What’s makes a place a home?

Five weeks in San Pancho, two years in Otres, and nine years in St Kilda. All home.

Five weeks in San Pancho, two years in Otres, and nine years in St Kilda. All home.

Top: Otres, Chambodia; Center: St Kilda Australia; Bottom: San Pancho, Mexico

I don’t know what it is about a place that makes it feel like home in a flash, but it’s happened to me 3 times in my life.

I felt it when I set foot on the red dirt road in a tiny village on the south coast of Cambodia in 2013. I bought a backpacker hostel, started a children’s project and stayed there for 2 years.

And I felt it again in 2014 after 4 days in autumnal Melbourne. I was halfway through my Cambodia stint, visiting Australian friends who’d convinced me I’d love it. They were right. I was so certain that Melbourne’s Bayside was the next ‘home’ that I applied for permanent residency 4 days into my holiday and emigrated 18 months later.

This time, it’s San Pancho that’s stolen a piece of my heart. It’s 2024, and I’m on 6 months of long service leave. I was supposed to stay in SP for 4 weeks, but it turned into 5, and I’ve ditched my original August and September plans to return for 2 months after a visit to family and friends in Europe.

So what makes a person feel like they belong so quickly?

Top: Otres, Chambodia; Center: St Kilda Australia; Bottom: San Pancho, Mexico

It’s the small-town feel.

Otres was a 2 km strip of beach and a village around a lake made up of Cambodian and expat businesses under wooden and thatch roofs. A bunch of international drifters had settled there looking for an alternative way of life and either party or peace in paradise. (I say it was, as it’s unrecognisable now. I watched in 2019 as they bulldozed it for mass development.) Within days of arriving, I’d met Martina, a soul-sister for life; a crew of outlandish characters who festivalled the year round and built epic parties in the jungle; and I’d gotten involved in the Cambodian community through helping a school project. Within 3 months, I couldn’t bring myself to leave. I knew everyone through the volunteering, and I loved being useful. I was also experiencing mini-spiritual awakenings. Some via books I’d never heard of, like Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and some through profound conversations with enlightening people.

St Kilda is a vibrant old-port suburb of Melbourne’s ‘southside’. There’s nothing saintly about the name. Its namesake is a ship, The Lady of St Kilda, which docked on Euroe Yroke’s shores in 1841, then the land of the indigenous Yalukit-William tribe from the Kulin Nation. The colonists named the area after their mode of transport. Yuk. Nowadays, it’s an eclectic hive of activity. Residents are backpackers, artists, musicians, the wealthy (the median house price is AUD 1.5 million), and people experiencing homelessness. I like diversity. And it’s very friendly if you are. I know everyone in my apartment block – we share food, swap meals and take care of each others’ plants. I can stroll around the neighbourhood, stop by the cafes, clothes stores, and supermarkets, and have long conversations with staff I’ve known for years.

San Pancho is named after San Francisco (St Francis of Assisi – ‘Pancho’ being the affectionate Mexican nickname). Similar to St Kilda, it was named by Spanish conquistadors who drove the Huichol and Cora indigenous groups out into the Sierra Madre mountain range. The holiday town, as it is now, was created as a resort in the 70s by the president. It’s a little harder to feel the community as quickly as in Otres and St Kilda (where everyone spoke/speaks some English) because my Spanish is terrible, so naturally, that’s exclusive. But, the restauranteurs I frequent regularly smile and chuckle with me as I bumble with my translation app and offer awful pronunciation in the style of Basil in Fawlty Towers. The expats are predominately from Canada and the U.S., and I do love North Americans (the ones that magnetise me anyway). They’re extremely welcoming. I call on people for an afternoon iced tea and go for tacos at The Corner whenever I need friends. And, of course, it’s Martina who drew me here, so she’s a magic bonus.

Food faves: Otres, Chambodia; St Kilda Australia; San Pancho, Mexico

A Cuisine I love

I couldn’t get enough Cambodian chicken curry, seafood tom yum, spring rolls, beef papaya salad, sticky ribs, and owning a restaurant meant they were on tap. The fragrance of lemongrass, ginger, Asian basil, and the chilli heat kept my senses alive, and my stomach cleansed, even through the constant stream of Klang beer and Jaegermeister.

