HIDDEN BEAUTY SPOTS, SHOULD WE KEEP THE SECRET?

Koh Rong Samloem is the first place to come to mind when I think about hidden beauty spots.

When I first wrote about the most beautiful place I had ever been for the ‘off the beaten’ track section of the South East Asia Backpacker website, I was immensely excited to be sharing the secret with other travellers. The article in question was a lovingly written post about the gorgeous Koh Rong Samloem, a relatively undiscovered island just off the Cambodian coast near Sihanoukville. I never once considered that I had done the wrong thing by telling people about this isolated beauty spot, yet as the comments on social media rolled in, it became clear that not everyone agreed with me.

Paradise

I had heard about the mythical Koh Rong Samloem during an impromptu breakfast trip with a handful of other backpackers. We all got talking and were exchanging recommendations about the best places to visit in South East Asia. After hearing about the crystal clear waters and isolated beaches, Tim and I couldn’t get Koh Rong Samloem out of our heads.

After a long jungle trek to reach sunset beach, it suddenly became clear why Koh Rong Samloem’s mere existence had become a thing of urban backpacker legend. Development on the island was sparse, with a few luxury bungalows on one side and a spattering of budget hostels on the other. With electricity available for around 6 hours a day and no ATM machines or wifi, it was the ultimate escape.

We spent a few days on the island, during which time we fell in love with it. I couldn’t help but feel lucky that if it hadn’t been for a chance meeting with an Austrian girl, I would never have discovered this paradise.

A perfect fit

Initially, when I started writing about the island for the ‘off the beaten track’ section of the website, I had no doubt in my mind that it was a perfect fit. I think it is completely natural to want to share amazing places and assumed everyone was in agreement of this. That is what I thought before the social media comments came in anyway.

As I reviewed the feedback from the unknown internet contributors, I felt more and more aggrieved. The very nature of the travel industry is founded on knowledge being passed from one person to another. Look at massive travel publishers like Rough Guides and the Lonely Planet, I didn’t see them getting stick from anyone about sharing amazing destinations with the masses. Why were people so angry with me?

Tourism is a massive industry for most countries, especially developing ones like Cambodia where so many of the population are still living in immense poverty. When visitors enjoy a place so much that they tell others or come back, that is clearly good for the local people and their economy. Lonely Planet writer Joe Cummings makes some great points about the positive impact of tourism in this article with South East Asia Backpacker. It is easy for us to dictate how we think idyllic places should be preserved when we are not dependent on the income but many of the locals rely on the tourism industry and its revenue to feed their families. If Cambodia wants to develop their beaches to find more jobs for local people, is that not their business?

The backlash

I was heavily criticised by a number of the backpacking community who said that by writing about Koh Rong Samloem, I was contributing to its inevitable demise. Many pointed to the development of sister island Koh Rong, which underwent a huge transformation from an unknown paradise to a popular party island. Some commenters labelled me as selfish for seeking to get the article published, claiming that now that I had been able to enjoy the island and its raw perfection, I was seeking to ruin the experience for others. Whilst most of the feedback was largely positive, I couldn’t help feeling down about the ones that weren’t. The worst bit was that I could sort of see their point.

I will admit that I stewed on some of the comments for a long time. Not just because people didn’t agree with me but because some of the remarks were so darn nasty. I was called a stupid blabbermouth who was going to singlehandedly ruin Cambodia’s beaches. I understand that by writing an article about an isolated paradise island, people are going to want to go there. I also understand that the more visitors to a specific place, the more development there will be and therefore some of the original charm may be lost. I realise all of this and I accept responsibility for my part in it. However, with islands like Koh Phangnan and Koh Rong now firmly embodied as party destinations, is there really anything we can do to stop or slow this process?

So was I wrong to tell people about Koh Rong Samloem?

To answer this question simply, I don’t know. Whilst I am quite flattered that people thought my little article would be so widely read that it broke the island, I think it is important to put things in context. The only way to stop development of these paradise islands is not to visit. That doesn’t involve keeping quiet about it and trying to limit the visitors, but for no-one to visit at all. Not me, not you, no-one. Has no-one read or learned anything from ‘The Beach’? Exclusive paradises cannot be sustained. Human nature will always work against mother nature as we all have an inherent desire to share our experiences.

