When we think of a serene place to visit, we often think of a remote island or mountain far, far away. However, a peaceful retreat can be within our immediate reach. In my case, it is Koh Paen (literally “Paen” island), a renowned river island in the Upper Mekong opposite to Kampong Cham town, just 10 minutes from where my family lives.
If you search for places to visit in Kampong Cham, Koh Paen is consistently high up, if not on top of the list, because its shaded lanes and calm atmosphere make it perfect for relaxing cycling close to town.
I visited the island a few times by bike when the only land access from Kampong Cham town was through the signature seasonal bamboo bridge. At that time, the village roads were still rough and dusty. In recent years, however, these were replaced by concrete roads. In 2018, a concrete bridge called Koh Mitt was completed, permanently connecting the island to the mainland.
Yet, ever since the concrete roads and bridge were completed, I hadn’t visited the island until this Lunar New Year break. I spent a few hours exploring the island with my younger brother on a motorbike. Now with the new concrete roads, the island is even more charming–very beautiful inside out.
UBIQUITOUS KHMER-STYLE WOODEN HOUSE
You can feel the island’s laid-back spirit very quickly as soon as you arrive. A few hundred meters into the island from Koh Mitt Bridge, I noticed that the island maintained its serene identity. Most obviously, most of the houses on the island were still the Khmer-style wooden houses.
I used to wonder why we prefer this type of house. Over time, I came to realize that the materials and design of these houses reflect the resources available and the weather patterns in Cambodia. Before steel and concrete, wooden houses were the first choice for Cambodians as the materials were widely available, especially for people in rural areas. Khmer-style wooden houses sit on stilts, have a perforated floor (usually made of neatly arranged, thin bamboo or wood strips) and usually have extended roofs. The space below the house is mostly left open and used for family gathering. This design provides the right amount of shades, light, and circulation–day and night, all year round. The stilts also keep the houses safe from flood during the rainy season. On Koh Paen, as the flood is expected every rainy season, this type of wooden houses remain popular.
SHADED ROADS & OFF-ROAD SIGHTSEEING
The journey was refreshing despite the February heat as most of the village roads were shaded. Everywhere we went, the roads were flanked by tropical fruit trees, such as bananas, coconuts, jackfruits, and pomelos extending from every household’s compound.
After some time, I took my brother’s suggestion and went a bit off-road to see one of the kapok plantations on the island. We passed through a small lane and bamboo woods before arriving and witnessing the sight of kapok trees soothingly dancing along the bank of the Mekong.
LIFESTYLE IN KOH PAEN
Most of the villagers here are farmers. They grow corns, tobaccos, tomatoes, and other seasonal vegetable and fruits. When it comes to harvesting season, they usually transport their produce to sell in nearby towns. The extras are sold in a basket to people passing by. Some run a small business, selling a number of things from groceries to sugar cane juice, in front of their houses.
FRIENDLY VILLAGERS IN KOH PAEN
People on the island are very friendly. Along the way, we met a couple on an ox cart, who smiled to us from quite a distance as we asked them for a photo. There were children on the quiet road, playing weekend games with their peers. Another group of children enthusiastically said “Hi” to every foreigner riding passed by.
After riding for a while, we stopped by a sugarcane juice stall for rest and chilling sugarcane drinks. There, we were greeted by friendly villagers who came by for chitchat with their neighbors, and we exchanged a few words about the island.
Overall, I love the shaded and green environment, as well as the friendly people on the island. This atmosphere is not common in the cities and can only be found in rural villages like the one here on Koh Paen. I hope that, even with the newly-built concrete bridge, this lifestyle and village vibe will remain this way for generations to come.
HOW TO GET TO KOH PAEN?
There are two ways that you can get from Kampong Cham town to Koh Paen. One is through the seasonal Koh Paen Bamboo Bridge, located just opposite Dey Dos Pagoda. The bamboo bridge is accessible only from January to June, and the access is now restricted to only pedestrians and cyclists. The other way is through Koh Mitt Bridge, which is 1.8 km away from Dey Dos Pagoda. Any vehicles can pass.
SHOULD YOU GO BY BIKE OR MOTORBIKE TO VISIT KOH PAEN?
Bikes and motorbikes are the best means to explore the island. On a bike, you can take things slow and enjoy sightseeing in the village. It will take you around 3 to 4 hours to explore the whole village. While with a motorbike, you can explore the village faster with less effort, but you may miss the beautiful sight that you would otherwise witness on a bike. Both means will allow you to enjoy the sightseeing in the village, regardless.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT KOH PAEN?
December-March is the best time to visit the island before the April heat and before farmers harvest their farm products. During the time, the temperature can be around 35-degree Celsius but it is comfortable–which is ideal for a ride in the village. I have never visited the island during the rainy season May-October), but as told by the villagers, some parts of the island, including the concrete road, are usually flooded, specifically in August and September, which is not the best time to visit the island.
Note: During Khmer New Year, which falls on April 13-15 or 14-16, villagers and people from Kampong Cham and other provinces come to celebrate Songkran on the island. Water-splashing can be expected. So, if you love festive celebration, have fun celebrating with the locals! If not, you’d better visit the island some other days.