When Cambodian crooner Sin Sisamouth sang about Koh Pen island, his lyrics conjured a little slice of paradise where the water meets the land.
Much like Koh Dach, Koh Pen (also spelt Koh Paen) is a long, skinny island that sits in the middle of the Mekong River. A short bike ride from central Kampong Cham over the famous bamboo bridge (or by ferry if you’re visiting during wet season), Koh Pen is where you can find some of Cambodia’s prettiest rural villages. At the tail end of the wet season, the island is green and overgrown; it’s shady pathways the perfect place for an afternoon cycle.
The track that joins up with Koh Pen’s bamboo bridge will lead you into Kaoh Mitt Commune. One of the most interesting features of this little village are the coloured doors that decorate almost every house. Even the humblest homes have little design flourishes and beautifully kept flower gardens at the foot of the front stairs. We also saw some incredible mud-adobe structures used for storing hay, and sheds thrown together from scraps of rusted tin.
Earlier in the day at Cheung Kok Village, we learned that high-stilted houses like these are a relatively new style of architecture in Cambodia, where homes have traditionally been built lower to the ground. The additional space this creates is a well-ventilated and cool, and you’ll see many extended families hanging out in hammocks drawn between the stilts. Some houses have been built-out underneath as a living space for adult children and their families.
Portions of pathway through Kaoh Mitt are paved, but most of Koh Pen’s trails are deeply rutted mud tracks. Many of the locals we met were either on foot or travelling by bicycle. Thick bamboo and banana tree groves give way to stunning open rice fields as the main track loops around the island’s northern tip.
Most homes have fruit trees out the front bearing voluptuous melons, huge jack fruit and other tropical treats. Some have elaborate trellises used for cultivating zucchini and vine vegetables. Baskets of fresh produce are set out for sale all along the island’s pathways, and every now and then a corner-store style shop selling packaged foods and drinks appears. White cows graze on front lawns; long boats and woven fish traps lay in wait at the edge of rice fields for the next wet season. Kaoh Mitt has all the trappings of a fertile, self-sustainable village, where most of what’s consumed is grown footsteps away.
It’s easy to romanticise a place like Koh Pen, but life in a village of this size must have its struggles. This is the reality for many Cambodians who live outside the big cities. After visiting a place like Koh Pen, you gain a new appreciation for the hardiness and resourcefulness of families who live in modern-day rural Cambodia.