I stand by the fact that whilst my article may bring additional visitors to the island, percentage wise my contribution is minimal at best. Prior to my own visit, Koh Rong Samloem was featured in ‘South East Asia on Shoestring’ by the Lonely Planet and had appeared on numerous other online blogs. Information on the island may not be staring you in the face, but it has always been out there.

In my opinion, the whole point of travel is to bring different people together, which is largely what I feel sharing my experience did. There is very little we can do to stop progress or the spread of development on a large scale, but everyone can do their bit to help preserve the charm of an area you’ve fallen in love with. Instead of allowing Koh Rong Samloem to become a rubbish-laden watering hole for partygoers, we can all make the effort to clean up after ourselves and make sure we enjoy pursuits that honour the spirit of the island.

We may not be able to stop the train, but we sure as hell can change its direction.

What do you think about sharing isolated destinations with other travellers?

Sheree

10 Comments

  1. You can’t win sometimes. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But it’s a beautiful spot and it’s nice to know about it! #flyawayfriday

  2. This is such a timely post for me! I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as well as if we “travel bloggers” are ultimately helping or hurting, for many different reasons. It’s hard to say, but I think the bottom line is, especially when running a site like this, of course you’re going to want to share your experiences, tips, etc.! Everyone wants to know about “less touristy” spots and there’s nothing wrong with you or anyone sharing them! Those negative comments people made are just ridiculous – but unfortunately someone will always have a negative point of view. I think you’re right that at the end of the day, if people take the extra effort to be a responsible and respectful traveler, that can make all the difference and will help these places to stay as beautiful as they’ve always been. #flyawayfriday
    Caity recently posted…Crushing on Caye Caulker, BelizeMy Profile

    • Hi Caity, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! I definitely agree that we have to consider the impact that our writing has and you are so right when you say these effects can be balanced by being a respectful and responsible traveller.

  3. It’s really interesting to read this. I wonder how the locals feel about it. I’d care more about what they think that the angry internet warriors!

    I have a similar story: I looove hiking, so since I moved to Vancouver I joined a local hiking group to meet new people and find out about cool places to explore. One weekend I was walking with a group that was all quite a lot older than me. They were discussing whether they should make a rule asking hikers (in the group) to avoid posting about or instagramming some of the off the beaten track, beautiful places in BC. They mentioned that there was a problem with young, unprepared folks hiking out into the wilderness to take epic photos for Instagram, and then leaving tonnes of rubbish.

    They basically wanted to keep the best places secret from young’uns because they harm the wildlife and make such a mess. I personally think it would be better to educate more people about how to act responsibly in the wilderness. Eg, take the 10 essentials, leave no trace, and be mindful of wildlife (including bears!)

    I always share my photos when I go hiking in a group, but with that group I didn’t tell them about my blog as well as I didn’t want them to be mad at me!

    • That is definitely a factor that I think a lot of people neglect. Tourism definitely has it’s pros and cons but ultimately it’s about finding a happy compromise for everyone, somewhere in the middle.

      Thanks for sharing your story! I completely agree that it comes down to education. Realistically if people feel passionate about a place, they are far more likely to want to preserve the area and may not be aware of how their actions impact on a larger scale.

      I love seeing photos from beautiful places and am an avid supporter of shared experiences but I think you probably made the right decision not telling them about your blog… I would have kept quiet too!

  4. You are going to be criticized one way or another, it doesn’t matter what you do. In my case, sometimes I prefer to read articles or blog posts about relatively unknown places. I feel they are refreshing since there seem to be thousands of articles written about certain destinations. Along with that line, a lot of people write about popular destinations and they do not seem to be criticized for contributing to the overcrowding of a place or the exploitation of certain groups. Also, in an age of social media use, I am not sure if we have “hidden” places anymore. #FlyAwayFriday
    Ruth recently posted…Visiting the Grand Canyon West Rim, ArizonaMy Profile

    • That’s a really interesting point that I had never really considered before, you’ve only got to look at the crowds of people at Angkor Wat at sunrise to see how overpopulated some destinations have become.

  5. It’s all about travelling sustainably and if you can do that and be aware of your footprint on the planet then you do what you can do. You can’t change it you can’t stop it you can just prevent the worst by helping. #flyawayfriday

    • I totally agree Faith. As cheesy as it sounds, by working together we really can make a difference and help preserve beautiful areas.

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