The patchwork of green rice fields and farmland dotted with lofty palm trees warmed my heart when I first got a glimpse of the scene from the window of the plane on our recent approach to Siem Reap last month. If the image above looks familiar, it’s because we posted that snap after our last trip here two years ago. There’s something about returning to places you’re fond of and are familiar with that in many ways is like returning home and that’s partly why I’m pleased to be back.
So we’re back in Cambodia after a month in Bangkok, another place that feels like home because we’ve spent so much time there, especially in recent years. We’re in Cambodia to set up house for a while. We sort of moved here in October but subsequently spent six months in Vietnam. Our bags are even heavier now and we’re eager to travel light again. We need a base from which we can bounce around a region we’re becoming increasingly familiar with.
Hoi An, a place we became smitten with when we spent three months there, is also on the horizon in the not too distant future. However, we’re not done with Cambodia yet. Where to live – Phnom Penh or Siem Reap – we’re just not sure of right now. But we’re about to give Siem Reap a try.
We’ve only been in Siem Reap for a month but we feel like we’ve been here forever. This is what also happened to us in Hoi An. It’s partly because of the familiarity of the place that comes with being somewhere a while, but also the familiar faces and the warmth of the people who have welcomed us back.
While I admit that it’s a different sort of experience of places that we get to have as travel writers – we get privileged access to people and get to snoop inside their lives, something the average holidaymaker doesn’t always get to do – I’m now convinced that small towns can offer travellers are far more enriching experience than big cities in many ways, due to that sense of familiarity that comes fast, and the friendliness of the locals that’s offered with ease.
And this is coming from a person who has always preferred big cities like Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Tokyo her whole life, who has enjoyed the anonymity that comes with being lost in a massive crowd and the idea that in such a colossal city there’s always going to be something to discover.
I used to believe that I’d get bored too quickly by small town life, that there wouldn’t be much to hold my interest after seeing or doing whatever it was that drew us there. Whereas once upon a time when we travelled purely for pleasure, I’d allow five days or a week or more to explore a big city, I’d never consider scheduling more than one or two days in a small town. Now, I wouldn’t hesitate staying much longer.
For many travellers a visit to these sort of South East Asian towns – Siem Reap, Luang Prabang, Hoi An and so on – is about seeing their sights, as well as the fact that they represent cheap holidays with their affordable hotels, great value food, and $1 beers. But for us, they represent places that can offer far more rewarding experiences in many ways than cities can. The fact that in South East Asia they also represent brilliant value is a bonus. It means you can afford to stay longer and really settle in for a while.
Whereas big cities with their fast pace of life and countless compelling activities might offer so much more to see and do, time spent in small towns is about digging deeper. Return visits to places offer opportunities to go beyond the obvious once you’ve seen and done the things that you’re supposed to do and to really get beneath the skin of the place.
Whilst it’s a city rather than a town, I like to use Dubai as an example because it’s a city people are ‘familiar’ with from the iconic images of the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab, and it’s a place where it’s easy to get off the beaten track and dig deep, but it’s a place where few visitors really do.
Whenever we had family or friends come to stay with us during all the years we lived in the UAE, they’d come with a list of a few things they really wanted to do because that’s what most travel writers on their whirlwind three-day itineraries had done and told them in their stories that they should do.
There was always shopping at one of the monumental mega-malls, afternoon tea or sunset cocktails at the Burj Al Arab, and a desert safari so they could do their sunset camel ride, get some henna done, and have a shimmy with a bellydancer. I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I’d take them to do the things you have to do, but then, if there was time and they were settling in for a while, or if they returned for a repeat visit as many of our guests did, I’d take them beyond the obvious to do the things only locals and expats knew to do.
I’d advise them to skip the touristy henna tattoo on safari and instead take them to a local henna salon hidden away in a non-descript apartment building in the backstreets of our suburb. My favourite was always crowded with local Emirati ladies getting the most extraordinarily intricate henna designs in preparation for a wedding. It was also the favourite of my Emirati students who had originally sent me there. We’d drive our guests out to the desert, off the main highways and onto the back-roads we knew where they could see camels crossing the most sublime apricot-coloured sand-dunes, far from any tour groups.
And I’d get them lost in the labyrinthine lanes of Deira Souq, away from the Gold Souq, to the everyday shops that local Emiratis, and expat Arabs, Pakistanis, Indians, and East Africans shopped and traded. I remember a visitor once telling me that they’d read in a magazine article that Emiratis only ever shopped in malls. I’ll never forget her face when I took her to my favourite gritty back-alley shops and tiny, dusty plazas where Emiratis women bargained for textiles, stocked up on frankincense, and tested out the latest Arabian attars (heady perfume oils) from Saudi Arabia and Oman.
Of course you can have those kinds of experiences in any city around the world once you’ve spent a while there and connected with locals and made friends and get those insider insights and local tips. The thing about visiting small towns is that the people tend to be more relaxed, friendlier and more generous when it comes to sharing their knowledge and you get to enjoy those local experiences a whole lot faster.
But the beauty of revisiting places, especially small towns, is not just about getting those insider insights, it’s also about something as simple as experiencing a sense of returning ‘home’, of finding places and particularly faces you recognize and, hopefully, discovering that they remember you.
So why might you want to travel half way around the world to feel like you’re coming home? I’ll save those musings for another time.