‘Paradise’ means different things to different people. For some it might be cuddling up with someone special in front of an open fire with a bottle of wine; for others it is a fantastic party, dancing all night with their best friends. Maybe it’s a wild jungle teeming with animals and birds, or the top of a mountain with crystal views across a beautiful landscape.
Whilst I’ve been travelling in Southeast Asia, I’ve been looking for my own slice of paradise. I wasn’t sure what it was going to look like – until I found it. A place that literally takes your breath away, that is stamped on your memory for life and is so perfect you can’t quite believe it’s real.
My paradise was on an island off the coast of Cambodia. It’s very underdeveloped at the moment but that’s all about to change, so it was the ideal time to visit before it goes the way of Koh Samui or Koh Phangan in Thailand. I was travelling with my friend Sian at this point in my trip and we nearly didn’t visit this island at all. However, luckily an Irishman with the gift of the gab persuaded us to get the boat there the following day and insisted we stay overnight to fully experience the place.
The next day did not start well. Having sampled the nightlife of Sihanoukville the evening before, Sian and I were not feeling at our best. The morning was spent pondering exactly what had happened last night, trying to eat something and generally feeling very unwilling to get on a boat for three hours. But get on the boat we did, and we disembarked at about 4pm feeling marginally more human.
A short walk up the beach brought us to our bungalow for the night. Even in our delicate state we were impressed by the beauty of the place. The sea was gentle and the kind of azure colour that seems digitally enhanced in postcards. The sand was so powdery soft it squeaked under our flip flops. The place was peaceful, besides the generators that power the island – there is no mains electricity installed as yet.
A dip in the sea having fully cured our hangovers (if there’s a better way of getting over one I’d love to hear it), dinner and a few drinks were to be had in the resort’s down-to-earth bar. We were told by Ben, the English owner of the place, we must go swimming in the sea that night once the power was turned off so we could experience the phenomenon of phosphorescent algae. Ok, we said, we’ll do it. So we did – and it was magical. Sian was a little nervous of the sea at night as we were the only people in there, so I swam around to make the water come alive. It’s hard to describe the effect; when you disturb the algae it glows a neon green colour. Against the blackness of the water it looks incredible and you feel as though you are tripping out. It reminded me of the glow-in-the-dark stars I had stuck on the ceiling of my room when I was a child.
Having had our fill of night-swimming – and feeling the chill – we sat on the sand to dry off a little and gazed at the stunning sky. With no power on and nothing but seawater in front of us, the stars were incredibly bright and numerous. We could even see the Milky Way, a blurry green-blue sprawl above our heads. Every so often, a shooting star would burn across the atmosphere. It couldn’t have been any more romantic.
But paradise still had an ace up its sleeve. I was already on a stunning beach, dozing in a hammock, swimming in wonderland and gazing in awe at the best night sky I’ve ever seen – what more could I want? Ben insisted that we should take the path through the jungle to another, longer beach the next day. Being obedient girls we set about it the following morning after a wonderfully deep, relaxed sleep.
It started off ok, but soon we were feeling a little like Richard, Francoise and Etienne in The Beach as we battled barefoot through mud and climbed over tree roots to reach our destination. Channelling Indiana Jones, I even cut my foot open a little on a rogue twig. Yet we persevered and our determination paid off big time. We emerged from the jungle onto a beach – but not just any beach. The cleanest, crispest white sand; the gentlest shoreline imaginable; the sea an indescribable blue, clear as glass, tenderly lapping the land. Palm trees fringed the shore which swirled in and out in a series of sand spits that were totally surrounded by water. It was one of these spits we chose as our home for the day.
After numerous exclamations of “this is ridiculous”; “it can’t be this amazing”; “how are we allowed here?”, Sian and I took to the ocean. It was shallow for at least 100m so we bobbed around on the lulling waves and soaked in the view. I sat in the water for a while just pondering how life had taken me to this magical place, and was soon surrounded by little stripy fish checking me out.
It had to come to an end sometime, as all good things do, and after several hours in paradise we departed to catch the boat back to reality (along our intrepid jungle path once more, all the time watching out for snakes). Paradise is a highlight of my trip so far because I felt more peaceful than ever in that place. At one moment I turned to Sian on our spit of sand and said, “If everything that has happened to me this year hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here right now, with you. And I know I am meant to be here now, so I guess there was a reason behind it all.” That’s what paradise meant to me, and that’s why I will never forget it.