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King's island quenches thirst for good life

King's island quenches thirst for good life

Koh S'dach Island's path provides weatherproof access to the main village.

Ung Seoun, 68, arrived in Koh S'dach in 1984 with only $15 in her pocket to start a new life.

"My drunken husband constantly verb-ally abused me. So I beat him and left the old man in Kampot," said Seoun, who owns one of the island's two guest houses.

"My life has changed since I arrived and I find myself at peace." She now calls Koh S'dach, which translates as "King's Island", her home. Located in the Gulf of Siam halfway between Koh Kong and Sihanoukville, Koh S'dach is a two-hour bullet boat ride from Sihanoukville.

It's a place where the living is easy and the Thai baht rules.

Curious children follow visitors to a pier on Koh S'dach.

Standing on the pier, where a caged nightingale has been taught to recite the phrase "no singing", countless coconut palms and the as-yet-untrammeled beaches of the five surrounding islands and mainland grace the eye.

The search for a better life has seen the island's population expand from the seven families that remained after the Khmer Rouge left in 1979, to 750 families numbering about 4,000 people. Most come from Kampot Province, directly across the water, but many are Kampuchea Krom Khmers from southern Vietnam.

Some, especially the fishermen who moor their boats offshore in groups of three and four, are from Thailand. This mixed population, speaking both Khmer and Thai, swells and ebbs with the ocean's currents that determine when the fishing season begins and ends.

The island's name originates from a local legend which holds that a Khmer king came to the island in the 12th Century to fight off Thai invaders. After his victory, the king struck the soil three times with his magical dagger, forming a well to quench the thirst of his soldiers.

"No matter how many people come for water, the well never goes dry," said village elder Theat Keo, who lives three houses from what he believes to be the ancient well. According to Keo, a serpent that purifies the water and protects the island also inhabits the well.

There are no cars on the island, but then there is only one road. The straight three meter wide concrete road was built in 1993. It runs the length of the village, three kilometers along the shoreline, from the pier to the ice factory past houses, shops, vendors and restaurants.

Two dozen moto-dops ply this route daily. Tep Vannara, 37, a Naval Police officer originally from Phnom Penh, has been stationed on Koh S'dach for eight years. "Motos love to beep here," said Vannara. "There are no stop signs. The moto-dops beep so that people, and especially children, know they are coming."

At night the slightly worn road turns into a neon lit boulevard. People stroll, children play, foodstands abound while roadside restaurants convert into small cinemas filled with rows of chairs.

Fishing is the island's lifeblood.

"I know how to do two things in life: catch fish and eat fish," said Pon Kee, 33, a member of one of the seven families which survived the Khmer Rouge. "My father fished and so will my sons."

Although his family is poor they live comfortably on a small farm. "We don't need a lot of money to live. We eat what we grow".

But one former fisherman that has found fortune on the King's Island is Panya Heng Oung, 45.

"I have Chinese blood. I'm a businessman, so it is profitable to be a buyer rather than a fisherman," explained Panya, adding knowingly that "panya" means "intelligent" in Thai.

One of three wholesale fish buyers on the island, his business is conducted from a large private pier. His 16-year-old daughter presides over the short-wave radio, keeping in constant communication with the boats on the ocean. Since becoming established on Koh S'dach 14 years ago, his empire has grown to include five transport boats and the town's ice factory.

Besides selling blocks of ice, the factory's generator supplies the island with electricity and delivers ice to coastal villages so that the fish, crabs and shrimp that Panya buys are kept fresh.

Originally from Trat, Thailand, Panya met and married his Cambodian wife after she fled across the border from the Khmer Rouge.

"My wife wanted to come back to her birthplace," explains Oung. "I wasn't going to let my beautiful wife come back here alone."

Although there seems to be plenty of young faces on the island, education for Koh S'dach's youth ends at the sixth grade. After that, those who have money leave the island and seek education in Phnom Penh or Thailand, otherwise they go to work. The village school, renovated five years ago, lies up the hill from the road.

A short walk from the school on the other side of the island can be found the "new" village, known for its karaoke and a handful of brothels.

Four months ago Ta Ong, 57, retired from fishing after being diagnosed with TB and turned his hand to the karaoke business. Noting that the island is a stop-off point for fisherman and sailors traveling to and from Thailand, Sihanoukville and Kampot gives him confidence in the future of his karaoke shop.

 

On the rocky shore below, boats can be moored overnight and the men come up the hill to eat, sing and relax.

"When the local fishermen do not catch fish they also come up to relax and sing karaoke," said Ong. "After all the money is spent, they sail back to their wives."

Overlooking those carousing karaoke lovers on the highest hill above town is the island's sole pagoda, Wat Koh Keo Morokot (Glass Emerald Island Pagoda), named for the encircling blue-green ocean hues.

"There is too much karaoke and gambling in the village," lamented Troeung Malay, who at age 33 is the wat's senior monk.

"When I am praying at night, I hear songs in the air. This loud sweet melody makes me want to go have fun too," he added laughing, cigarette in hand.

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