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 backpacker will excitedly drop this adjective with a, eye-rolling, head-bobbing 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 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 prior, had lost much of it’s rustic appeal from 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 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 then Ganesha, an eco guesthouse intertwined with its natural surroundings, sealed the deal. There were mango trees in the backyard, a giant blue gecko patrolling the side of our riverside hut, and fireflies as nightlights.
Heaven on earth.
It wasn’t just Ganesha’s beautifully cultivated environment that was worth the journey; rural Kampot is beyond gorgeous. Rent a scooter or bicycle and there is ample opportunity to blissfully further your descent into the unknown along the dirt tracks, passing through small villages whilst interacting with locals, regardless of the language barrier.
They say that Cambodia is one of the friendliest countries in the world and I completely agree. Not only did we find ourselves communicating through hand signals and broken French (they speak a mix of both French and Khmer around Kampot) with people of all ages, but we even spent the day road tripping with a kid who had struck up a conversation with us whilst we were riding parallel to each other.
The ease and comfort of which we were able to jump off our scooters and start interacting with people who spoke next to no English was heartwarming. 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 their water buffalo for the day.
The eldest girl had been left to fetch the remaining buffalo while it’s calf and had just been tied up. Impressed by her herding skills, I tried to ask her if she ever rides 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. Whether I’d inadvertently instructed her to pose or she just wanted to answer my question in a physical way, I took the key back out of the ignition.
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 maynot last forever. I 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.
These interactions are harder to do 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.
* I returned with a better print two years later, you can see that trip here
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