Mr. Kosal from Cambodia

How does one penetrate through the layers of a country's culture?

By going to the destinations the famous guidebook suggests? By going on an expensive guided tour for a group of foreigners and be herded like cattle following the red umbrella? By taking photos of famous places and ignoring the people who live there?

If you answered any of these, you're just skimming the surface of what may possibly be a deep and meaningful travel experience. Just like one of our answers on Unblogged's interview about long term travel, we encourage you to
"...immerse yourself in the culture, get to know the locals, experience more than what the guidebook suggests."
We took our own advice when we arrived in Ban Lung, Cambodia. At first glance, this place seemed like a dusty, godforsaken ghost town that would send any traveler packing and taking the next ride to the feel bad capital of Phnom Penh. But what made us stick around was a smiling, insightful young man named Mr. Kosal who had wisdom beyond his 20 years. 

We had been walking aimlessly around town trying to find anything worthwhile to do. That's when we chanced upon Mr. Kosal and his trusty motorbike by the side of the road. He offered to take us around town for a small fee of $10/day for 2 people and we couldn't resist his offer. He had an easy smile and a boyish laugh and we couldn't help but smile back.

Mr. Kosal from Cambodia

Mr. Kosal took us on a 3 day tour around Ban Lung to see its waterfalls, elephant parks and crater lake. But more than any other touristic experience, we enjoyed having a conversation with him. Even though his English vocabulary was limited, he read a lot of books. So he spoke in broken English peppered with highfalutin words like perseverance and loquacious. He had a no holds barred attitude unlike any other local. It must have been his youth. His audacity to speak about what others dared keep silent about in a country that's haunted by its past.

What amazed me about Mr. Kosal is that he would always show up at our guesthouse earlier than the agreed time, dressed in his uniform: spotless white undershirt, long sleeved shirt (despite the scorching weather) jeans, sneakers and a broad grin. We asked him to bring us to the local spots. "Bring us to where you always eat," we told him. And he obliged. He brought us to cheap foodie spots where the food is always good and the coffee always strong. And that's when he would be more talkative than usual, sharing stories about his family and his country.

Mr. Kosal is the breadwinner of his small family. His parents could no longer afford to keep him in school so he had to find a way to earn a living. He started to employ himself as guide for trekking the jungles of Ratanakiri. After he had saved enough money to buy a motorbike, he employed himself as a driver. He learned the value of hard work and the meaning of responsibility even at such a young age.

Mr. Kosal from Cambodia

Let me share some snatches of our conversations with Mr. Kosal:

When I asked him if I can leave my bag unattended while we went to a nearby store , he answered in a serious tone:
"Prevention is better than cure."

He sometimes talked about the Khmer Rouge and this is how he explained their leader's grand design:
"Pol Pot wanted to have country that's like a beehive. Where every citizen had their own role and did their task efficiently. If you did your part well, you would be rewarded with food, shelter and even a beautiful wife. But we all know, that's not how things happened."
We had a serious talk about dreams and then I asked him, who is your idol? I asked him expecting he would mention Bill Gates, Brad Pitt or John Mayer. His reply was a big surprise:
"My idol? Why, Mr. Sophat, of course!"

Mr. so-who?

"Mr. Sophat, the owner of Lakeview Lodge where you're staying. He accomplished so much at a young age. He got a degree, put up a guesthouse, set up a lucrative trekking business and all before he turned 30!"
His reply put things in perspective. In a small town like this, everyone needed an idol. And good for him, he found one!


We only had a short 3 day stay in Ban Lung, and we had to say goodbye soon enough. We reminded him to pursue his dreams and perhaps he can achieve even more than Mr. Sophat. We told him there was no limit to what a man can make of himself. He just smiled and said,
"Goodbye to you, good people."
Mr. Kosal was such a character, someone I couldn't easily forget. I hope his humility and good humor would be enough to earn him a better life.

Mr. Kosal from Cambodia

If you're ever in need of a guide in Ban Lung, Cambodia, please contact Mr. Kosal at or through his number 855 0973334626. You'll have an insightful and extremely humorous experience, we promise.

Always lovin' the local flavor,
Sole Sister Lois
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25 Responses so far.

