Paradise Found

A cheery Slavic staccato drifted across the turquoise sea and was swallowed by the mangroves blanketing this remote Cambodian island.

Then the dive boat gurgled up to the concrete pier and two dozen men and women, vodka-warmed and sunburned, leapt from the vessel and bounded down the jetty toward the beach. The men were alternately buff and beer-bellied, but almost uniformly hairy and tattooed. The women, jewelry ajangle, sported oversized sunglasses and undersized swimwear.

From left: Sergei Polonsky; his Mexican hairless dog, Flynt; his friend Denis Kozlov, his girlfriend Olga Deripasko; and his lawyer Kaspars Cekotins sit on the bow of a dive boat bound for Koh Damlong on December 2. (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)
From left: Sergei Polonsky; his Mexican hairless dog, Flynt; his friend Denis Kozlov, his girlfriend Olga Deripasko; and his lawyer Kaspars Cekotins sit on the bow of a dive boat bound for Koh Damlong on December 2. (Ben Woods/The Cambodia Daily)

They were here to celebrate Sergei Polonsky’s 42nd birthday. Fellow Russians, Ukrainians, Moldovans, Latvians and Turks; staff, friends and business associates of the fugitive developer; they were here to party.

Mr. Polonsky, never one to follow the herd, and having handed off the Mexican hairless dog he had brought for company on the two-hour ride from the coast, dove off the boat’s stern and into the salty cove. A few seconds later, his bleached-blond Russian girlfriend, Olga Deripasko, dove in after him and the two paddled over to a suitable patch of water, their guests all but forgotten. Porters unloaded cases of beer and liquor, rattan furniture, camera equipment and scuba gear.

The festive influx was witnessed by a few dozen bemused local craftsmen, who shook their heads and went back to turning the island into Mr. Polonsky’s vision of paradise.

“Big boss coming, let’s get back to work,” one said.

The 50-hectare Koh Damlong, also known as Potato Island, some 55 km southwest of Sihanoukville, literally buzzed with activity during a visit earlier this month, as shirtless workers squatted over planks of wood shipped from the mainland, shaping them with circular saws and power sanders. Others raked a network of rock-lined paths and plucked detritus from the beach. One group of workers sat amid an explosion of cardboard and polystyrene packaging, assembling newly purchased ceiling fans. A stack of mattresses had been staged in a jungle clearing. The smells of saltwater, sawdust and marijuana mingled in the wind. All the while, Mr. Polonsky’s guests frolicked in the froth.

Four of them waded in the shallows, collecting gnarled, conical snail shells, pausing occasionally to smash them open on a rock. “It’s pure aphrodisiac,” grinned one man. He slurped down the mollusk and reached for another.

Koh Damlong is one of seven islands (not counting his private island, Koh Dek Koul) that Mr. Polonsky has acquired off the Cambodian coast, with the intention of turning the entire archipelago into a $1 billion eco-tourism destination.

“One thousand beds, 10 months maximum,” Mr. Polonsky announced during the boat ride from the coast, his 1.94-meter frame stretched out over the bow.

The more immediate goal, however, is to construct 25 wooden bungalows on Koh Damlong by the end of the year, said self-taught Turkish carpenter Bora Ozturk, following a tour of the 15 that had already been built.

“Fifteen bungalows like that, 10 more bungalows Polonsky wanted behind the island, but I want to do it here,” Mr. Ozturk said from his perch on a banister surrounding a central dining pavilion, gesturing toward a patch of scrub along the water to his left. Asked where he thought the remaining bungalows would ultimately end up, he laughed. “I think behind, of course. What he wants.”

“He wants a lot of things, but I don’t know,” he added solemnly.

Guessing and preemptively accommodating the wants of Mr. Polonsky—whose cherubic mug has graced Interpol’s “Red Notice” list of most-wanted criminals since he was charged last year with embezzling millions from investors in a Moscow apartment complex —seems to occupy most of the energy of his entourage, a rotating menagerie of mostly beautiful women and hardened men.

Among those men (though notably more cheerful than his Slavic peers) is 34-year-old Cambodian scuba diver Pierre Kann, who is overseeing the development of Koh Damlong.

In an interview on the island, Mr. Kann said he had known Mr. Polonsky for about a year. “Before I met him, only I heard [about] him is that he is mafia, he is this, he is that,” he said. “But if you sit down and talk to him about island development and hear his ideas, then you will understand that this guy, he just loves nature.”

It is also Mr. Kann’s vision that is to become the central attraction of the eccentric oligarch’s isolated island chain.

“The Underwater War Museum is my last dream. If I do it, I can relax,” he said.

