Two days before we left for Koh Kong, my grumbling travel companion announced that – shock, despair – we would be going off the grid. No internet for 48 hours, maybe more. Phone reception, too, was patchy.
First, a twinge of regret. Then relief.
Like millions of others all over the world, I suffer from “busy”. The New York Times recently published an editorial under the title The Busy Trap, lampooning the collective pressure to be preoccupied:
“It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’”
Replace at will with “stressed”.
Technology has brought busyness and stress into our lives when we should really be neither. At home, in bed, we read emails, or scroll Twitter on the beach.
Top of this month’s stress list? Stress itself. Study this and study that all say that stress is a key cause of hypertension, thyroid disease, heart failure, coronary artery disease, even backache.
So, last month, for the benefit of my health, I decided to do nothing for a weekend.
Or rather, to do nothing somewhere beautiful: a weekend in a remote part of southwest Cambodia, totally incommunicado, and at one with almighty nature.
4 Rivers Floating Lodge, a string of canvas tents on a bend in the Tatai river, about six hours travel from Phnom Penh, is a remote eco-resort with the promising tagline: Floating on a river of tranquility.
We left the day after a big deadline. For the first hour of the drive, panicky thoughts came as regularly as bumps in the road.
My companion, silent beside me, had worked out a better system of coping. Sleep.
As I ate his croissant, and drank the dregs of his espresso, I, too, slowly slipped into mundane thought.
How Bob Dylan did the best travelling music.
For me, the snare drum brings back Italy’s verdant green hills and, now, Cambodia’s, snaking in a Toyota Camry toward the coast past rice paddy after rice paddy, puddles and jungle-trimmed hills.
It was working.
After a bone-shaking four hour ride – our driver, “Ray”, conquered the blind mountain bends with an unforgettable exhilaration – we arrived in Tatai village, an hour before the free boat to the resort.
A few hundred metres away from the tent that serves as 4 Rivers’ village HQ is an enormous sand-dredger, its gigantic spout spitting out fountains of sand, with heaps more piled on the banks beside.
This is why if you want to go to Koh Kong, you should go now.
In 2012, the province recorded 100,000 local and foreign tourists, lured largely by the Cardamom Mountains, whose pristine natural beauty is increasingly under threat.
Digging up sand from the riverbed can cause the banks to collapse, and damage the marine life, while loggers and hunters have plundered the rare species that live in the jungle – to say nothing of the numerous industrial projects in the making.
As our little wooden boat pulled away from the Tatai jetty, my phone buzzed. Twenty or so emails waited, we had picked up a little wi-fi somewhere. With the exception of one saying that Sopranos star James Gandolofini was dead, none were urgent.
“You’re missing everything,” my companion grumbled.
What “everything” is on the Tatai river is the joy of not very much at all. Fresh, misty air that hangs over the Cardamoms. Silence broken only by bird calls. Absolute stillness, except for our hotel: a neat row of 12 tents on a bend in the river.
And, in late June, interminable, often torrential, rain.
It rained solidly for the three days we were there, meaning some of the most enticing tours offered by the resort were ruled out.
On drier days, you can trek through the jungles, or tour the mangrove waterways that reach back into the vegetation. It was even too wet for firefly watching.
Fortunately, for I am not a happy camper, the tents are palatial.
At 45m square, and lavishly furnished, the rooms are most closely comparable to African safari style tents. In an adjacent bathroom, his and hers basins pour water onto ceramic plates. A rain shower is set in what looks like the bottom half of an enormous wooden beer barrel.
There’s a flat screen TV and a red and white stringy rug in which feet sink pleasantly when they are wet, which, that weekend, was very often. Each tent has its own private jetty and kayak hire is free.
The rain came in waves.
Sprawled on the bed, my companion read aloud from a history book about how Woodrow Wilson came close to dying from stress. “Brain thrombosis can be brought on by overwork.” The railings of our mini harbor bobbed. I munched an excellent gruyere sandwich. Meanwhile, Wilson was forging the League of Nations.
One morning, when our absenteeism must have become noticeable to the staff, we got a call to the room. The tour guide, Bonna, made apologies for the rain and offered to take us to the waterfall. “It’s free,” he implored. He’d sussed us. At $150 a night, 4 Rivers is pricey for Cambodia, and tours are around $20 a pop.
We put on plastic rain jackets and clambered into the rickety boat.
It was a beautiful hour’s ride to the waterfall. We passed the island 50 yards across the water from the resort, home to 12 families including many relatives of 4 Rivers staff, Bonna told us. Nearly everyone in the area speaks Thai – some better than Khmer.
We also passed tiny sand-dredging boats, a black and noisy nightmare of the industrial revolution. “Floating iron pellets,” my companion mused.
For the idle holidaymaker, there was, however, a more immediate threat to consider: snakes. The staff reassured us that if there were snakes around, they would probably leave us alone.
Bonna was more specific, telling us about the King Cobra spotted swimming across the river. The locals whacked it over the head and ate it, he said.
Our dips in the river became less frequent after that.
When we reached the waterfall, a six metre drop, we were given the opportunity to kayak. The Belgian couple with us set off, arms moving in perfect unison, while we splashed around trying to find a place to rest.
There are a number of smaller waterfalls that would be perfect picnic spots in better weather.
When we got back to the resort, the rain had stopped and the skies looked clear. Black butterflies hovered by the lunch tent. It felt like summer.
Feeling emboldened, we borrowed a kayak and rowed through the low-hanging vegetation behind the tents, brushing through palm leaves that dipped into the water.
It began to drizzle again. Big grey clouds hung low around the river bed. We rowed on but soon the rain started to pummel us and turned the still, glassy water a churning brown.
When we reached our private harbor, we moored the boat and jumped in.
The last morning was bright.
“Your freckles are out,” my companion observed, as we rode the boat back to Tatai. I checked in the black, blank screen of my phone. So they were. Odd, given we hadn’t seen the sun for days.
“Why don’t you do what you always do and Google it?”
I decided, for the first time in a long time, to let it remain a mystery.