  1. doi says:

    a truly touching and inspiring story. amidst everything that's happening in our lives, it's really great to read amazing stories such as these to remind us how sweet it is to lead a simple yet fulfilling life. no matter how big or small your dreams are or who you look up to, what's really important is you stay grounded and remember who you truly are and where you came from. not sure if i'm making sense anymore. lol. i'm definitely wishing for Mr. Kosal's success in whatever endeavors he choose to achieve his dreams. I'll definitely look him up and hire him as a guide if i happen to pass by that place in the future! thanks for sharing this sole sisters! ^_^

  2. Victor says:

    this is why i love reading your not only tell stories of places youve been to, but also of interesting people (or dogs :-) ) you meet..keep it coming Sole Sisters!!

  3. Flipnomad says:

    great post :-) this is one of the most precious moments in travel, when a person let you peek into their lives... 

    although sometimes, its really difficult to ask local cambodians about their past history... just this afternoon i asked the guy in Artisans Angkor if his family was affected by the recent genocide and his voice broke and said that his family's bones are included in the memorial in the Wat Thmei.... i shouldnt have asked... i didnt intend though to bring back the ghost of the past... i just changed the conversation to something related to the crafts they're doing...

    i do hope that life will be good to the survivors and their families... i do hope and pray that these people soon forget the hatred/fear/ and all other negative emotions brought by that horrific event... but as an outsider i could only hope and pray for them... 

  4. I am rather impressed of his candor in telling how he feels. That is also what I want to experience when traveling overseas. I attempted to solicit same reactions when I went to talk to some university students in Brunei but I got all too generic responses. I respected their culture as much as their own and my own humanity but your experience in Cambodia is what truly defines your inter-cultural encounter that enriches your own understanding of him as a Cambodian living in Cambodia and you as a Filipina journeying in Cambodia.

    I will be in Cambodia by next year too. I hope I can find as many of him though I have lots of Cambodian friends whom I had been traveling for a month while in China last year. 

  5. ayan says:

    wow nice. like this one a lot. 
    simple. sincere. low-key.underadventure if theres such a word.maiba naman. 

  6. chyng says:

    lesson on the road, from a young man. =)

    i find almost all khmer people humble and very hard working. aside from their personal stories, what made me more impressed is that their tourguides are multi-lingual! 3rd world country folks and they can speak more than 3 languages! talk about the willingness to learn and to earn more ofr his family

  7. Marky says:

    I like the "prevention is better than the cure" it applies to everything even with leaving a bag unattended.

    It's great that modern day Cambodians has since moved on from that horrible event BUT have not forgotten the cause and the misery it brought to their country. Like any leaders of the post gone astray it started with a vision until the urge to resist opposition to those goals turned violent and reckless, thus the path of Pol Pot, Idi Amin Dada, Hitler, even to lesser extent the likes of Castro, Marcos, Pinochet...but history is always there to guide us from hereon.

    And Mr. Kosal is now doing his part - in fact more than one should so he could have food, shelter by sharing goodness to others too without having to relive the horrors of the past. 

  8. Lois says:

    You're making more sense than you know Doi. I love your words:

    "No matter how big or small your dreams are or who you look up to, what's
    really important is you stay grounded and remember who you truly are
    and where you came from."

    Thanks for taking the time to write a meaningful comment. I hope you make it out to banlung as well!

  9. Lois says:

    Oh yes, the people are what makes a place really interesting Victor. And animals too! Thanks for always dropping by and for your support.

  10. Lois says:

    Thanks for also sharing your insight and experiencesin Cambodia Flip. We didn't get to talk to locals as much as we wanted. But they really show the human side of any historical event. Things you wouldn't learn in history books. I can't wait to share more stories especially of the locals we met in Myanmar.

  11. Lois says:

    Yeah, I understand Wendell. Sometimes the locals are not so open to farangs like us. Maybe because of a communication barrier but more often than not, they are afraid. Afraid of really speaking out about their country and their situation. But I'm glad for traveler's like you who are incessantly curious and genuinely interested. I wish you a wonderful adventure on your next trip to Cambodia!

  12. Lois says:

    Thanks for dropping by ayan. You described this post well. It wasn't an exciting post like most of the stuff we write. But we love sharing everything with our readers. Even the 'underadventures'. Permission to use this term in future articles?

  13. Lois says:

    Oh yes, the guides are really impressive. And even the children. It's probably because most of Cambodia is touristy and they meet a lot of foreigners and even learn their language. Yes, Mr. Kosal taught us some very valuable lessons during our stay. I really admire him!

