Koh Rong Fire: Lives and Livelihood Saved by Strangers

I woke up in a frenzy. People were running through the bamboo hallway of my beach-side dorm. Locals were shouting in Khmer.

We had to get up, pack our things and get out. Now! As we chucked our belongings onto the beach, we felt the hot fire engulfing the bamboo hostel, only a few hundred meters from where we slept. From that moment on it was a pure adrenaline rush to save Koh Rong.

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The beach of this island is comprised of only a strip of mostly bars, restaraunts, accommodation and good vibes. It’s so undiscovered that there’s not even a fire department, or a hospital or a governing body. Just local Cambodians and now confused travelers.

Some people held their backpacks, watching the building scorch as the sun rose over the crystal blue sea behind us. It was probably only 6am. Others quickly ran to find their loved ones. Me? I was consumed by adrenaline, last night’s booze and an urgency to save this beautiful place that I had called home for only 3 days. Time didn’t matter. This place was special.

Within seconds, “heroes” jumped into action. Every pot, water jug, cereal bowl that could hold water was used. Travelers and locals lined up next to each other stretching from the sea, passing water through the line to the men inside – the ones ballsy (or dumb, or courageous?) enough to run into a burning building. Everyone hustled with the same urgency. “We need more people over here,” “this is a heavy one, two people,” “quickly!”. Salt water was getting tossed around everywhere. And so was the wind that was now taunting the buildings next door.

We worked quickly, passing empty containers back and forth down the line to refill from the sea. The men inside the building began to feel their feet smolder as ash and hot ambers fell into the black sludge. I grabbed a little boy who was standing in the middle of the lava and plopped him on the sand. The poor kids had no idea what was going on. He just stood their, standing in the hot black ash that was once his home.

It had been hours since the fire startled us awake, and I noticed the guys inside were looking exhausted and were covered with soot. I took off sprinting down the beach searching for fresh water.

On my run back I saw the Cambodian woman that owned all the buildings. She was shaking with tears boiling down her cheeks. All I could do was rub her back and wrap my arms around her before taking off to help save what we could. Some good has to come from this, I thought.

From the oceans edge, you could see local Cambodians ripping off their bamboo (easily flammable) roofs, throwing mattresses over balconies and rushing all their merchandise onto the covered beach. It looked like a tornado had hit.

For hours, hundreds of brave people from all over the world fought this fire – stopping it from destroying the island. We left the now sand-covered ruins in rough physical shape as well. Many had blisters forming, small gashes bleeding and filthy bodies covered in salt water, sweat, ash and sand. But no one even noticed. We were liberated by reality:

No one died. A few buildings burnt down and a family has now lost their home and all of their earnings. But everyone is alive. One man suffered third degree burns. He had run into the fire to grab propane tanks and carry the scolding metal out of the building before it could explode. Without his braveness, many would have died.

As for me, I have a few cuts. My body is a bit sore. But my heart is heavy yet awakened… My faith in humanity has new air after seeing so many people come together for a place that for most, was just a holiday visit. But I am also devastated. A family has lost everything. There are some people that didn’t even bother to help. Some even stole belongings from the piles.

But that wasn’t me. And now when I see the faces that were next to me passing heavy buckets of water and sand, I feel like I’m looking at a family member. We are liberated and have so much to be grateful for. Much respect.

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What’s left of the four businesses and home.

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Tending to our wounds despite the lack of a pharmacy or hospital on the island. Most injuries came from the hot embers and ash that volunteers had to wade in to put out the flames.

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