If you like ‘roughing it’ and really getting to grips with local culture, then you should think about experiencing a homestay on your travels.
My first homestay was on the island of Dong Deng (one of the 4,000 islands in Laos), the second time in the hill tribe villages on the Thai-Burma border, and I absolutely loved it! It’s always great when you meet locals, whether it’s the man who drives your tuk-tuk, the waitress struggling to pay her education fees, the family on your seven-hour bus journey or the stranger on the side of the street.
Random conversation and the sharing of life stories is always a memorable part of travels, and living with locals can be a wonderful extension of this. But I won’t lie, it can also be pretty tough going! It means living in someone’s personal space, which they kindly give up in their own house. They cook for you and you dine with them, engage with their family via smiles and gestures (language doesn’t always have to be a barrier to communication and friendship) and you get to meander and explore, just as if you were living in the area.
But it means giving up most forms of comfort, or nearly all, especially even the smallest of showers. If you don’t like the food served, then tough (it was cooked for you and you will be grateful) and it means you may rise with the call of the roosters, not on your own time. Still, I’m making it a ‘must do’ to find many more opportunities to experience this again on my travels. Despite the challenges, it really is a unique experience I urge you to try – even if it’s just the once and you don’t end up liking it.
If you think you’ll have a bed, think again. This is local living so a shallow mattress, blanket and mosquito net will be all you’re getting – not an experience for those looking for anything particularly comfy. But it’s comfortable enough, and that’s all that matters. You are living locally after all, and basic is normality.
The bathroom in my homestay in Laos had a toilet that you flushed using a bucket, the water collected from the small well like structure in the corner of the room. Like a bath at but at shoulder height. Oh, and this was the same water and bucket you used to have a shower too. So I admit that for the two nights I was there I didn’t shower (baby wipes all the way) as I couldn’t bring myself to do it with water that was days old. In time I hope to build a tolerance to not give a damn about stuff like that. I’d have no choice if I stayed any longer and besides, I swam in the lake so that counts.
Not always with chairs and tables. You could be eating whilst sitting cross or frogged legged on a mat on the floor – it’s actually quite refreshing and a great way of interacting when you are not so far removed from others.
No one bolts the locks on their houses but it’s perfectly safe. Sometimes there may not be a lock at all. It’s a village and that’s how they roll and I never once felt unsafe. You may see random people wander past you, on the way to the bathroom or through the room you are staying in. Generally, a lot of people live in one house and it is their space you are occupying. A smile goes a long way in saying ‘thank you.’
Take time to catch a few moments to yourself on the front porch under the stars, it’s magical. Four of us put a head torch on flashing mode and created a small disco with an iPod on low volume, and then later grabbed a pillow to lay there and immerse ourselves in the surrounding beauty and the calm. It’s amazing what activities you can think up when you have little resource.
Best get in your bed at a decent hour too. The locals are long gone way before you and this isn’t a party zone. Only when the bugs come out to play so you need to get under your net. My mate had an unlucky encounter when she felt something in her PJ’s which turned out to be a little cockroach. That was possibly my worst experience of a homestay EVER – her going crazy (rightfully so), me with a light searching and both of us trying to squish the little fu**er under the mattress.
The tip is to scan your bed with a torch before you nod off to make sure a) You have everything you need out and ready like a jumper in case it gets chilly b) That you are not sharing your bed with anyone else. Keeping your net tucked in as night falls and you are off doing other things is a good idea. Saves any stresses at bedtime.
You will no doubt wake up to the natural light but you may be lucky to be woken up by the delights of nature. Our morning wakeup call in the hill tribe village consisted of a few dogs and chickens having a good gander underneath our hut, followed by a man touring the village on his radio – well, a megaphone. Oh and the rooster cries – all pre 6 am. And you think your morning alarm is annoying!
Daytime is pretty special. It’s like being on a deserted island that’s yours to explore. We passed the kids on the way to and from school, met the women working hard in the rice fields, chatted with local shopkeepers (in one of the Thai villages the shop was run by children!), alongside farmers, fisherman and cooks eager for us to sample the delights. We sat on an empty beach watching the world go by, bathed in the river and basked in the glorious sunshine. In the hill tribes, we would wander the dirt roads until the sunset. It’s the simplicity of life that hits you, and the way other people live so contently without mod cons and distractions.
You become a known and trusted face and you make friends. I even enjoyed sweeping ‘my’ front porch. I became proud of the space I was living in.
How do you do it?
Mini tours, excursions and treks. I was lucky that both of my homestays were included as a larger chunk of activity. I was on a small tour in Laos and this island was used specifically for visitors of that company every few weeks and my time in the hill tribes was a part of a jungle trek we undertook starting in Chiang Mai. Some programmes arrange for pick up from your hotel/hostel and facilitate a two-day homestay excursion.
Homestays can generally be sought out when researching a destination or through word of mouth when you are in an area. Some form a part of conservation drives or animal welfare – for example, a friend of mine recently stayed in Kampong Kleang, Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia for two nights as part of an environmental awareness project which she found online. Also, look at less touristy areas that you know won’t be over-run with tourists who treat homestays like a museum. It depends how ‘rural’ an experience you want, but you know also that your money is probably going to a more direct cause rather than some of it being swallowed up in administration.
There are some websites which work in a similar way to Couchsurfing but which specifically list homestays, like this one in Kerela where you can even choose the level of comfort, (which in turns indicates the price to stay).
Stay with local friends and meet their families. I have a friend in Cambodia whose family live in a village in between Siem Reap and the Cambodia/Thailand border and plan to fully make use of his invitation, just I would welcome a long-standing friend into my home. However, it takes time to forge a level of trust and meaningful friendship before just randomly visiting a very off the beaten track area, but when the opportunity arises, take it.
What’s your homestay experience?