“This is the longest I’ve been in any country since maybe I was born,” laughs Nick Buckley Wood, as he is transferred back to Shinta Mani Wild, the eco-lodge where his Cambodia adventure began nearly six months ago.

Whereas a year ago the 30-something Asia Director of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac would have been hopping on and off international flights to attend one exclusive art event after another, the Hong Kong native (with a British accent) has remained in the Southeast Asia nation since the start of the pandemic.

It’s a far cry from the fast-paced, border hopping lifestyle Nick had grown accustomed to in the past few years. At the beginning of this year no less he had traveled to art happenings in five different continents in a matter of two months: having rung in the New Year in El Salvador, Nick headed to the Taipei Art Fair in mid January, returned home to Hong Kong for a brief break before visiting friend and artist Michael Armitage in Kenya and another friend in South Africa at the beginning of February, dashed to sunny California for Frieze LA by mid month then caught a flight north to Paris for a friend’s opening only to end up (and, temporarily, stay put) in Cambodia by mid March.

Does he miss the old ‘normal’?

“Though I’m a grateful traveler, not getting on a plane for six months has been a real joy, I have to say,” tells Nick. “But it would be untrue to say that I’ve stopped traveling once the world just sort of shut down.”

He could easily fly back to Hong Kong, his base, or to London to be with family, yet has made a conscious decision to stay put for the time being and dig a bit deeper; a complete shift in lifestyle and sense of personal purpose that could only be brought on by a transformative experience.

Getting the most out of one destination

What was meant to be a week-long trip to visit a friend has become an opportunity to slow down and truly soak up all that the country has to offer. Strict measures at the beginning of the pandemic have since awarded Cambodia with a surprise success in containing spread of the virus, allowing locals, expats and travelers with extended stays to move around with little to no regulations.

From tuk tuks to vintage army jeeps, Nick, who had previously visited Cambodia as a teenager, has now visited each of the 25 provinces in Cambodia, rediscovering classic tourist sites—he was one of the 20 or so daily tourists that visited Angkor Wat in April 2020—and stumbling upon gems that had previously gone undiscovered on past (and much shorter) visits to Cambodia.

Selected by the Prime Minister in the 1950s to basically rebuild the nation when it became newly independent, the prolific work of architect Vann Molyvann, a true visionary, abounds in Cambodia.

And yet, the art maven had never heard of him prior to this trip. Recognizing the unique and world class designs, an entire day was promptly dedicated to consuming as many of Molyvann’s buildings as possible—and no doubt the music of mid-20th century crooner Sinn Sisamuth (who Nick describes as the equivalent of Elvis in Cambodia) played in the background.

“These are two major cultural figures in Cambodia that I had never heard of before in past visits,” explains Nick. “But when you spend enough time here you just can’t avoid them: Sisamuth’s music echoes in every hotel, the buildings of Molyvann are found in nearly every city—and every Cambodian will tell you about these icons.”

Creating opportunities through art and community

Having been drawn to the art world’s ability to unite “people from all over the world who have different stories to tell,” Nick possesses a natural ability at making connections. A friend of a friend, for example, has become a meaningful partnership by which our discerning young adventurer has evolved into a regenerative traveler: one who strives to make a positive change for the local communities.

Astute to the lack of opportunities for locals living outside of Phnom Penh, Nick is in the works of creating a social enterprise project based in Battambang that combines art and culture.

“Battambang is traditionally the cultural heart of Cambodia. It’s where Sinn Sisamuth is from and there’s a good art school that has drawn lots of artists yet it is still much poorer than the capital city and other areas that receive more money from tourists,” explains Nick, who goes on to detail that he is currently holding a competition among Cambodian architects to design the infrastructure.

Planning to create an exhibition space within the educational center, he has already contracted Cambodian contemporary artist Sopheap Pich to create an impressive sculpture. “It will be a creative hub where people can be inspired to be creative but also receive the training necessary to make money as well...I can easily see this as the future model for galleries and I can’t wait to bring some of my friends and people from the art world to see this amazing country and maybe move some of their funds over here to help make a difference in the long run.”

And what about when the world heals and travel picks up speed—how does Nick see the future of travel?

“Now that I have had this experience of staying in Cambodia I think I will be more selective about where I go and why I go somewhere,” muses Nick.

“Once things start opening up again I think people should make a great effort to choose carefully and begin by experiencing places that are normally packed—the Louvre in Paris, for example. All of my friends are looking into going to remote islands or tucked away places, but I would do exactly the opposite: I would go where there are normally tons of people so that you can enjoy these remarkable spots without the crowds.”
To stay up to date with Nick and his exciting foundation, follow him on Instagram: @nickbuckleywood