The directions we were given by our host family were somewhat vague. We were just told to get off the bus once we reached the second bridge. From there we needed to hire a local boat which would take us to the remote community of Chi Phat. This was going to be my first Cambodia homestay experience and it was already feeling like quite an adventure just getting there.
After roughly five hours on the bus we finally reached that second bridge. We asked the bus driver to let us off and crossed our fingers that we hadn’t missed a bridge on the way and that this was actually the place we had to get off at. After a while though we saw some local fishermen and were able to hire a local boat. During the boat trip we saw some of the most beautiful countryside imaginable. We drove past the stunning Cardamon mountains, mangrove forests, houses on huge stilts, and even a temple in the middle of the river. Because we were traveling during the rainy season everything was really lush and green, exactly the Cambodia I have grown to love so much over my past two years here.
After two hours my friends and I finally reached Chi Phat community, one of the few eco-tourism sites in Cambodia. We walked through a village until we reached the tourism center. From there we were able to book our accommodation and overnight jungle mountain bike tour. We choose a non-touristy type of accommodation – a traditional Cambodia homestay. Due to my NGO work I have been lucky enough to visit many rural communities before and frequently interact with locals but I never actually stayed in an authentic Cambodian house overnight before.
Our host family lived in a traditional wooden house on stilts. The house had four rooms: two bedrooms for guests, one kitchen, and a third bedroom which was shared by our hosts and their lovely children. There was also an airy terrace which was used as a living and dining room combined. The toilet was an outdoor building and the shower was a cold bucket of water, which in the stifling heat of the jungle was actually just what the doctor ordered. Our bedroom was very simple but cosy nonetheless with a double bed, complete with a much needed mosquito net, hooks on the wall to hang our clothes on, and even a cute hand-carved bedside table. The window had no glass which was quite convenient for our little gecko friends as they could come and go as they pleased throughout the night. It did though provide us with a spectacular view from our beds, providing a gateway to the tranquil beauty of the surrounding rice paddies and water buffaloes. It certainly wasn’t luxurious and we only had electricity at night (though no air con or even fans which was a challenge in the jungle) but for $3 a night we weren’t expecting creature comforts. And in any event, that’s hardly what homestays are about.
Tourism in Cambodia is a big business these days, especially being home to the magnificent Angkor Wat, but most tourists never get the chance to experience the real Cambodia through the eyes of real Cambodians. One third of Cambodians, mostly from the countryside, live below the poverty line of earning $1.25 per day so visiting a homestay not only gives tourists an unforgettable and genuine cultural experience, but it also helps support the local economy and communities. Chi Phat itself only gets about 2000 visitors a year because of its remote location but true to the communitarian nature of Cambodian people, these 2000 visitors are equally divided between all homestay host families so that the proceeds are evenly distributed.
What I particularly liked about our home-stay was that nothing was staged meaning there were no canned presentations or ‘spontaneous’ shows of children dancing. Instead we got to play with our host family’s children in their home environment and eat and live with a family going about their everyday business. The whole eco-tourism project was a great experience and one I’d recommend to any traveler who wants to find out how the majority of Cambodians live. Staying with a homestay family helps to learn more about the culture and the local traditions. But most importantly when staying with a homestay family you contribute enormously to the local economy too, so it is also a means of alleviating rural poverty in a sustainable manner.