In Melbourne, it’s a veritable feast of every cuisine you can think of. I tend to stick to the canteen-style places. I prefer simple, traditional food over fancy. So does the pocket as I soon smash through my salary if I eat out too often. And I like to. So, going to simple Vietnamese or Japanese places with laminated menus and fast service a few times a week is right up my street.

San Pancho caters for high-end tourists and budget travellers. I pass by the white tablecloths and candles for the red plastic chairs and wonky chalkboards. I’ve eaten pescado tacos, pollo quesadillas, pozole (a hot soupy maise traditional dish served with a charcoaled crispy tostada), and enchiladas every day for 5 weeks. I also haven’t had a full-length mirror for 5 weeks. I can see Mexico around my waistline, and the extra-inch pinch looks good on me. ????

Top: Otres, Chambodia; Center: St Kilda Australia; Bottom: San Pancho, Mexico

Entertainment that suits my life phase

Otres offered party and peace. I chose to party a lot of the time. I was either in my bar, at one of my friends, or kicking up a duststorm on the dancefloor. That’s where I was after a divorce and ten years teaching in England. I was ready to blow off a lot of accumulated steam and stress. I did enjoy many a day staring at the humps (islands) on the horizon, whimsically lost in what the exciting future might bring. And I recharged my depleted battery with new friends and adventures in nature.

Melbourne opened endless options. First, I was consumed by the local party scene and loved Chapel Street, Fitzroy Street, and house parties (known as kick-ons). I made it to Saturday/Sunday theatre and street markets when I wasn’t too hungover. Two years in, I got sober, and the city and St Kilda opened their hearts to me. I could have it all. I love the simple things, like reading in St Kilda Botanical Gardens, walking the bayside path, sitting outside cafes on Acland Street, and people-watching. We have 5 theatres in a 2 km radius and an old cinema. An amusement park with a wooden rollercoaster is at the end of my street! And when I do feel like a party, some of the world’s best DJs frequent outdoor venues, and I dance for 6 hours and climb into bed having only had water and a Redbull or two.

San Pancho is the full spectrum. It’s got party if that’s what you’re into, but it’s way more geared toward wellness and inner peace. (See my first SP blog for a list of activities). As a sober woman, there’s enough to do every day of the week to overfill my calendar with healthy pastimes and healing sessions. I’m feeling pretty healed of past stuff right now (in all areas apart from love relationships – another story), so I focus on my current mind, body and spirit. Most of San Pancho shuts down early in the evening, which aligns with my very satisfying 9 p.m. routine of going to bed and reading a good book.

Sunsets: Otres, Chambodia; St Kilda Australia; San Pancho, Mexico

Spectacular sunsets

Finally, all three beaches have incredible sunsets. Otres’ and St Kilda’s are all-year-round spectacles that blaze through the warm and firey hues of the colour wheel. So far, I’ve only seen San Pancho’s in spring, and it’s usually a fireball sinking into the ocean. The waves crash and suck the shoreline like nowhere else I’ve been. They’re notoriously dangerous and spray into the pink sky as darkness descends.

I’m looking forward to the contrasts of stormy summer skies. If they’re anything like the Cambodian, they’ll be ‘awesome’ in the literal sense of the word.

To sum up, what’s made all three places feel like home? It’s the small town-ness and the friendliness of locals that suit a country bumpkin like me. It’s the food that my body and tastebuds enjoy. It’s the entertainment that suits my lifestyle and the sunsets that make me feel like a teeny tiny part of a great, big, wonderful universe.

I also think it’s about what I was/am looking for at the time. I set intentions for this trip. They were slow travel, wellness, and spiritual growth, and San Pancho has all of that in the yoni bowl-steaming bucket full.

Thanks for being here with me as I experiment with travel and writing.

Mwah. ????

Storyteller: Suzanne Wright. Originally from the UK, via Cambodia, now an Aussie living in St Kilda working as a copywriter, biographer and teacher. Follow her travel blog on SubStack I Confess I Don’t Know