Some tour guides drone at you through a loud speaker. Some hire themselves without your permission, insist on explaining the local architecture and history to you and then demand money. And some conduct themselves with utmost professionalism and follow their script to perfection. And then there are tour guides like Sorng, who completely open their heart and country to you in a way that leaves you feeling invigorated and full of gratitude for the life-changing experience.
Sorng is a pretty special guy. He and his team started a tour company called Butterfly Tours in Cambodia in 2013. They are a student initiative, run by locals for the benefit of locals. What they offer is something truly unique. A half-day, full-day or overnight trip into the Cambodian countryside where you get a taste for the rural way of life. Totally authentic. Totally local.
Now, tours that are ‘local’ or ‘authentic’ have become so popular these days that tourists are willing to splash out as much for a tour around an ‘authentic, local’ village as for a night in a five-star luxury hotel. And often these tours leave a bit of a funny taste in your mouth if not a giant, churning pit of regret.
Why? Because it’s almost immediately apparent that the ‘authentic’ villages and workshops function solely for tourists, that local people see little of the profits and are sometimes so overwhelmed with the tourist turnover that they look completely exhausted.
Butterfly Tours have managed to avoid this stale format and have created tours that lead you to places untouched by hordes of tourists. The locals are genuinely surprised to see you and small children stare at you inquisitively before breaking out into choruses of Hellooosss with cheeky grins and waving hands.
Your tour starts on the outskirts of Siem Reap but within a matter of minutes you will forget the city as you cruise down the red-dirt tracks of rural Cambodia. The first stop is a local market. You won’t find any souvenirs or crazy insects on sticks that so well characterize the more touristy parts of the country.
What you’ll see is locals going about their daily business – school kids slurping noodles and watching TV in the local café before school, a beautiful grandma strolling around with freshly baked coconut pancakes in her basket, delivering them to those locals who are too ‘lazy’ to go to the stall and buy them and local customers buying up snails or fish for a yummy lunch. It is highly unlikely that you’ll see another tourist here, especially if you go during the low season.
Your guide will walk you around the market, explaining the cultural significance of the local snacks and buying you samples of everything. You definitely don’t need to eat breakfast beforehand.
Cambodia Countryside Pagoda
Next is a local pagoda. This one is relatively new and, of course, has nothing on Angkor Wat. BUT. The fascinating thing here will be your guide. Sorng spoke to us at length about the religious history of Cambodia, his personal beliefs and his interpretation of Buddhism and some struggles that Buddhists are encountering in modern Cambodia. It was a frank and intellectual conversation that we thoroughly enjoyed.
After you leave the pagoda, you really do head off the beaten track and enter a road that will lead you through miles of raw Cambodian countryside. Crisp, green rice fields flooded with water, magnificent water buffalo being lead out for a midday dip and school children cooling off in the water beside the road. There are no tuk-tuks. No massage salons. No litter. Just the cool wind, the grunts of the buffalo and the friendly greetings from locals as you whiz by. The plains stretch as far as the eye can see and are dotted with sugar palms and white ibis.
Cambodian Way of Life
You stop from time to time to take pictures of the stunning natural beauty and your guide will explain how Cambodian farmers are surviving, how the industry is changing and the government is responding. Most Cambodians are really open and forthcoming in conversations about politics, history and culture so feel free to ask your guide anything. It’s clear that his number one priority is your comfort so don’t be scared to let him know if your seat is too high, you need more water (included in the price) or just want a break.
Cambodian Rice Wine
Before lunch, you’ll stop by a rice wine farm and learn about how this local fire water is made. You will get a free sample, a look into how the farmers live and the chance to play with the friendliest puppy in the world.
Butterfly Tours is a flexible company. So, if you wanna mix up your itinerary and visit the pagoda before the rice wine factory or vice versa, you are welcome to do so.
Lunch is served in the traditional house of a family in a nearby village. This village is super clean and the family put on a great spread of local dishes. Everything is cooked fresh and they go cater for vegetarians.
It was at this point that we realized we should have done the homestay. The family were so welcoming and kind and even offered us a wooden bed where we could nap after lunch, in true Cambodian style.
The afternoon is spent visiting some local business, handweaving and pottery. This is not a warehouse of women churning out luxury products to be sold to tourists at inflated prices. No. This is a small wooden hut where “grandma” teaches other local women to make baskets that they can sell to a middle man and make a small income for their families, or a small shed in a family’s backyard where they fire clay pots. If it’s Sunday, they won’t be working. Because people rest on Sunday. But the kids will be home from school and they make a great entourage for the tour.
The end of the tour is the second and last time that you’ll have to cross a busy road that takes you back to the outskirts of Siem Reap and back to reality. You might stop for a sugar cane juice which will definitely help with the heat.
At this point you’ll be feeling exhausted but overwhelmed with positive emotions. A lot of new information. An array of colorful new experiences. And an attentive guide who did everything possible to make your trip outstanding.
We loved Butterfly Tours and will book with them again when we are in Kampot. If you are in Cambodia and want a fantastic day out with the locals, do this tour. You won’t regret it.