Before going to Cambodia, I never really had a local guide to show me around. To be honest, I never really thought about the benefits that much, instead I thought “Oh wait, pay $[x] more to get someone to show me the sights or give me a tour? Nah, I’m fine.” I am still travelling on a budget, so I understand if you are having similar thoughts. But, deciding to get a local guide has made my Cambodia travels so much more special, and I can only recommend it to everyone. Spend those extra dollars, and you’ll be rewarded with extra special memories.
We tried different kinds of guides during our stay in Cambodia. We had museum guides in Siem Reap and Banteay Chhmar, a tour guide in Battambang, and joined local activities in Siem Reap, Sen Monorom, and Banlung. I would recommend each one of them, although you might not need a guide for every single museum as some of them are well equipped with audio guides and/or lots of written commentary.
What do you get?
Having someone who is familiar with the area and knows the people there show you around gives you a huge learning experience. We got museum guides for the Siem Reap War Museum and Banteay Chhmar. Both places can also be toured without a guide, but as there is not too much information around the sites you would miss many details and would not get to hear the stories the guides happily share. It was also great to be able to ask all the questions, and get a personal take on Cambodian history. Another great thing about these guides is that the money goes to the local community, in our cases maintaining and protecting the temple, and supporting war victims.
While you might not need guides for every single museum, you shouldn’t give them a pass when touring rural areas, where not many people speak English. In Battambang we visited the local industries and learned how rice noodles/paper/flour/wine is produced. Again, it is possible to stop by these places on your own, but the people working there would not be able to explain the processes to you, and you could only watch them. Having a local guide by your side gives you the opportunity to not only learn about the theoretical aspects, which you might still find online or in guide books, but to get hands on experience. Jon and I were allowed to touch and try everything, which was really exciting (my inner child was super happy)!
Likewise, a day playing in the mud and learning something new that I would never get to do back home sounded f****** amazing! One of my favorite things was joining Sophean for a day on the rice field and learning how to plant rice. I think that you can get some of the greatest learning experiences when joining ‘local’ activities and learn about other people’s lives. During the day, Sophean also showed us how to build a rat trap out of bamboo, we caught fish with our bare hands, and had a picnic with his family – things I definitely wouldn’t have done without him.
In the same way, I wouldn’t have learned about the local customs of the Bunong people in Sen Monorom or spent the night in their village, if we had chosen the Western run tour agencies in town. You are likely to get a better experience with local tour operators than with one of the “fancy” (aka western) tour companies. Moreover, you know where your money goes and that you support the local community.
Spending the day with a local guide will lead you to places, you would not usually end up. The guides really care about tourists. The guides will make sure you go on the prettiest routes, even if that means going off road and bumping all over the fields. They want to make your time memorable, and give you special experiences (and maybe a few more bruises ;)).
We were extremely lucky to get invited to two Khmer weddings, and party with Cambodians. These are memories I will never forget, and I surely did not expect any of this to happen when I got up that morning. So, just because you only planned to see the nearby sights, this does not necessarily mean that your tour will be over once the sun sets, your tour guide might have a special surprise for you!
Another thing I did not expect to happen was teaching an English class without warning or preparation (Oh hi, anxiety!). Vany, our trekking friend in Sen Monorom, let his friend Dee in Banlung know that we were coming to town. Dee thought it would be a great opportunity for us and his students if we taught the evening English class, and I agree. It was so much fun and a really good confidence boost! I would do it again without a doubt.
Both points I mentioned before can be seen as forms of connecting, with the culture and with other people. I’m terrified of meeting new people and I have a hard time letting go of familiar things and fully embracing the unknown. At the same time however, I love connecting with others, learning, and opening up. For me, this is the purpose of travelling, and I want to expand my horizon and to learn new things.
One of the best ways I found to do this is by having a local person by my side. It is like spending the day with a friend, who shows you his favorite spots and shares his experiences with you. Making experiences with other people and sharing these moments is what makes them memorable. When you think back to your favorite memories, do you find yourself alone or is someone else there with you? If you travel solo or with friends, think about adding a local guide to your group and make a new friend!