Rudy Schmittlein, 60, has been a globetrotter and diving instructor for 34 years, living on different beaches, mostly in South East Asia. In 2004 his life took a drastic turn when he was caught in the 2004 tsunami which hit Thailand and Sri Lanka. Four years later he decided to move to Cambodia and opened the Paradise Bungalows resort on Koh Rong. Julius Thiemann got the low-down on living in paradise from Rudy.
What do you love about living on your island, Koh Rong?
I love the unspoiled nature and the fact that I created a place to fit my idea of paradise. When I arrived at the beach by boat four years ago for the first time there was nothing here. Only forest and a fire cleared compound. I could start planting the plants I like: mango and lychee trees, bananas, and also 200 coconut trees. I love the freedom you feel when nobody can stare in your living room from the outside. I have space here in every respect.
Why was it important for you to you to create your own paradise?
On December 26 in 2004 I was a victim of the terrible tsunami in Sri Lanka. Of all the people I knew there I was the most severely injured. I was flown out to Germany and put in an induced coma for 17 days. When I woke up and returned to life I realised I wanted to live in paradise in the here and now. If you don’t achieve that as a living person in real life you will never have it after. I don’t believe in a life in paradise after this life. Life should be beautiful right now.
Why did you decide to live on an island after you were the victim of a tsunami on one?
When I awoke from the coma my whole existence in Sri Lanka was shattered. I haven’t lived in Germany or Europe for 34 years and have always been a diver and diving instructor. I am also 60 years old. In Germany my only chance to make a living would have been to go on welfare. Besides, no natural catastrophes like tsunamis ever happen in Cambodia - I checked on that.
Four years ago you were the first one to open a resort on Koh Rong. Since then other resorts have opened. What has changed in island life?
In the beginning the relationship with the locals was more intense. There were just us, my Cambodian partner and 16 employees and the small neighbour village of Koh Tuich with about 100 inhabitants. Now with growing income and employment on the island, life has become faster and nobody has that much time anymore. But I am happy for that: before people were sitting around all day and were drinking a lot. All people did here was selling wood from the forest. Now most locals work for the different guest houses and resorts that have opened over the last years.
With limited things to do is it important to have a routine to enjoy island life?
I love being the first at the beach in the morning. I take my six dogs and do a ten-kilometre walk in the woods and along beaches with them. This is important to me. It is like meditation. I don’t miss much. I can imagine to stay here forever. That doesn’t mean I would get depressed if I had to leave here for some reason. I am not a Robinson Crusoe person.
Have you ever experienced cabin fever?
I am almost fully booked all through the year. At the moment I really need a break and I would like to take that – not on an island. If I need a break I can stay in my apartment in Sihanoukville or I do motorcycle tours. But I think it is impossible to get cabin fever on Koh Rong. With 78 square kilometres the island is way to big for that. I have heard of people getting cabin fever on the Maldives where you can surround a whole island within minutes and only have the ocean around.
Why is an island especially suitable to build one’s own paradise?
When you are the first in a place you can really do your own thing without consideration for others and guidelines to follow. That works especially well on an island because it is isolated. On the mainland the boundaries are not so clear.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at firstname.lastname@example.org