Here's what the place was like. The village (I don't know its name) is part of the Kien Sangker commune (group of villages) and is poor. A bit of googling suggests that:
Kien Sangker [is] one of the poorest regions in Cambodia. This commune is made up of 12 surrounding villages and the families in this region survive on average monthly income of US$15-$30 per month. Around 80% of the population live in poverty with around 45% living in extreme poverty.Most people here seem to live in one-room houses made of wood and palm fronds, lifted off the ground by stilts, perhaps to keep unwanted animals out. Many houses in Cambodia are high enough off the ground that people and animals can shelter beneath them from the sun. It's a good place for a pallet or hammock to rest in. But some are raised only a few feet up. We had access to a hole-in-the-ground outdoor toilet (flushed by pouring bowls of water from an open tank into it), but I don't know what most people do. Maybe the same thing. Water is stored outside in big concrete barrels (in our case) or, more commonly, in what I think of as Chinese-style water containers.
They look Chinese to me, anyway.
One of the people in the house next door wore what you might (but shouldn't) think of as a "coolie hat." Some etymology, which seems apt:
These people are not slaves, but some do live bitterly hard lives. This is the house next to the one we stayed in:Coolie is derived from the Hindi word kuli (क़ुली). [...] An alternative etymological explanation is that the word came from the Urdu qulī (क़ुली, قلی), which itself could be from the Turkish word for slave, qul. The word was used in this sense for labourers from India, China, and East Asia. [...]
Most of the other houses were similar to or less impressive than this, and they were grouped around a deep and very dry pit for water (the rainy season hadn't begun yet and the summer was unusually hot) and dry rice fields. There were a few cows, chickens, and pigs too. Also coconut and banana trees, and traps involving water and plastic sheets to catch crickets. At sunset hundreds of bats would drop out of one of the trees like an army of Jacques Cousteaus and fly off in search of mosquitoes. There are also beetles and cockroaches, large spiders (some poisonous), and lots of small lizards. It's a lively place.
Almost time for the bats to start dropping.
We experienced the same heat as the locals (although we had fans in our bedroom, while many of them slept outside), the same washing facilities (pouring bowls of water over yourself outside by a large tank, which is very refreshing but not so great for getting your feet clean (you are standing on dirt, after all) nor for cleaning anything that is covered by whatever clothing you are wearing (you are outside in a public place, after all), although we also had the option to wash inside in private on a tiled floor--something we chose not to do for fear we would get the floor too wet (although it is designed to drain away water) and messy, and did stay in a real village house, albeit by far the nicest one in the village. But we ate extremely well, having a team of people cook and bring us food, including the best pancakes I've ever tasted. We had clean, bottled water to drink. We slept under mosquito nets. We had people on hand to remove the occasional scary spider or bat that got into our room. They always did so with care not to harm the animals, which impressed me--rather than kill it our guide even caught a bee and opened the door on a moving bus to release it, although he is not a vegetarian, and vegetarianism seems barely understood here. I did meet a Cambodian ex-vegan, but she had given it up on doctor's orders because she was losing so much weight. As far as I could tell she just needed more protein in her diet, but perhaps there was more to it than that. Vegetarian meals here (they are easily available in tourist places) often contain only rice and vegetables, no tofu or nuts, for instance. No wonder it's not a popular option. Anyway, we had several dishes at every meal, with pescetarian options as requested, and unlimited quantities. Fresh fruit for dessert too. We were living in relative luxury among people who live in real poverty.
Our temporary home, with bug-prone-when-lighted dining area to the side.
So what was hard about it? Not guilt, as you might think. And not everyone found it all that hard. Those who did were suffering from sleeplessness from the heat (although most nights it got cool enough that at some point I would wake up and pull a sheet over myself), homesickness, distraction by bugs (some of which would get inside your mosquito net if you weren't careful), and diarrhea. Never getting completely clean was also an issue. And I think the mood of suffering was somewhat contagious. There was also a bereavement. We ended up staying only three nights, at least partly because the students I was with were supposed to be writing and they had a hard time writing in these circumstances. It certainly gave them something to write about though.
How authentic was it? Closing your eyes doesn't teach you what it's like to be blind. But it's better than nothing. And in some ways we had it tougher than the woman who lives in the house when people like us aren't kicking her out. She has a bed, we slept on mattresses on the floor. She has her own room with a TV. We slept twelve to a room, with no TV. She presumably uses her indoor bathroom, we used only the toilet. But really we still have no idea what life is like in these villages. Or perhaps we know what it is like, but not what it is. We can describe it, but can't seriously claim acquaintance with it. Just as well.
Our time was spent oddly. Originally we were scheduled to work six hours a day renovating the toilets at the school at the local monastery. That changed quickly when the work began (breaking up concrete with hammers, scraping off paint with wire brushes), but perhaps because there wasn't really that much to do rather than because we were wimps. We ended up working three hours the first morning, about four the next (our early start did not bring the early finish we had hoped for) and maybe one at most the third day. It was somewhat deflating to see that the real work crew had used electric sanders on the paint in our absence. Why did we have to do it the hard way? But they surely wanted to use as little of the gas used to power the sanders as possible. Still we weren't sure that our help really helped, given that we had to be trained in each new task and never got to be as good as the pros. Did they think we wanted to be doing manual labor in 100 degree heat? Perhaps we did. It was somewhat satisfying. But I think the most help we provided was financial.
(Some people do want to do manual labor because it's service learning, even if it's more learning (and learning what, in these cases, exactly?) than service. But that wasn't why we were there. People also want to help. I met a woman who paid to volunteer at an orphanage, and then found out that there were far more adults working there than was necessary. Perhaps the money she paid helped. Or perhaps it was just a scam (some orphanages in Cambodia are not really orphanages at all). You have to be careful. At least you do if you want your money and efforts to go where they are most needed. Even being scammed contributes to the economy, and God knows it needs contributions.)
Although I've never been on a cruise our afternoons reminded me of shore excursions from a cruise ship. One day we learned how to meditate in the temple across from the school.
This pagoda is fifteen years old. They are still building them like this.
The next we visited a "floating" village, i.e. one whose houses are on extra tall stilts because when the rains come the Tonlé Sap lake floods the village. There is at least one village that actually floats on the lake, but this wasn't it. In fact we never saw the lake at all.
Not so much floating as dusty.
On the third afternoon we
butchered learned traditional Khmer dancing.
Now you try.
It's obviously not real when your meditation teacher is a gold-medal winner (yes, they give medals for meditation!--photographs of the award ceremony decorated his proud mother's house) who takes time off from his job in the city to give you a lesson, or when a huge sound system is set up and dancers brought in for a special performance and lesson. On the other hand, these are real people doing real things. What else could they be? And there were no other tourists around, which I think is sometimes the implicit definition of 'authentic.' However canned, it was reality. Served up on a silver platter, of course, but I'm not complaining about that. For an extra dash of reality, how's this? Later in Siem Reap a dance troupe we happened upon in the market included the young woman from the trio who taught us out in the countryside. And the audience in the market contained as many Khmer people as barang. Canned in a way, but no silver platter this time. And some of the same dances we had a go at ourselves.
Maybe it's real if you end up covered in sweat and paint dust, as we did. Or if you feel the need to quit a day early and head for a cushy hotel in Siem Reap. Or maybe quitting makes it all no longer real at all. Reality becomes a question of values rather than metaphysics. But it's a question I'd rather not ask at all, however forcefully a homestay experience might push it at you.