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'Surfers' see world from other people's couches

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17-Story-1.jpg

A global network of backpackers has created Couch Surfing, a cheap,

friendly way to travel: You crash on my couch, I'll crash on yours

Thomas Gam Nielsen

Couch Surfing host Nabil Kannan (left) shows Alejandro Vilchez Falcon

photographer Jon Ortner’s Buddha, which he said inspired him to travel

and take pictures.

WHILE the backpackers' haven along the

waters of Boeung Kak lake may soon be gone, some world travellers are

floating elsewhere free of charge.

The Couch Surfing Project (couchsurfing.com) is a global community of

almost 700,000 travelers who turn internet friendships into real-life

exchanges.

The concept is also the idea behind the project: I will offer you a 

place to sleep for free, show you my favourite sites in Phnom Penh (or

whatever city I live in). In return, you offer your travel experiences

and don't just treat me as a hostel owner. The project's motto:

"Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch at a Time".

Breaking the ice

Forty-four-year-old Nabil Kannan came from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh

in November last year. He is one of about 70 couch surfers living in

Cambodia, and at first he used the network to ask expats living in

Phnom Penh about travel advice. Later, when he decided to settle in the

city, he started to host people in his apartment.

"People couch surf to be social, [and] I get new friends and a chance

to express my experiences as a traveller in Cambodia. It is a cultural

exchange," he says.

There are around a hundred members of the society in Cambodia, but only

14 of them are listed as Khmer, while the rest are foreigners like

Nabil Kannan, living in the Kingdom. On August 21, he initiated a small

party for site members in Phnom Penh. About 30 travellers and residents

of the city showed up.

You have a friendly place to stay, a place to save money, you get local advice....

Couch Surfing Asia public relations coordinator Shailaja Shah says he  sees these events as icebreakers.
"This is at the core of couch surfing, in order to make it a safer

community which is known to each other rather than a largely virtual

community. Over time this helps change mindsets and allow people to

want to open their homes and hearts of their own accord," Shah said.

"This is also interesting as many Asian cultures have hospitality at

heart but are often unsure how to deal with couch surfing as it's still

such a new concept to them."

The Khmer side

Keo Sokhom, a 30-year-old Kampong Cham native, heard of the virtual

community from Kannan.  She now works in the Phnom Penh, where her home

is not big enough for hosting, but she shows surfers  "the Khmer side

of Phnom Penh".

Her first real-life exchange set up through the website was a dinner with a Hungarian.

"When I first saw her, I didn't know what to talk about because I

didn't know much about her, [but] after half an hour and a drink, I

felt good.  She was a woman, so it was comfortable, but if it was a guy

I would have felt a bit uncomfortable," she said.

Keo Sokhom also enjoys getting new inputs from abroad.

"I get to know people from outside Cambodia and hear about their living

and travels, she said. "I have [also] improved my English skills

because I practice them more now."

Learning language might be a carrot for young Cambodians to join in, but language barriers might also discourage others.

Shah wrote from India, "I think it is an interesting challenge for CS

in countries and cities where English is not the primary language. It

is something we endeavour to bridge, but it seems to be a slower

process than addressing a largely English-speaking population."

The statistics tells the same story, as only 1.6 percent of the members come from Southeast Asia.

As internet penetration rises and some young Southeast Asians adopt a

more Western backpacker style, Shah says that these cultural changes

will bring more people in throughout the region.   

Until then, most local members of the Couch Surfing Project will mainly surf other expats' couches.

From waves to cushions

Alejandro Vilchez Falcon from Spain enjoyed his experience couch

surfing in Cambodia. He first surfed the shores of Latin America in his

post-high school years before he  changed his surfing venues from

beaches to couches in 2007, the latest couch being at Kannan's place in

Phnom Penh.

"You have so many things. You have a friendly place to stay, a place to

save money, you get local advice. Sometimes the host gives you

transportation. It's so many things. It changes your way of travelling

a lot," he said.

Though Kannan wasn't Cambodian, Vilchez Falcon thinks he got a

different perspective on Cambodia than if he had stayed in a

"backpacker ghetto" and said, "Nabil has learned a lot about the city,

and he can tell of places never mentioned in guidebooks."

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