Following an itinerant youth, Ramon found it hard to settle in his native Netherlands. In 2001, he embarked on a trip of a lifetime, travelling around the world for two years…for free.
His adventures earned him the sobriquet ‘The Godfather of Couch Surfing’ and his blog became so popular, the UK’s Sunday Times named him their internet personality of the year.
Despite having seen sights in Europe, Africa, Australasia and North America, Ramon fell in love with Phnom Penh and now runs the city’s two community movie houses, The Flicks 1 and 2.
1. How did you catch the travel bug?
I grew up in Jakarta, where my father worked as an engineer, we moved back to a boring village in the Netherlands when I was five, but I think that experience abroad meant that of all my friends, I knew what a fascinating world was out there.
I had my first taste of independent travel when I was 17; I had booked one week in Spain, but ended up staying for the whole summer, doing the promotions for three big nightclubs. I loved being independent and meeting so many people.
2. Did you realise then that you weren’t destined for a nine to five office job?
Probably. I studied journalism at college, but even there I didn’t enjoy the academic stuff, instead I liked the practical side of things; my friends and I made money organising parties and publishing our own newspaper. I got into blogging really early on and I spotted the potential for creating a network of supportive people who would host me as I travelled. I set up letmestayforaday.com in 2001 and set off on my adventure.
3. How did letmestayforaday.com work and how did it take off?
Via my blog, I requested one night’s accommodation and drinks and a meal. In return, I would blog about my experiences. I started with 700 invitations from 64 countries and by the end of my trip I had received 4000 invitations from 72 countries. Eventually, my website was receiving 1.2 million hits a month and companies were getting interested in sponsorship.
I didn’t want money, but they stepped in and provided big things like flights, my laptop and camera, all the way down to my underwear, in return for advertising.
4. It sounds amazing. What was the best bit?
It’s impossible to say. It was so epic, I lost track of the best bits and anyway, you cannot compare the experiences. How can a week with the Inuit in northern Canada be contrasted with sharing dinner with a poor black woman in the townships of South Africa? What makes something great? A wonderful swimming pool in the house of a privileged family in America? Or being taken out partying by a group of students? Every experience counts.
5. Why did you stop?
It started to get really crazy and the experiences became less about me and the opportunity to share travel stories online and more about being a celebrity. I ended up on a talk show next to Tom Cruise and I started to feel like people were hosting me not to be part of the project, rather, if they couldn’t meet Tom Cruise, they would order me off the internet instead.
It was exhausting. I had proved my point, you can travel the world for free and people are still hospitable. Now I was ready to stop.
6. How did you end up in Cambodia?
I moved back to the Netherlands for a few years and tried a bit of everything I liked – marketing, massage therapy, managing a bar but I travelled to Cambodia in 2009 and loved Phnom Penh. I knew I could start a life here and made the move in 2010.
I spotted The Flicks for sale but didn’t have the $10,000 required to buy it. I turned to the internet again and set up timetosupport.com, a website where I asked family and friends to loan me the money. I said I’d pay it back after six months or they could choose to turn it into a donation and I would pass the cash on via the crowd-sourcing fundraising site, Kiva. I raised $7500 in 15 days, $2100 of which eventually went to other projects through Kiva.
7. What is The Flicks about now?
It’s a community movie house, we’re not here to make money. We don’t just show movies, but we host yoga classes, pilates and language lessons. It’s a really comfortable place with a bar where people can hang out and there are cushions in the movie room so they can get comfy and relax.
We take requests for films and as long as we can get permission to show it (and it’s a good film), we do. We got so popular that the Flicks 1 wasn’t big enough and we opened Flicks 2 in April. Next dry season, we’d love to organise some outdoor screenings and I’d love to open more movie houses all across Southeast Asia.