  14. Lois says:

    Thanks for your thought provoking comment Marky, you're really a deep thinker. Yes, "prevention is better than the cure" is my favorite quotable quote from Mr. Kosal. He said the perfect thing with the best timing.

    You're right about these leaders' visions. The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions!

  15. DingFuellos says:

    I didn't even know what loquacious means!  LOL!I agree with you.  It is always good, if not better, to learn about culture than having informal discussions with the locals.

  16. dong ho says:

    you got an extraordinary guide and driver. it's worth sharing in one post.

  17. "...immerse yourself in the culture, get to know the locals, experience more than what the guidebook suggests."  This is fantastic advice.  I've found some of my most memorable backpacking experiences have been spontaneous decisions not to follow the guidebook and instead wander about without set plans.

  18. Lois says:

    Yes Ding, I was also taken aback with his extensive vocabulary. Thanks for following the story!

  19. Lois says:

    Yes Mr.s Kosal is exactly that Dong. I love sharing stories of the people we meet. Dami pa, coming soon!

  20. Lois says:

    I'm with you on the spontaneity Samuel! After our Thailand leg, we just decided to sell our guidebook on Khao San Road. It's better to just wander without an itinerary. That way, we had to talk to a lot of traveler and locals for recommendation and earned a lot of friends in the process. Thanks for stopping by. I'm checking your site right now.

  21. Hutch says:

    This guy is a character. I'm so glad he was in our ex-guesthouse or else we wouldn't have met. He's so fun to be with yet very learned about his history. These are the best moments of traveling. When we see their world in their eyes and realize that there is such a thing as simple life. 

  22. Twisted@34 says:

    Thanks to the Philippine Blog Awards 2011.  I've been looking for a travel blog site so I can share similar experiences until I clicked on your site as one of the winners.  Just like you, I've traveled most parts of the Philippines and Thailand-Cambodia-Laos as a backpacker. Now I'm glued to reading all your posts but this particular article/blog made me start adding a comment.  Like you, I also met my Mr. Kosal but in the person of Mr. Rob Vann.  He was our tour guide/motorbike driver when we toured the Ang Kor Wat.  Our Rob was unbelievably well versed in the political scenario in his country.    Basically my amazement was more of like realizing that I am not as involved like he is in our political situation here in the Philippines.  He shared a lot of "secrets" about their leaders and again I  am amazed as I try to compare him to our regular taxi or tricycle drivers. His english vocabulary may be limited but I can tell that he can speak better english than his pinoy equivalent.  Before we parted ways, he noted our email addresses and until now I am receiving  email from him for his continuous updating of their overall situation in Cambodia.  I will definitely meet him when I go back to Siem Reap. 


  23. I might be late of posting a comment here but I love this touching and hoping that some of our youngs in the Philippines would pursue their dreams and dream big.

  24. Jem says:

    This is one of the greatest truisms of travel!  After all, the greatest moments in any holiday tend to revolve around the people you met rather than the sights you saw.  I have some magical memories of certain people I met in both Cambodia and Burma whose experiences have changed not just my life but my whole perception of life - and importantly, how to be happy!  I should relate them to you really - but maybe I shouldn't be so lazy and just write my own blog!  :D  Keep up the great work, girls... Jem

  25. Trina says:

    aw, i googled coron vs el nido (which by the way doesn't exclusively cater to backpackers. there's pricey accommodation there too!) and found this blog. i love it! i know tanya h and elaine as well! and i love browsing through your posts. this one in particular i clicked coz the photo  reminded me of my guide who worked at babel siem reap. i wish i could remember his name, it's somewhere in my journal. he picked me up at the bus station and offered to be my guide. he was always on time, happy, polite. i asked him to take me to his fave place to eat and he asked if i was sure. he took me to a sidewalk shack where there were flies everywhere. it was like a palengke, but maybe his mom owns it? i dunno. i was seriously scared to eat the food because i couldnt identify it, i squeezed a lot of cambodian lime in it and tried to keep up. he told me about the cambodian mass marriage in the forest where people were killed at the night party. i learned that he had a few jobs, woke up early to go to the temple, went to school to learn a few more languages so he could be a more effective guide. he spoke french and very good english. i had fun riding at the back of his moto. he also took me to the italian restaurant where he works at night. so funny how your photo suddenly reminded me of that trip and everything else... thanks for sharing! it's true, it's the people that make the difference :-)

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