The perfect trip: Cambodia
The homestay is a focal point of the village, many members of which are related to Siphen and Mach – Siphen hazards a guess that they have 100 family members in Prey Theat. Guests become part of the family too, staying in bungalows in the fruit-tree-laden grounds or in wood-panelled rooms in the main house. The peaceful, hammock-strewn courtyard is the centre of family life – a place for cousins to chat, braid one another’s hair and catch up on village gossip.
Siphen’s kitchen is also outdoors, lending the preparation of meals a communal feel. With the early evening sunlight dancing off the lily pond at the back of the homestay, Siphen lays out pork ribs, fish amok (fish curry steamed in banana leaves) and beef lok lak (beef stir-fried with red onions), before calling over Mach from his task of trimming the grass around the fruit trees.
Assisting her with the cooking are young pupils from the small school next door, who sing Cambodian pop songs as they chop vegetables. Their English is excellent and they chat excitedly with the native speakers at the homestay, some of whom will head to their classroom in the morning to join a class and offer some impromptu language tutoring.
The meal ends with a mango dessert – the family property is home to seven different kinds of the fruit, which Siphen’s niece picks using an ingenious tool made from a plastic bottle and long stick.
The homestay really is a family effort. ‘Even the distant cousins are close,’ explains Siphen. ‘Everyone looks after one another. Many people were lost from our family during the Khmer Rouge’s rule. So we all feel cold in our hearts and want to be closer to each other.’