Children of Koh Rong Samloen

by Julia Reynolds

A leap into the unknown Cambodia


"Where you go?" A small but rather fiercely posturing boy bars us from passing onward from in front of his home on the middle of Koh Rong Samloen, a diminutive isle off the coast of Sihanoukville in southwest Cambodia. Our group of four has been attempting to traverse from the northern tip of the island at M'Pai Bai Bay to heart-shaped Seracen Bay on foot, and the next section of the path consisted of two options: balance our bags on our heads and wade for about an hour through the sea to the next shore, or pay for a rowboat over the same distance. Turned out, the all business 8-year-old blocking our path was the proprietor of the rowing transport company. As we weren't altogether enthralled with the wading option and the cute kid facing us, unsmiling but not entirely truculent, was decidedly persuasive, we decided to take the boat option. It was the day before the Khmer New Year, and the island's children were all on holiday from school. As the boy carefully navigated the rickety wooden boat away from a dilapidated dock and into the impossibly cerulean waters surrounding the island with a practiced skill that belied his youth, my partner grabbed the second paddle to assist in the turning process. This was the first and only time I saw the kid crack a smile, almost furtively. He retained a strictly professional façade for the remainder of the ten minute boat trip to Eastern shore, coolly collected our $5, and rowed away. That evening, back in M'Pai Bai Bay, villagers old and young gathered in the center of the hamlet for New Years festivities. Children raced in burlap rice sacks while teenage boys engaged in a relay in which each competitor swung a banana tied to hang between his legs with the goal of swatting a ball placed on the ground before him. The beaming, wiry adolescent whose ball crossed the finish line first gave a proud whoop of triumph to celebrate his victory. Hour after hour music blasted from outdoor speakers, alternating between traditional Khmer ballads and pulsing modern techno. We danced until we were drenched with perspiration, until our faces were streaked white with the talcum powder thrown everywhere per custom, until the laughing kids balanced on our shoulders wore us to our knees in the sand. On that island with bioluminescence filling its bays with stars and coral reefs teeming with life around its perimeter, the kids had the biggest impact---ebullient, open-armed, and open-hearted, despite unimaginable poverty.