Travel Notes: Koh Tonsay

By Douglas Clayton | September 2009

Since few outsiders have been to them it’s easy to forget that Cambodia has over 60 pristine islands dotting its coastline. I’ve been curious to investigate the Cambodian answer to the Robinson Crusoe question: how do people make a living on an undeveloped tropical island? When I hear that locals are farming seaweed on Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island) I decide to go check it out. I bring along our trusty driver Sam, and at the small pier in Kep we negotiate a boatman to take us out for the day for $20. He leads us to a “long-tail” boat, which I notice lacks any life preservers or radio, but it does have a red police light mounted on a frame which I guess makes it safe. The boat slices through the waves with surprising stability, and after a 25 minute ride we are jumping off at Koh Tonsay.

Tonsay’s main beach is long and nicely decorated with tall coconut trees. Side by side along the beach are six bungalow operators, each offering a dozen simple huts for intrepid travelers. “You get what you pay for” is a travel truism, and here $5 gets you a roof and walls of woven palm fronds (eco-friendly!), without unnecessary 5-star frills like electricity, fan, or mosquito nets (no carbon footprint!) However one operator’s sign advertises their bathrooms have toilet paper, which seems a promising start and perhaps for now gives them a massive competitive advantage. I decide my wife might not be enthusiastic to spend a holiday in one of these huts, although I notice a dozen or so guests contentedly reading their Lonely Planet guides along the beach.

Sam and I set off to hike around the island, which has zero automobiles but one muddy cowpath/trail. The trail circles around a 150 meter tall mini-mountain that occupies most of the island’s interior and is lushly carpeted by jungle. After mucking down the path for 20 minutes, we reach a second, smaller beach, which holds only a few randomly placed fishermen’s shacks but no seaweed farms or bungalows.

Next to one hut we watch a woman chopping up some fish with one hand while rhythmically shoeing away a grunting sow with her other hand; the smell of fish guts is making the pig quiver with excitement and it looks tempted to just dive in. Nearby a teenage girl sits in jeans under a mango tree watching three piglets root around a pile of old coconut shells. Although she’s living on a idyllic tropical island paradise, the girl looks bored, like teenagers everywhere. I briefly wonder if she has ever attended a school, as I don’t see any schools or health clinics to serve the 50-100 people living out there. But they do have access to 3G cell phone coverage, as I discover when my phone suddenly rings; it’s my wife checking if I’ve put on sunscreen which of course I’ve forgotten. The sun is getting scorching now and I realize I am getting fried, but no one is selling anything like lotion on this island.

Soon I’m getting scratched up as well as the trail winds back into the jungle and we have to stoop low to pass under thorny branches. Furthermore my new sandals begin to blister my feet. Sam, a rugged Cambodian war veteran, seems comfortable moving through the jungle although I suspect he wishes I had issued him a machete to carry instead of a wimpy rolled-up umbrella.

Finally we reach the seaweed area, so here’s the context. In the past islanders subsisted by catching fish, raising some animals, and picking coconuts and mangos. Over the past decade they’ve learned to supplement their income by not only renting out bungalows to backpackers but also by farming Eucheuma cottonii seaweed. The seaweed gets processed into carrageenan, an ingredient in all sorts of popular products from ice cream to toothpaste to “personal lubricants”. I see hundreds of plastic bottles bobbing in the warm shallow waters off the back of the island; the bottles buoy a grid of nylon lines on which eucheuma is planted. After a few months it is harvested by pruning and sun dried on long homemade tables onshore, before being sold to a Malaysian company that supplies it to the US. In one area, I watch local women sorting seaweed and exchanging gossip (see photo below)

We resume our march and pass by a simple concrete box, windowless except for a slit on one side. At first I think it’s a water storage tank donated by a NGO, but Sam tells me it’s a military bunker, which must have been built by the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975 when they were launching commando raids on nearby Phu Quoc island to try to seize it from fellow communist Vietnam. The bunker is the only historical building we see on Koh Tonsay. Suddenly the trail ends abruptly at a shack with a small private beach. Four kids are splashing around in giant life vests that seem as tall as them, while their father sits on his porch, smoking a cigarette and watching the seaweed grow. Sam asks him for a boat lift back to the main beach and he quotes us a hefty $6 for the short ride; clearly he has stumbled on a steady income stream simply by locating his house at the end of the trail. He delegates the ferrying task to his teenage son who is lounging nearby on a hammock, and the boy reluctantly bails out their little boat which is alarmingly full of water. We set off in the wobbly craft and the engine dies within minutes, but the boy somehow gets it restarted and finally delivers us intact.

Like most of Cambodia’s better islands, Koh Tonsay has been awarded as a long term concession to a local business group, so one day it will probably have some boutique hotels on it, and all the seaweed sorters will be wearing housekeeping uniforms and their husbands will be pushing lawnmowers. But I’m glad to have seen it as it was, and still is.

The Seaweed Sorters

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1 comment:

  1. You have beautifully described the island. I'm Cambodian but never been there at all, I think I'm gonna have a visit sometimes soon.

    You said the island locals are farming seaweed for their living. As far as I know, seaweed farming could pollute the sea and also the beach particularly by its stinky smell. Therefore, when the sea gets dirty I suppose people/tourists couldn't swim. How about the sea quality where seaweed is grow in Koh Tonsay?