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.
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?
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?