We recently spoke to Bunvath, one of our local travel experts based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We explored the life of a Discova travel guide in Siem Reap and got a real sense of the immense pride he feels when doing what he does best. Let’s get stuck in!
On Becoming a Guide…
Bunvath did not initially plan to become a guide. However, while studying for a degree in economics in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, it seems that his head may have been turned.
“I had a lot of friends who were tour guides. They seemed to be having a lot of fun. So, it made sense for me to try it too.”
For many who get into the guiding game, it seems that a common path is that they have been convinced by a kind of infectious enthusiasm to get involved, and it didn’t take Bunvath long to demonstrate those same qualities.
“You know, meeting people is simply the best part of my job. I love sharing my pride in Cambodia and showing it through my eyes.”
Eyes which light up with warmth and passion on cue as if to illustrate his point.
“You know, when I first began, I was honestly very, very shy. I had an American friend. She helped me by taking me to English classes to improve my speech – I knew a lot about Cambodia but wasn’t confident enough to express this in English. With time, I got better, I guess because I was talking about Cambodia -so it felt more and more natural.”
A passion for telling Cambodia’s story is a running theme that Bunvath returns to regularly in our interview. Here is a man who has evidently found his purpose – needless to say, he never went back to economics!
On Different Tours…
Bunvath is based in Siem Reap, most famous worldwide as the home of the majestic temple complex of Angkor Wat. Cambodia’s most iconic temple, the world heritage site is a Khmer architectural masterpiece. With lichen-blotted sandstone temples and ruined canals that offer travellers a tantalising glimpse of the region’s mystical past, the place is particularly photogenic at sunrise and sunset with its towers silhouetted against the pastel sky.
Naturally, some of Bunvath’s work involves taking tourists to the site.
“I do two different types – the classic tours based on history and culture and the more adventurous tours involving cycling, hiking, and getting out into nature. So, an example of the classic tour is Angkor Wat. But, when we go, we need to provide something unique and give a lot of information – the history of the building, the details of the architecture, the symbolism of the artwork, what happened during that period…we have to be able to answer all possible questions. The visitor thinks the place is amazing to look at, but they should learn things too.”
It is evident here that pride is coming to the fore. In his mind, it is not enough to go to Angkor Wat to take a beautiful photo; there should be a more meaningful connection to the context of the place – and he is best placed as a local expert to provide that.
This is exemplified as Bunvath goes on to discuss the other element of his tours – the more adventurous excursions into the beautiful Cambodian countryside.
On Cambodian Village Life…
“Angkor Wat’s great, but I always see that travellers most enjoy getting out into the community and seeing real life.”
I push him on what he means by real life.
“When we do adventure tours, we usually focus on the local life of villagers. We get to see the real deal, as we like to call it. For example, you’re going to be cycled through the village, we start to interact with people. So, we see the answers to travellers’ questions like; how do they live in the small village? How do they cope? What do they eat? What is important to them?”
Bunvath is referring to our Local Life range of experiences, designed to give a deeper insight into our destinations. These tours usually work closely with communities in places a little bit off the tourist trail. They often feature hands-on activities with families, serving as immersive learning experiences for travellers.
Bunvath continues, “Travellers always seem to be interested in learning how different cultures live. I think people become more compassionate. Usually, the travellers can see the Cambodian villagers have less – no new clothes, sometimes no electricity – but they are happy and have a good time together nonetheless. We usually have only one-bedroom or two-bedroom houses with lots of extended family living under the same roof. People get married and still stay with their parents. The cooking room is usually separate and outside. There is always a place for family photos in the main room. Travellers enjoy seeing this different way of living.”
As he speaks about village life, Bunvath takes on the familiar pride that sparkles throughout. As he speaks, a shift is visible to that more comfortable place – to that of the educator, the knowledgeable guide sharing information with one who is unfamiliar.
He comes out of his reverie with a joke. “Usually, our western visitors think that living with your in-laws sounds like a nightmare.”
