Indigenous people in Mondulkiri are enjoying a second source of income: visits from foreigners seeking the ‘real thing’.
In Or Raing district’s Dak Dam commune 10 indigenous families have opened the doors of their traditional abodes to tourists.
Located 50 kilometres east of Senmonorom, the provincial capital, Dak Dam commune is home to the Panong, one of several indigenous people in the Kingdom. Though most of them are farmers, a few also complement their incomes with side businesses like homestays.
Homestay business owner Phyorng Khlerl, who has had some training on tourism-related skills, says she decided to start offering her house to curious travellers two years ago after she realised the number of tourists to the area was rising fast.
Though busy most of the day raising two children and working in the field, Ms Khlerl says opening her house to foreigners makes good economic sense, as it supports the humble income the family earns from growing rice, cassava and a variety of vegetables.
“I decided to provide homestay services because many foreigners come to the village to see our ways of living and farming,” Ms Khlerl says, adding that the most popular activity for guests is trekking to visit the lush forests and the many waterfalls that dot the area.
Ms Khlerl, who is Panong, has been learning English for three years and is now able to communicate with her guests using simple sentences.
“I am not fluent in English, but foreigners can understand me. I took English for three years before I started working in the field,” she says.
She charges $3 per night for a room plus $1 for every meal.
However, with very few villagers able to speak English, there is a lack of tour guides for foreign tourists. The only languages tour guides speak are Khmer and Panong.
“Only I can speak English, plus a few of the other homestay owners. But I am busy farming, so I just provide the rooms and cook food,” she says.
On average, 4 to 5 groups of 3 to 6 people stay at her homestay every month, she says.
Ariadna Mas Cros, a national of Spain, is now staying at Khlerl’s house.
“Cambodia is beautiful … I came to this village to explore how locals’ live and farm,” Ms Mas says. “It was recommended by many friends, so I decided to visit.”
When it is meal time, Ms Mas has a choice of Cambodian or Panong food.
“The local food is quite good,” Ms Mas says. “But what impressed me the most is that the owner can speak English.”
Before Dak Dam commune, Ms Mas and her friends spent a few days in Phnom Penh. She will next head to Laos.
With no knowledge of English at all, Phyoy Pheak, another Panong farmer, has recently started offering the rooms in his house to tourists.
To communicate with guests, he has the help of a tour guide hired by the community.
“I decided to start a homestay business because there are so many tourists coming to our village,” he explains.
Located in the Northeast, Mondulkiri is famous for its mountains, greenery and abundant wildlife.
Ngin Sovimean, director of Mondulkiri’s tourism department, says community-based tourism now represents a significant portion of indigenous families’ incomes, adding that the provincial tourism department aims to provide these families with hospitality skills to help them run their businesses.
There are now five such communities in the Dak Dam commune, Mr Sovimean says.
“There are plenty of homestay options for tourists, but, unfortunately, not many tourists stay in the villages for more than just a few days,” he says.