Okay. So part of the Intrepid Group Tour included an overnight at a rural homestay at Sambor Prei Kuk. It was from this base we did the ancient hind temple tour; the ox-cart ride; and got to interact with school children so they could practise their English and humiliate us in a game of soccer!
I really wasn’t sure what to expect. It had enormous social angst potential to be frank. How are we viewed by the locals who essentially give up their home so we can play at the authentic Cambodian experience? Having done it, I would recommend and do see the point. I don’t know how representative this particular community are, but essentially they have organised themselves to capitalise on the tourists’ desire to come and experience a little of rural Cambodia. By doing this sort of trip, your cash goes directly to the families who host you, and the injection of cash is pretty significant given the meagre opportunities for income generation from rice-growing and related activities. Apparently there are some 30 homestay places within the village, and they all subscribe to a certain standard. They have to build an enclosed loo for example. I don’t know if other tour groups come to this particular spot, but Intrepid always circulate between the various host families, who get $11 per person per night for providing space and evening meal and breakfast the next day.
Hot and bothered, on arrival we were spat out of our bus and onto the forecourt of our new home for the next 24 hours. Our hosts were waiting to greet us. As far as I can gather, they give up their usual central living space for us to use, migrating downstairs and using hammocks for the duration of our stay. The house is relatively new, I think less than ten years old, but built in a traditional way, the high stilt base creating a cool shady space underneath in which to work and rest.
The first thing we did was explore our suite of accommodation. We were warned it would be very basic, but it was nothing like as primitive as I’d been led to believe. It was spotlessly clean. A selection of thin mattresses were laid out with three in a communal area, and some separate rooms with thin wooden walls offering some privacy to a lucky five – of which I was one, and two were a couple, so we allocated them the room we named ‘the honeymoon suite’ on account of its lavish collection of decorative posters. EAch room had a fan and a light of sorts, though these would only come on later on. Electricity was generated through solar power which fed a car battery, this powered everything from the fans to the rather battered television downstairs.
Each bed had a carefully laid out pillow with a clean pillow case and folded sheet over it. It was very lovingly prepared for us. We were shown how to unfold and put away the mosquito nest, and the most effective way to enter and exit whilst they were down. The top tips are to tuck the net under your mattress when in situ to avoid holes, and exit feet first to minimise gaping entrance points for mosquitos.
There were slatted boards towards the back of the space, with a curtained off area. This was the family space and we were asked not to go in. Although in reality, when guests come they apparently prefer to sleep away from us, and who can blame them? The way it works is that most host families would host a group about once or maybe twice a month. They really do welcome the injection of cash, and to some extent the interaction with tourists – the message is driven home again and again that without English language skills it will be hard for children to access opportunities. Not so very long ago, children were taken out of school at a young age because they were needed to work the rice fields, now there is an aspiration by most parents for their children that they will stay in school, as an education will help them to be better providers for their families and parents too. Opportunities to talk to foreigners help accelerate language learning.
Here we were welcomed by a local guide who spoke excellent English and was amazingly open about his background, experiences and aspirations. He was unusual in that he fought for the opportunity to access education. One of nine, he worked the rice fields from the age of about 7, but by his twenties did not want his life to be ‘the same forever’. He persuaded his father to let him go away to a mission school of some sort, where he worked the kitchen and cleaned in return for English lessons. It took two years or more. Eventually, he was able to return to this, his home community, and work as a teacher himself for a few years, before becoming a guide. He really does know everyone therefore and lives locally. There are some 200 families in the community and they all know each other, ‘no secrets here’. I asked about photos and was told that was fine, that was why we were here. I explored the grounds. The house had a pig, work areas, a vegetable plot. Down the back was a field with water buffalo – including a really newborn calf. I don’t know if that land was our hosts or our neighbours. It was all extremely well-kept. The pig was in a small enclosure, but looked well, and grunted with curiosity as I approached. I actually think it probably has more humane living conditions than many factory farmed pigs in the western world. At least it could see what was going on. There were hens running around, and a healthy and exuberant dog, which made a change. Loo wise, there was a western toilet and a squat toilet, with a trough and scoop that could be used for a bucket shower. It was all very clean. We were instructed to remove shoes on entering the house, but at night, as a concession to the fact the dog likes to chew shoes, we could leave our footwear on a higher step! Dogs it seems are the same the world over!
There was so much to look at, it is a very different environment. I wonder how affluent the family are compared to most. Our local guide aspires to be able to offer homestay in the future, but he needs first to construct a toilet block. He lives with his wife and two children – he wants only two so he can afford to send them both to university, and supports his parents too. His whole family are now immensely proud of him for what he has accomplished, though initially his aspiration must have seemed quite alien. It shows a massive leap of faith for our guide to have even imagined such a different future than the present he came from, so few people he knew had taken that path when he first went down it. Inspirational doesn’t really cover it. People here work incredibly hard, and are creative and tenacious in seeking out opportunities.
