Over the past few years, there’s been a major shift in the way people travel. More and more of us are seeking out alternatives to mainstream accommodation.
In 2013, homestay.com was launched. While other sites that help you find people to stay with focus mainly on the appeal of saving you money, homestay.com requires that a host is present during your stay. The aim of this is to enhance your travel experience through their hospitality and local knowledge.
This is still a relatively new concept in South East Asia, but it’s definitely starting to take off, especially in Thailand and in some of the larger cities throughout Cambodia and Vietnam. I spent three nights in a small village 20 minutes outside Siem Reap to see what living like a local in rural Cambodia is like.
My host’s name was Tola. He arranged for a tuk tuk to collect me from the bus station and he and his family welcomed me with open arms as soon as I arrived. I learned that Tola works with disabled people, using theatre to help them express themselves. He’s also writing a self-help book. He clearly cares a great deal about people and the environment, and he likes to ensure that his family learn as much from you as you do from them.
Tola and the children speak fantastic English so communication isn’t a problem. My visit coincided with some extended family stopping over from Battambang, and even though they had a lot to catch up on in Khmer, he made a special effort to translate and keep me involved in the conversation.
I spent one afternoon talking to the eldest daughter Reaksa about Khmer traditions and ceremonies and it was fascinating to hear about first hand.
The girls also took me on a guided tour of the village and taught me a game called ‘Tiger eat cow’, which had us in fits of giggles.
Although it’s fairly basic, the accommodation is comfortable. I had a double bed with a mosquito net, as well as a fan and mirror. The electricity worked the whole time, and there was the option of connecting to WiFi for short periods when required.
There’s a non-heated shower and separate western toilet and sink area, and the family provide spare towels.
The building is built from bamboo and surrounded by trees and plants to such an extent that you can’t tell it’s there from the path outside. This means that you’re very connected with nature. It takes some adjustment to get used to sharing your living space with frogs, geckos and huge huntsman spiders, but they’re all harmless. I have a strong irrational fear of huntsman spiders, and Tola was very understanding. He performed daily sweeps of the bathroom and scared away any unwanted visitors.
I’d expected the food to be quite basic, but by the end of my stay, I’d tried three new types of fruit and eaten snake and chickens’ feet! The family eats together around a large table and the food is presented buffet style so you can try loads of different dishes.
It’s all delicious and you definitely won’t go hungry as portion sizes are huge. They also gave me the option of beer or water with my evening meals.
At breakfast time, the family would set up a table and one chair on the path outside their home, lay down a feast of cooked food and fruit, and then hang out nearby while I ate by myself. I never worked out if they always do this for their guests, or if, despite getting up at around 7 am, I’d already missed the communal breakfast!
On my first morning, the girls took me for a walk around their village. We saw a huge sacred tree and a beautifully ornate pagoda. On our way back, we balanced on narrow paths between rice paddies, and sampled sugar cane juice, which they insisted on buying for me.
Although Tola has been hosting guests for about six months now, the other villagers still seem curious to see a foreigner walking through. Local kids will run over and hi5 you for hours if you let them. There’s a great community atmosphere and it feels completely secure to leave your valuables in an unlocked cottage.
Although the village is about 20 minutes out of Siem Reap, it’s easy to arrange transport. Tola can call for a tuk tuk any time you need and, if you pay attention when the girls show you the village, you should be able to find your way back after asking a driver to drop you back at the pagoda.
HOW LONG TO STAY
How long to stay will depend on what you hope to gain from your homestay. If, like me, you just want to meet a local family, learn something of their culture and experience living like a local, two or three nights is perfect. If you’re not sure how well you’ll deal with the proximity to jungle critters, it would be best to start with one or two and try to extend later.
You can stay with Tola and his family in their homestay in Portibos village for US$15 a night. It might set you back more than an air conditioned room in town, but it will touch your heart and be one of the most memorable places you’ll ever stay. After I left, Tola sent me an email to thank me for my visit. He told me I’d inspired him to work harder so he can one day take his family to experience travelling and to see the world through their own eyes. To have had the chance to do that is priceless.
I was a guest of homestay.com. They did not request a favourable review and this is an unbiased account of my experience.