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
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
"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."