I ventured to Koh Rong, a highly-rated undeveloped island twenty-five rocky kilometers from Sihanoukville, only for the bioluminescent plankton. I experienced these glowing micro-organisms about a decade ago in Puerto Rico, and so I was propelled by an innocent but somewhat misguided hunt for an experience that was probably once in a lifetime, as all experiences tend to be.
I hopped off the creaking ferry into a den of beautiful Europeans who above all wanted to party and they wanted to do it now. The main beach vomited neon with strings of shacks competing with each other, all claiming to have it all – Dorms! Bar! Food! Wifi! Laundry! – and while it was only ten in the morning, each blasted its own variety of shitty Dubstep. I walked along the bustling beach looking for accommodation, trudging through wet sand that was too far from the water to be wet but was somehow wet. The only people who smiled back at me had red eyes.
Through the noise I immediately spotted a two-by-four plank with “$5 ALGAE TOURS $5” painted on it. I approached the gentleman in the booth for details. Five dollars. Be here at seven. Fifteen-minute boat ride from the island, one hour of swimming with plankton, we have snorkels, if you break it you buy it. Five dollars. Pay now.
Five minutes before seven I waded to the boat and introduced myself to eight people who weren’t listening. I was a bit too drunk to absorb the slight: the only redeeming quality of my shit-hole hostel was that they offered three dollars worth of free drinks between the hours of six and seven. With a high head I took this up in the name of economics.
Eventually one of the guys went around offering beer, which I happily accepted. I asked where he was from. “I’m Colombian, but I’m also half Yugoslavian,” he explained with endearing sincerity.
“Interesting,” I said. As I threw my head back and downed the warm can of Klang, a boundless constellation of stars winked at me. I winked back.
The fifteen-minute boat ride was in truth five minutes. We set out from Koh Rong’s main pier straight into the darkness, chugging along for two kilometers. El Capitan, the boat driver of maybe seventeen years, turned up his music and turned off the lights. The others began chatting about the state of their respective stock markets.
I plunged into the breathing sea. I felt the warm water completely swallow my being, like a baby still in the womb – the jet world suddenly reduced only to what I could feel. I plunged once and remained there, suspended in the obsidian nothingness of the night’s ocean. I existed there under the water for a time I couldn’t perceive, sustaining myself with newly sprouted gills. During this long while I twirled in circles like the most feathery ballerina, creating a whirlpool of hot white sparkles in the black infinity with me at its center. My body danced on its own, at once the puppet and master, emanating glowing brush strokes of scintillating paint with each arched swing of the leg, each lithe position switch of the arms.
I watched my fingers trace circles as the glowing plankton trailed behind. They followed me and I tried to catch them but we couldn’t find each other in this game; though I found solace in our contented coexistence.
The bass of El Capitan’s Khmer techno drowned out along with everything else, everything, every thing. Muted sound in water, an absolute lack of any and all impurity, the total vacuum of it. This beautiful chasm made me forget ugliness.
I floated up for a quick breath, back to the other universe. I floated horizontally with only my face and toes peeking out from the dark water. The blinking stars shone true and bright like my plankton, but perhaps in a more serious way. They were stable and omniscient, while the plankton teased and danced.
I looked up a different way and saw everyone in the boat, wrapped in colorful beach towels.
“But it’s only quarter to eight. We still have fifteen minutes with the plankton!”
El Capitan revved his engine.
The stars stayed with me until the late evening when, surrounded by the buoyant shrieks of people on holiday, I fell asleep dreaming of a light found and found again.∗