One of the most affecting experiences of my time in Cambodia was staying in a Cambodian family’s house, eating with them, talking with them, and experiencing in a deeper way the life they live. The daily challenges that they meet with grace and cheer certainly put my own into clearer perspective.
The small-group, grassroots and responsible tourism tour I was on included a Homestay as part of the time in Cambodia. Having booked my space only a few days before leaving (Cambodia was an expensive ‘visa run’ for me!), I hadn’t really realised this was included before I arrived and got the itinerary, and for me and some others in the group there was some mild anxiety about the proposed one night stay in a Cambodian home, especially as we saw more and more of the country and realised how poor it was, and how basic many of the facilities were. Would we be able to cope with what Cambodians lived with every day? Or would it be too different?
My own personal anxiety was around insects – I’m fairly phobic of spiders (even typing that word makes my skin crawl), and in one of the stops along the highway on the public bus, I’d seen two Huntsman spiders in the loos (which our Australian tour members were remarkably sanguine about), measuring 10cm+ across each, which terrified me. I was very uncomfortable thinking that a remote and rural village, nestled in the Cambodian jungle, might contain more of these, and I would make an idiot of myself having a panic attack if one came near me.
Sambo Prey Kuk
Our homestay was in the Sambo Prey Kuk area, a cultural and historical area which contains more than 80 temples in varying states, as it was once a capital town (called Isanapura) and a religious centre for the worship of Shiva Brahmanism. We first visited several of the most well-preserved temples, which had stood many hundreds of years against nature, but more recently, landmines and bombs of humans had causes the area to considerably deteriorate. The temples were still very beautiful, and in an area of jungle which was very quiet – we felt like the only people for many miles (apart from, not surprisingly, a handful of children hawking scarfs etc).
The jungle itself wasn’t what I expected – in the season we visited, there was very little growing on the ground, so it was easy to walk around and not worry about what you were stepping on. The trees are huge and towering, and provide shade, and co-exist with the temples in a very natural way.
The ruins of the temples are much smaller than those at Angkor Wat, but are said to be even older, starting from the 6th century. Whilst many of the temples were in ruins and no longer holding shape, some of the temples still had offerings in, and were clearly being used.
Introducing the homestay
Then it was off to the homestay to set our things up and to introduce us to our host. Our local guide for the visit was in fact the son-in-law of the host. Our guide was a lovely and humble man, who was a real success story, demonstrating a vision and persistence you might not expect of someone who had grown up with a small community as his whole life.
He had learned English as a young man from DVDs and the television, never actually meeting a native English speaker, whilst farming rice was his back-breaking profession. He had been ridiculed by many of those in his small village at the time. Many years later, when the homestay project had materialized, he had been voted by a grateful community to be their representative to liaise with the external companies sending tourists, and he had trained as a tour guide (a licensed profession in Cambodia), and was now able to do that as his main source of income rather than farming. He was still self-effacing about it all, rather being smug about his forward vision as I might have been!
The homestay project appears to be seen in a very positive light by those we met in the community. It provides the opportunity for Cambodians who have never left their local area (our host, a 47 year old woman, had never gone further than her village, although she now had a son at Phnom Penh university) to meet foreigners and see that they are friendly rather than hostile. It helps with the English of those learning it, it provides a window onto a wider world, and most importantly, it provides a different source of income for people who are living in the most basic of circumstances.
Our local guide, host and their family really went out of their way to provide us with amazing hospitality. Much preparation had obviously gone into our visit, particularly around the food. The cooking facilities of the house were underneath, and consisted of one contained open fire. On this, our host managed to produce a meal with at least 6 different dishes, including vegetarian options (egg and vegetables, rice, soup, and mixed veg). They were delicious and plentiful. For breakfast the next morning we had bread (not sure where this came from) and omlette to put in the bread, coffee and tea.
The toilet was another area some in the group had been a bit concerned about prior to arrival (and having Crohn’s, this is always a cause of mild anxiety for me too), as we had been managing with a mix of ‘western style’ and the squat toilets which are very common in SE Asia, and weren’t sure what to expect. We were told that this home had the best toilet in the village, which was an outhouse with the porcelain base (no seat) of a toilet, and then the ‘poop and scoop’ method, where the toilet is manually flushed with a scoop of water from a water trough next to the loo. This worked fine, was clean, and we were even provided with toilet paper (all of us by now were used to bringing our own to any loo we went into).
Work and play
In the evening we talked to the guide and host (who didn’t speak any English, but sat with us answering questions through our guide’s translations for a couple of hours after dinner) and asked them many questions about their lives. Everyone in the village has several jobs/way of making money and a living. Most have some kind of smallholding – for example, our homestay had chickens, cows and dogs that we could see – as well as working in the fields farming rice, and our host obviously had the homestay as well. Others make palm sugar from palm trees on their properties, or make things and sell them.
We walked through the rice fields in the late afternoon, and it was like being in a painting – the light was absolutely perfect, and there was a glow about the landscape which made it seem quite magical. However, talking to our host about her life really cast a different light on the scene, the reality of the day to day work being very hard and harsh indeed.
On a happier note, our guide was an enthusiastic volleyball player (apparently a legacy of the French), and set up a game between our group and some of the local children. Even with our guide, ‘our’ team didn’t do very well! Everyone seemed to have fun though!
Our homestay was a traditional style Cambodian home, on stilts. We were told that the house cost 12k dollars to build a number of years ago, and many families from the village had helped to build it over a long weekend. Our host was sad that this kind of community building wasn’t as common anymore as the young people were leaving the village to find jobs in more urban areas.
The upstairs room slept all 12 of our group, with our guide sleeping in the porch. It was immaculately clean, and each of us had a thin mat on the floor, a pillow, a blanket and a mosquito net. There was electricity, so we had light to get to bed (dusk is around 6/7 o’clock at the moment in Cambodia).
The family slept in their hammocks underneath the building – we were a bit concerned about this, that we had put the family out of their beds, but in fact when we asked about this, they said it was far too hot to sleep in the house at this time of year and they would be sleeping in the hammocks anyway!
In fact we found that the temperature dropped considerably at night, and most of us ended up pulling on socks or a jumper to sleep through the night. We were woken at 5am by the cock crowing…which continued well into the morning, so between that, the cold, and the thinness of the mats to our tender western bones, it perhaps wasn’t the night where we all got the most sleep!
A privilege not a punishment
When we left, the general feeling was that the homestay had been a very positive experience, and we all felt very privileged to have had the opportunity to really question and try to understand a life so different from our own. It was clear that our visit and that of other groups like ours was having a positive effect on the community, enhancing rather than destroying the community. It was neither destitute or disney-like, but a real home, with real people and their lives, who provided us with open-hearted hospitality.