A homestay inspired by the desire to give young Khmers the opportunity to travel and study outside of their province has opened its doors in Wat Damnak village, just along from Cuisine Wat Damnak restaurant.
Angkor Homestay Art Restaurant is in a large, traditional wooden house built in 1967, with all its original features still intact. Owner Meak Em’s aunt and 82 year-old grandmother have lived there since the war and Meak, who comes from Kampong Speu province and studied tourism at university in Phnom Penh, had always the seen business potential.
“When I used to visit my aunt’s family here I saw the house and thought it was a nice house, with spacious land,” he says. “But I never saw any homestays in Siem Reap which allow young people – especially high school students – to stay when they want to visit Angkor temples or come to train here, especially in the service sector. I have seen many hostels, hotels and guesthouses, but homestays only seem to exist in rural areas.”
Meak considered how costs might add up for an international or Cambodian student wanting to come to Siem Reap to study or train.
“Where can they go?” he says. “If they pay for a hostel at $4 a night how much will they pay for a week or a month? And there is no family to look after them if they are young. So I suggested to my aunt and my grandmother that we work together to open a homestay in the city, offering visitors a cheap and reasonable place to stay.”
He adds that many hostels and guesthouses will not actually accept Khmer guests, because the owners think they will not spend as much money as tourists.
Meak spent a few weeks renovating the property, taking care to preserve the original details right down to the roof tiles.
“What you see today is the original style of the house,” he says. “It was built like this at the beginning. Some parts of the roof were broken. I tried to find tiles to replace the broken ones, but it was really hard to find these diamond-shaped ones. They don’t produce such tiles any more, but I looked in the pagodas and old houses from the same period, and managed to find thirty tiles.
“Most of the interior is not painted because I would like to keep it as original as possible,” he adds.
The airy house is filled with history : Meak’s grandmother was living there when the Khmer Rouge took over. After the war, Meak says, she was lucky to get it back.
“It was used to keep grain, rice and corn during the Khmer Rouge regime,” he says. “When my grandmother returned after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, she saw the grains there. Upstairs was the regime tailors' work place. This is why the house remains almost intact. It is lucky for her the Vietnamese army gave her back the house after they left Siem Reap.”
In addition to the family’s living quarters, the large stilted house contains three double-rooms and a dormitory-type set up with five single beds. There are also desks dotted around for people wishing to study.
“There are three rooms we can offer guests and another large space which contains five beds where we can receive guests if they come in a group of four or five. It’s like a kind of hostel. For international guests I may charge them $4 without breakfast and $5 with breakfast. But for national guests especially rural people who come to Siem Reap for training I may charge them only $1.”
There is a restaurant downstairs serving Khmer food, and Meak plans to introduce a photo gallery upstairs featuring pictures of Cambodian people working in the Angkor region. Over the next year he also aims to invite dancers and traditional singers from other regions to perform.
“My aunt is a radio presenter in Siem Reap, but before the Khmer Rouge regime she was a dancer in the Ballet Royale,” he says. “My grandma was living in the Royal Palace before the Khmer Rouge regime so I would like to revive what she used to do.”
He emphasises that it is important that younger people can have a homestay in the city, but adds that he expects to receive both foreign and Khmer guests. In fact, his greatest wish is to transform the property into a “connecting point” between local and international visitors.
“When they meet each other I expect that there will be a cultural transfer, especially in language and life skills that they can learn from each other,” he says. “This is my main hope. I also want to try and link leisure to livelihoods, meaning that I would like to transform this house into an educational place where students, teachers, working people or researchers can come and live like they would at home, and can visit the temples or do their studies in Siem Reap.
“I think most young Cambodians living in other provinces or rural areas have less opportunity to travel outside their province due to the high price of the accommodation, so I want to give a cheap place for them which allows them to travel outside their homeland to experience life outside their province. I want to help them expand their horizons.”