Funded by Mr. Polonsky, he explained, the Underwater War Museum is to be an artificial reef made up of aging Cambodian military hardware, each tank or helicopter simultaneously playing host to undersea creatures and educating divers in the country’s violent past.

“We have a war history,” he said. “Nobody has a [similar] war history and they don’t want to create a war for their country to create an artificial reef that’s called Underwater War Museum like us.”

The project—which Mr. Kann this past week pitched to a variety of government bodies in Phnom Penh and whose proposal was to be formally submitted Friday to an inter-ministerial committee overseeing coastal development—aims to draw a new breed of hydrophilic visitors to Cambodia.

“Automatically, it will attract a lot of divers, and you know tourist divers are high-class,” he said. “They are not backpackers, they spend more money.”

The first phase of the Underwater War Museum, according to the proposal, will involve eight war relics—“T-54/T-55 military tanks, machine guns, a plane, helicopter and military vehicles”—that Mr. Kann will sink off the coast of Koh Tang, a 500-hectare island occupied by the army.

Mr. Kann said he intends to acquire the military machinery from bases around the country. “You go to the military base. If the government agrees, take their military tanks,” he said.

“That’s why I need the government to approve this project, so…I can have a letter to say…and now I’d like to ask you to have these broken military tanks that you cannot use. Please provide me the story and everything,” he added. “Where [was] this tank used? Which war, which date, what is the story related to that?”

Along with its commercial potential—for the government, Mr. Polonsky and, he admitted, himself—Mr. Kann was quick to point out the project’s ecological benefits.

“This will stop a huge amount of illegal fishermen who usually come to fish here and…are allowed by [Cambodian] military,” he said, gesturing toward a cluster of fishing boats bobbing on the horizon he claims are operated by Thai and Vietnamese men known to use dynamite, cyanide and fine-meshed trawling nets to the detriment of the aquatic ecosystem.

Asked about the potential impact of the Underwater War Museum itself, Mr. Kann pointed toward a trio of marine biologists he has hired—salaried by Mr. Polonsky—who are preparing to submerge a tank-sized aluminum lotus flower off Koh Damlong that will serve as an ersatz coral head. The structure, sitting on the pier in several pieces two weeks ago, was meant to be a birthday present for Mr. Polonsky, but was not ready in time due to “welding problems.”

“Sooner or later, it’s going to go into the water,” said German biologist Aris Thomasberger.

“The idea is…with this low-voltage electricity, it’s going to create an electric field around the structure,” he said, explaining that the current will draw calcium and magnesium from the sea, forming a limestone coating on the metal. “Once the limestone is on there, the coral will automatically settle down there and grow beautiful shapes.”

“If it’s well done, it’s really not dangerous at all,” interjected Italian biologist Antonella Lavorato. The third researcher, Miguel Suarez of Ecuador, nodded in silent agreement.

As the late afternoon sun drooped toward the horizon and the guests began to migrate toward the smell of barbequed meat and promise of evening potation, Mr. Kann strolled along the beach, waxing lyrical about Mr. Polonsky’s support for the Underwater War Museum.

“When he hears this idea, he just, no questions…says: ‘How much money for this project to happen?” he said. “It’s just perfect.”

Mr. Kann then turned to a guest who had approached, dripping with water—snorkel and mask dangling by his side.

“I was expecting more when I went down for snorkeling. I expected more,” said the man, who subsequently introduced himself as one of Mr. Polonsky’s assistants.

“Oh,” Mr. Kann responded, taken aback. “You need to go to the other side.”

When the light finally faded, the island shrouded in darkness save the glow of the buildings and flicker of fishing boats still farming the depths, guests and laborers alike congregated in the dining area for the closing of the birthday festivities (which had kicked off earlier in the day with cake and champagne on Koh Dek Koul).

A group of workers huddled around a pair of grills, taking turns tending to the legs and haunches of a cow—purchased from soldiers on Koh Tang who had killed and butchered the animal earlier that day—while dipping into an industrial-sized orange cooler brimming with Angkor beer. “We have never eaten like this,” one worker exclaimed. “Let’s cheers!”

On the veranda, Mr. Gatal, the carpenter, regaled a group of local woodworkers, making toast after toast. Mr. Polonsky and his closest cronies had withdrawn to a quieter corner and were conversing earnestly. Two shirtless Russians, dripping with sweat, heaved a cauldron of beef-and-carrot stew onto the bar as the rest took their seats at a long wooden table set with plastic bowls and cutlery. Platters of grilled chicken, vegetables and bread covered the remainder of the surface.

Finally, when everyone had settled in for the feast, Mr. Polonsky stood up and raised a glass of vodka.

“Welcome to the paradise.”

(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)

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Clarification: This story has been updated to correct the name of the Turkish carpenter.

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