh look, a bar!”
Ok, so it wasn’t quite uninhabited, but it was close. Nestled away behind the tree line, and reassuringly distant from one another, was a motley collection of half a dozen small wooden treehouses and stilted huts, and the solitary bar, which was really just a bamboo shack with a drinks cabinet. Still, they were well supplied with tequila, and at certain hours of the day could even be hustled in to making food. Which was good, because I didn’t much fancy my chances at catching and cooking a porcupine anyway. Beyond this little settlement and it’s perhaps 15 (including us) inhabitants, nothing. No roads, no electricity, no mobile signal and definitely no wifi access. It was the best of both worlds, you could live the castaway life, fishing and cooking over open fires without seeing another soul if you so desired, but you could also nip down the beach for a long island iced tea when the foraged coconuts lost their appeal.
It was a good start. And when, four days later, the little boat returned to collect us, we were sad to to say goodbye. Sad, but also a little excited, because now we were enroute to island number two, Ko Ta Kiev. “Crusoe Island”. I’m really not joking, the first hotel was ‘Robinson‘, the second was ‘Crusoe‘. Not by our design either, it just seems that whatever passes for a tourist board in Cambodia knows it’s customer base well. They’re not partygoers or holidaymakers, they’re refugees. Seeking asylum the world, and humanity in general.
Crusoe island however, was not so much of a castaway’s retreat, it was actually more reminiscent of Peter Pan’s Neverland. A collective of unsupervised youths with a pirate fixation. At 31, I don’t consider myself to be ‘old’, but in this place I felt like the octogenarian grandfather recounting tales of the war. Even Miss Marie-Carmen, at a sprightly 26 said she felt a generation older than her closest age rival. I swear that the ‘man’ serving at the bar should actually have been instead concentrating on his GCSE homework.
And when one of these Lost Boys suggested a spear-fishing trip, I gazed long and hard. I gazed upon the fluffy teenage goatee, the glazed eyes, the gentle sway of his stance, I gazed at the comedy-sized joint brandished in his left hand, and at the high powered spear gun in his right.
And at the forefront of my mind was the knowledge that we were a three hour boat ride, and an eight hour car journey, from the nearest hospital*.
“You know what mate, I think I’ll give it a miss”.
Maybe I really am getting old.
Marauding infants aside, Crusoe Island was a pretty enough place, with vast, empty beaches and warm, gentle seas. And our accommodation was a Native-American style teepee, which we soon discovered we were sharing with a reptile the size of a small dog. He could be quite vocal at times, but he kept the mosquito population down efficiently, so we named him Albert, and left him to his own devices.
* By ‘hospital’ I mean a real western-standard house of medicine, the nearest being over the border in Trat, Thailand. Cambodia does have hospitals, but outside of the capital they’re generally places where the occupants rob you blind and steal your trousers. And where the resident GP wears ceremonial headgear, and performs surgery by whoop-hollering and waving his willy in the air. In my mind anyway.