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For illustrator Christoph Niemann, traveling through Cambodia and Vietnam along the Mekong River is more than just a vacation—it’s a journey.

“It has a beginning in Siem Riep, where we see in Angkor Wat the temples, and then going down the Mekong river, going to Ho Chi Minh City … there is a natural story,” Niemann says. “Whether I work with it or against it is another question later.” [Related: Discover the Mekong through colorful illustrations]

The Mekong River begins in the Plateau of Tibet in China, runs along the border between Laos and Thailand, and zigzags between Cambodia and Vietnam, where it empties into the South China Sea.

In a region with so much natural beauty, ancient architecture, and vibrant culture, travelers can easily get stuck behind their viewfinders—consumed with capturing the most vivid moments for their photo albums and Instagram feeds. But over the years, Niemann has developed a different method of documenting his trips.

“I always drew when I traveled … I draw just to calm down essentially, so I’m not constantly checking my phone,” he says. [Related: See Christoph' Niemann's illustrated travelogue of the Arctic]

Niemann believes that painting and drawing his experiences creates a dialogue between his mind and a place—this process ultimately allows him to turn the lens on himself. “Essentially the drawing is like a visual filter,” he explains. “You take the world—and you take it through the abstraction of your drawing—and you start seeing differently.”

He highlights the real-life imperfections and surprises that often happen behind picture-perfect scenes. Niemann also explores these moments of contrast by literally drawing himself into the photographs he takes.

“Usually when I see a perfect image … as a viewer, I am on the outside of this, but on the other hand I think, of course, we are always, we are projecting ourselves into these images,” Niemann says. “We are always part of that story."

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Rebekah Barlas is a video editor and producer at National Geographic. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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