Joking aside, it’s important to highlight that these visits are mutually beneficial, as Bunvath explains.
“In Cambodia, 70% of people still live in rural areas, and most of these are relatively poor farmers. I like to get out and support these communities with our tours…and the travellers do too. Some of the money goes directly to the families and communities – usually into group funds allocated democratically to whatever is needed. The incoming tourists also provide some job opportunities for the locals too. So, that’s why we try to encourage more people to visit a community.”
And, what about the benefits for the travellers? Well, Bunvath has already expressed his belief that these are the most popular activities for travellers – he sees it in their faces and in specific feedback on his tours. However, he goes on to clarify that he thinks the key is the learning experience and the hands-on element.
Buddhism is visibly prevalent in all walks of Cambodian life, and these local life tours offer visitors an opportunity to delve deeper into what this means for local villagers.
“Often, we have a blessing ceremony in the village that travellers can participate in together with villagers. Buddhism is very simple, and it’s getting very popular – lots of people are into meditation nowadays. Our tours offer an accessible way for people to learn more. We are open about it.”
Besides the blessing ceremonies, there is a broad range of activities for visitors to get involved with.
“Travellers can work on planting rice or fishing with the villagers. They help feed the livestock, prepare dinner and then eat together with families. Sometimes, they can take care of the oxen of the village and see how they work. Travellers seem to love these learning experiences – who doesn’t like making friends!”
On Different Types of Travellers…
To this, I suggest that, in fact, not everybody does always want to make friends. I ask Bunvath how he approaches people who aren’t necessarily forthcoming on tours. In reply, Bunvath demonstrates the social skills required, honed over time, to navigate the different personalities in a group.
“At first, if somebody is quiet, I wonder – is something wrong? Are they unhappy? As a guide, that almost feels like negative feedback. But, then, I would understand – maybe they are just lonely, nervous, or just need some space at that time. I try to observe, especially with solo travellers, and see that I may need to make friends with them to help them along – and there is not always one answer. Often, it’s good simply to give a little bit of free time as not everybody wants to be a part of the group constantly, or give some options for activities to allow for freedom of choice.”
And what about people from different nations? How does he try to get along with the broad spectrum of people on these tours? Bunvath shares a couple of easy techniques.
“One thing everybody seems happy to talk about is what their country is like…so I ask them about their hometown! That way, it’s like an exchange. Another thing I do is avoid the news. When on a long tour, I often have long days where I don’t have much free time anyway. So, as a conversation starter, I can ask people what’s going on in their part of the world.”
I push Bunvath to make some generalisations about the characteristics of different nationalities of visitors, which Bunvath wisely sidesteps. However, he then relents and points out that Australians can often be relied upon to help things along socially and that he panics when the Dutch book a cycle trip.
“Australians make friends with everyone, so I observe them, too, and see what I can learn! And, when people from the Netherlands come for cycling, I know it will be a tough ride…they don’t get tired!”
No matter the group, though, Bunvath says that it is very rare to not have made great friends by the end of the tour, especially when he is with a group for several days.
“I sometimes go on tour with the same group for two weeks. These are fantastic. Usually, we have developed great relationships by the end. We follow each other on Facebook and keep in touch. That’s nice.”
Local Travel Experts with Discova
What shines through in our conversation is that Bunvath is passionate about sharing the lives and stories of his compatriots. Time and time again, as a local travel expert, he stresses the importance of getting to grips with local life and feels that he sees the evidence in travellers’ feedback that these are overwhelmingly the most fulfilling experiences of a vacation or holiday.
At Discova, we’re firm believers in this concept – that the best way to develop a deep connection with a place is through its people. Not only is this great for the traveller, but we also see the reciprocal benefits that this kind of tourism brings to the communities we work with.
With thanks to Bunvath for highlighting this in Cambodia, we invite partners to contact our teams to learn more about our Local Life tours across our destinations. Also, check out our Cambodia destination guide for inspiration.