Too often on the increasingly congested highway of the Southeast Asian banana pancake trail, you hear of some ‘amazing’ place that people have just returned from. Some wide-eyed European will excitedly say the adjective with a head jolt and conviction as if they’d been to heaven and back.
I was in Sihanoukville, a rapidly touristed town in Southern Cambodia when I got wind of one of these revered places that people insist you have to visit. Kampot, a French Colonial town just two hours away along the coast toward Vietnam is attracting a lot of hype. After realizing that Sihanoukville, which had a fairly rough and ready vibe when I’d visited a few years earlier, had lost a lot of its rustic appeal with increased tourism and hotel developments, my disappointment subsided at the prospect of heading out east.
Fast forward a few days, and my brother and I, who had linked up with me on his vacation from England and mine from Korea, were clunking along a dusty road out of Kampot town center and into the rural sticks. Lush green fields of rice paddies dotted with water buffalo surrounded us, as did the country’s distinctive pom pom-esque palm trees sporadically sprouting up into the bold blue sky.
If the journey to get there was like a National Geographic magazine come to life, Ganesha, a guesthouse well and truly intertwined with its surroundings, took the exotic escape feeling one step further. We were spellbound by the picturesque riverside yurt we’d booked, and you know when there are mango trees in your backyard, a giant multicolored gecko chilling on the side of your hut, and fireflies acting as nightlights that you’ve found someplace special. Heaven indeed.
It wasn’t just Ganesha’s beautifully cultivated environment that was worth the journey; rural Kampot is beyond gorgeous. Rent a scooter or push bike and there is ample opportunity to get blissfully lost along the dirt tracks, passing through small settlements whilst interacting with locals, regardless of spoken language differences.
They say that Cambodia is one of the friendliest countries in the world, and I completely agree. Not only did I find myself communicating through hand signals and broken French (they speak a mix of both French and Khmer around Kampot) with people of all ages, but I even spent the day road tripping with a kid who had struck up a conversation with me whilst we were riding parallel to each other.
The ease of which I was able to jump off my motorbike and start interacting with people who spoke next to no English was unbelievable. My favorite portrait I took in the week I was there came on my return to Ganesha as a man and his two daughters were herding in the water buffalo for the day.
The eldest girl had been left to fetch the remaining buffalo and it’s calf and had just tied it up. Impressed by her skills, I tried to ask her if she ever rode the buffalo, making hand gestures to illustrate my words, yet she just looked at me confusedly.
I said goodbye and was about to start my bikes engine when I saw where the girl had moved to. I’d inadvertently got her into a portrait pose I couldn’t have imagined possible.
I printed out the shot and found her the next day. Her family were overjoyed, yet she seemed underwhelmed. Perhaps she wasn’t a fan of the color isolation. I’ll have to return with a better print next time.
Kampot’s tranquility might not last forever. I even heard stirrings that it’s the ‘next big spot’ for travelers. That’s ok, because no visit to the same place is always identical. Change is inevitable and there’s always another great spot under the radar. What remains, however, is the overwhelmingly warm and open spirit of the Cambodian people, who are usually willing to engage with you if approached. It’s harder to do so in more developed parts of the world with the hectic pace of life and people’s heads glued to smartphones, which is why spending time in a place like Kampot isn’t just a good idea – it’s essential.
This article was originally published in Busan Haps Magazine, which you can see here.
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