“The first I heard of the beach was in Bangkok, on the Ko Sanh Road.”
― Alex Garland, The Beach
”What’s your passion?” an inquisitive new roommate asked as I was rummaging through the jumbled mess of my backpack.
It was January 2015, and we’d both recently arrived at beach guesthouse ‘Done Right’, on the outskirts of Cambodian seaside town Sihanoukville, south of the capital Phnom Penh.
There wasn’t much to Otres beach when I first visited in 2009. It seemed to have a castaway appeal to it’s dozen or so beach bars that were there at the time, but not enough to hold the attention of my then mid-twenties self enjoying the hedonistic thrills of Sihanoukville’s main backpacker zone of Serendepity Beach – now a distant memory in the wake of a Chinese casino boom that has claimed the entire town.
When I visited Serendipity in 2015, however, where once was an off-the-beaten track magnet for travel-hardened characters and weirdos of all varieties, was subsequently a victim of the Lonely Planet effect, complete with hordes of gap yah brats, pop music and cheap neon vests clearly bought from Bangkok’s Kao San Road. Perhaps I’d just grown up (ok, so my 2010 backing wardrobe had it’s share of Khao San vests), or perhaps a good thing just never lasts.
A day tip to Otres beach, however, revealed the once mostly vacant strip of pristine sand to have developed into a newer, much more chilled out version of what I had love about the place before. Here was where the people of substance came to dwell for a week or two, or a year, or twelve.
People like Jacob.
“I like photography,” I replied. “Yourself?”
“Illustration. Drawing. I’m into Muay Thai too,” replied the skinny kid with an Aussie accent and a broad, self-designed chest plate.
It didn’t take long for Jacob to become Done Right’s artist in residence, and began to sketch out what would be his first ever mural, which would greet guests on arrival. The focus of his piece was a Cambodian woman’s smiling face, inspired by a local lady named known to all as ‘Mom’, who, although in her twenties, was thought of as the mother of Otres to many of otres’s foreign settlers.
For his artistry, Jacob received full board. I was asked to document Jacob’s project for a reward at the end of my stay. There was another gentleman too painting traditional Cambodian aspara dancers behind the bar at the same time. One Sunday evening we were treated to a beautiful display of the dance from local women, during Done Right’s ‘Family Dinner’, where a huge meal is served to the local community alongside a variety of performances.
Unfortunately, like almost all of the businesses in Sihanoukville and Otres, Done Right had been taken over by Chinese interests when I revisited at the turn of 2019, and the once pure shores were awash with pollution, trash, and building materials from Chinese landscape that has risen out of nowhere.
Here today, gone tomorrow. The cycle of creation.
Mum was and is still holding on strong though, as resilient as Chinese bamboo. She took good care of me on that last visit, thanks Mum!
I didn’t stay to see the completion of the piece, so the final photograph is taken from Done Right’s Facebook page, which is currently documenting the new location they are building, looking as eco friendly as their old place and affiliated school.
Life, as Ian Malcom once said, finds a way.
My recent photography is updated on Instagram.