The Secret Map

Returns: Cambodia

There’s a point in time after yet another reckless headfirst turn into a hurtling fury of construction vehicles that your heart ceases to alien-burst through your chest and you just decide to lean back and accept your fate.

As with other aspects of Cambodia’s recent development, the journey along the two-lane highway between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville has speed sitting dominantly at the wheel, leaving safety a nervous passenger.

If observing Phnom Penh’s dramatically expanding skyline was testament to how Chinese investment is transforming the Kingdom of Wonder, at the opposite end of the highway, which lays side by side with an emerging Chinese-invested 2-billion dollar superhighway, lies Kampong Som, or Sihanoukille, as it’s otherwise known,.

If you’ve visited this place ten, five, locals say even two, years ago, there’s no way to prepare yourself for the dystopian heart of darkness that awaits these days on Cambodia’s once-low key south coast.

Ubiquitous construction sites and towering casinos are evidence of the most dramatic manifestation of China’s neo-colonialist ambitions along their 900-billion dollar New Silk Road.

The horror, the horror.


‘Snooky’, as it’s affectionately called, wasn’t exactly ‘sleepy’ before this, as has been described in recent news articles, since at least as far back as 2009 AK-47 club shootings, bike-chain beatings, crystal meth and Russian gangsters intertwined with the backpacking scene – ‘Sinville’ is it’s other moniker.


Not that it’s game over yet for Cambodia.

On a three-country South East Asian trip that included Thailand and Vietnam, I witnessed Phnom Penh’s imposing urban monoliths provide a background to some tastefully gentrified districts which were close to, but not encroaching on traditional markets such as Kandal, pictured later.

Chinese development was still to make headway onto the ice-white sands of nearby island Koh Rong’s stunning 9km ‘Long Beach’, the northern end being one of my two destinations on this trip. Yet a day visit to the once-pristine Otres Beach revealed that the whole stretch of sand had disgracefully become a dumping ground for the construction projects nearby.

It was a relief, though, to return to Kampot, two hours along the coast, which was seemingly unchanged, or at least tastefully developed by Sihanoukville’s standards.

The roads around Kampot have taken a thorough beating from passing construction trucks, and there’s at least one notable high rise in town, but so far it’s holding strong it’s rustic countryside charm, at least before the planned Chinese ferry terminal threatens to pull the rug from under it’s idyllic riverside allure.

After reuniting with my Canadian friend Scott, who I’d spent a few weeks with on his arrival to the Cambodia four years ago and has since worked as a photographer in Phnom Penh, we ventured out to the salt fields of both Kampot and Kep, a tiny fishing village specialising in crabs.

At the far end of the Kampot fields we were greeted by Dich Yorn, a refined French-speaking Cambodian gentleman who has walked out to greet me along the dirt path from his house to the fields each visit.

We also found ourselves invited onto other salt fields where we were allowed to shoot and even try our hand at carrying salt baskets from field to shed by a kindly mother of three. She and her daughter are among the proceeding images.

Finally, it was a delight to return to a village next to our accommodation on the opposite end of town, among the rice paddies, to revisit a community we’d last been welcomed into four years ago. Doray, a girl I’d made a portrait of atop her family’s water buffalo in 2013, was now 17 years old, and it seemed like her buffalo riding days were behind her as she relaxed in a hammock aside her mother and grandmother. The younger generation were excited to be both in front of and behind Scott and I’s cameras.

For more context around Dich Yorn and the village community, you can see the first visit here and the second here.

The following shots are from my most recent trip to the rapidly-changing, yet ever-charming and wildly wonderful, Cambodia.



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Doray, former buffalo rider.

4 replies to “Returns: Cambodia

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