The welcome cup of was extremely welcome and a fine cup of tea it was too! Proper tea I’d go so far as to say, had tanine in it I’m sure.
We didn’t linger long as whisked off on our afternoon’s adventures. Back from the ox-cart, and temple viewing and school children visiting I was grossly sticky! I had a bucket shower and it was surprisingly effective. Weirdly, it seems cooler here. The shade under the stilt house is really effective at keeping things cool.
We had an evening meal cooked for us by the wife of the householder. I don’t think she had any English. Vegetarians were put together, and a mass of dishes brought out. Rice featured heavily, and for the vegetarians was a sort of pumpkin and garlic dish which was absolutely delicious. I could have troughed loads of it, nicest thing I’ve eaten here so far, and all so freshly made. Yum. It was only marred slightly by one of my fellow vegetarians extracting from it something that looked suspiciously like chicken, for a while I had to entertain the notion that maybe the reason why my meal was so lovely was because it had meat in it! Later investigation put me in the clear, it was strips of fried egg. Phew, close run thing!
Although the food was great, the meal was a little awkward, because I/ we felt our hosts were waiting on us as if we were honoured guests, rather than joining us. It was a little strange. There was also a cringe inducing moment, when an anecdote was related about one of our group running out of toilet paper in a moment of need and he’d learned the Khmer for toilet paper and it was shouted out again to whoops of laughter by some. I was mortified. It was the only khmer word spoken, what if the woman who had been slaving over the dishes thought it was a joke at the expense of her cooking? I made a point of making eye contact wtih her and ah kohning a lot and asked the guide to tell her how delicious it was. I think it was OK.
After we had eaten, our guide told us something of his story of how he initially worked only in the rice fields and how hard it was. No watches they worked by the sun. Food was basically rice, and more rice, and nothing else. Fish was sometimes got from the fields when flooded. His mother would send him off to market to sell little rice cakes which he carried on his head. He spoke of how horrible it was trying to do this in the rainy season, when not only would the rice cakes disintegrate in the rain, but the sticky rice would drip through the leaf container and all down his face. He’d go home, sticky, demoralised and in trouble for not having sold a thing! It is stunning to think how much life has changed here in a relatively short time. He has gone from that life to his new one in 2 decades.
His openess was really helpful in that it explained how our money from the ox-cart rides goes back into the community, how the school children we visit are learning English from our guides childhood friend. Their teacher is a volunteer, and he needs tourists to visit the school so the children can interact with native English speakers and feel motivated to learn. He had already told us about how Chinese developers had raped the local jungle where he gathered wood as a child, leading to probably irreversable environmental impact. You can’t help but marvel at what he has achieved through a sheer effort of will, and wonder what he might have achieved if fate had dealt him a different hand and he’d been born in a country with more opportunities. His moral framework is clear though, he wants to give back to his own community, his own parents, and create opportunities for the next generation too.
After a while, the host of the family stood behind our guide and came and sat with us, so we could ask questions. I was burning with curiousity, but unsure what would be polite to ask. Would our host feel like an exhibit? I also wanted to talk to his wife, but she sat with her chair a little back. I wasn’t sure if she wasn’t wanting to engage, or if this was a slightly deferential thing. It is definitely a patriarchal society, she ran round like anything during dinner. Some of us helped clear plates and carry them through to her kitched. A wooden area with simple open fire cooking and no running water. It all works though, mind you, how they do everything squatting and then sleep in a hammock I can’t imagine. They must be strong or very, very sore.
Although our local guide had offered to act as an interpreter, he was a bit prone to saying ‘oh, I can tell you that’ rather than intepreting and letting the householders speak for themselves. Nevertheless, it was an interesting dialogue. We learned our host is a carpenter. He learned through watching others, adn learning from the elders in his village, not because it was in his family. Over time he improved his skill until it became his business. He is not from here – though actually in western terms he is, he used to live less than 10km away. His house he built himself, in ten days! Can you imagine? What happens is the whole community comes together to help. He provided all the materials, and fed everyone for the duration, but they all got together and up that house went! Extraordinary. That sense of community that depends on co-operation is really strong. I don’t think you’d survive without that working together. It is this that also makes them pull together by sharing income from the ox-cart rides I suppose. It was really interesting. After a while though, mindful our hosts had been up and working since 4.30 a.m. and we were all shattered too, we said our good nights.
Before I retired up the stairs to ‘my’ room, I took time to look at the night sky. The stars are amazing, you don’t realise how much light pollution there is until you are away from it. There were a couple of fireflies blinking near a tree, so that was fun. I’ve not seen them in years.
In situ, I clambered under my mosquito net, and took in the sounds. Noisy with frogs I think. There was also a relentless knocking that I thought in my semi-conscious state was a generator, it turned out to be one of the fans that spent all night knocking a low slung cable with every rotation. how it was not sliced through I shall never know!
I slept surprisingly well, the window in my room open to the night sky, and the fan sending a good breeze around. Because i had the privacy of thin wooden walls, I lay naked on the mattress with just he mosquito net to protect me. It was like sleeping outside and pretty blissful. Only marred by a strong cloud of smoke that came through the house throughout the night. It made everything smell of wood smoke. Not exactly unpleasant. but not quite what might have wanted either. Mind you, it probably kept the mosquitoes at bay. I wasn’t bothered by them at all.
I had no idea what time it was when I woke (no watch, and my eyesight wasn’t strong enough to read my travel alarm, I really should have brought a larger one with me, but I’m struggling to admit my eyesight is as lamentable as it now is). I ventured downstairs to find the American couple already up. The morning light was gorgeous. There was a hoarse throated cockerel around which had a sort of interrupted cockcrow. It was the funniest thing, like when a needle jumps on an old vinyl record, his call was sort of interrupted. I wonder if he was embarrassed by that at all? It didn’t stop him having his wicked way with a poor hen that had the misfortune to come within his eye line…
I had a three in one coffee. Incredibly sweet, and which had an almost instantaneous emetic effect which nearly caught me by surprise. Fortuitously I did make it to the conventional loo in time, but only just. No thanks to another Intrepid traveller who spend hours in there showering which was rather antisocial, mind you, he has also not been well, so maybe it was born of necessity. Another traveler did suggest I try the squat toilet, but without being too graphic, i wasn’t very confident about my aim in the circumstances, so felt it wasn’t the time or place to take a chance on it. Fortunately, I’ve not been eating all that much, so even emptying my whole system wasn’t too graphic!
Breakfast was pretty amazing! Apart from the emetic coffee, there were lovely dough ball things that are actually rice, I don’t quite know how they are made, but they are light and fluffy inside and taste delicious. There were also rice and noodle options, and slices of egg again. I was a bit careful not to eat too much, but it was a fantastic spread. We hardly were able to make much in the way of inroads there was so much food on offer.
After breakfast, it was time to depart. I noticed our local guide handing money over to our host. There was some awkward posing for photos. On reflection, we should probably have had a group shot all together, it felt a bit parasitic snapping away at our carpenter and his wife. They tolerated it as it goes with the territory I suppose, but looked uncomfortable. I have said it before, but I’m beginning to understand why some people believe that having their photo taken might steal their soul. A stolen photo is an assault on a person in a way, and a little bit of them might indeed die each time for being the subject of such exploitation.
We eventually departed, there was the thanks to our local guide and our hosts. Much bowing and hand palmed farewells. It was the first time since we arrived that our hosts looked really relaxed and happy. I don’t know if they were just relieved we were going because they could get their house back, or whether it was more they were relieved that it had all gone well. They tried so hard to make everything perfect for us, as if we were highly strung and demanding VIPS – maybe we are. Perhaps there is a veiled threat, whether we like it or not, that if things go wrong they won’t be used as a host house for homestay again. I really don’t see how that could happen though, they were so excellent, so kind and giving not only of their home, but of themselves. I don’t know what the money they got from us represents. Is it a considerable sum? Even for a carpenter? I’m inclined to think it must at least be very significant, if you consider some of the rice paper makers we saw earlier in the week earned just between $5-$7 per day, split between the whole family and to share between 5 adults. Whilst the carpenter is definitely more prosperous, and built some of the substantial furniture and out building he has himself (the solid wood table is his construction) near enough $100 must still be well worth having.
Back on the bus, we waved our final farewells. It was quite an experience. I’m glad we did it. It helps me to understand a bit more about how people live, though of course it is an artificial experience, it felt genuine. It didn’t ultimately feel exploitative of the people we spent time with, because they are proud that as a community they have found a way to tap into tourist dollars that usually are concentrated in urban areas. When we did our farewells, their translated speech to us was along the lines of ‘thank you for coming and thank you for supporting our community’ there is definitely a sense that this is a community not individual enterprise. I wish them well.
I also really wish Intrepid had told us about the school visit in advance. I so wish I’d brough even one child’s reading book with me. Anything would make a difference and it would help more than just one child. Oh well, one for the feedback form I suppose!