What inspires someone with 20 years experience in the hotel industry in Australia to pull up roots and plop them down again in Cambodia? That’s what Matt Elliott did. He first went to Cambodia as a tourist—that was 2008—fell in love with the country (as in “who wouldn’t want to live here!”) and returned a year later to open a B&B in Siem Reap.
There are advantages to owning a hotel in Siem Reap for the city is the gateway to the Angkor temples, a leading tourist draw in Asia. There’s also an international airport, charming city centre, lots of hotels and restaurants, and hard working people looking for jobs.
Matt had hoped to own a hotel in Australia and had concluded that it was beyond his reach. But a property in Cambodia is much more affordable.
His property is called the River Village Manor. It has 10 guest rooms and a large courtyard where a light breakfast is served and guests can chat with one another and with Matt and his staff. It’s the perfect place for travellers on a relatively tight budget looking for a friendly place. Even better, it attracts guests who read good books and leave them for others to pick up!
There’s lots of competition though. When you drive in from the airport you pass one hotel after another so the choice seems endless. Matt doesn’t have much of a budget for advertising so must depend on positive ratings and comments that his guests will hopefully provide on Internet forums. To achieve this he must constantly be at the top of his game and this, he says, is a “hard way to make a living”.
The location of the property can be a drawback. Siem Reap is a cluster of small villages along a river and Matt’s village is largely made up of squatters. Those who stay here don’t seem to mind and in fact often appreciate being in an “authentic Cambodian community”. But Matt has had to resort to complimentary airport transportation or else lose half his guests when they come down the road, he says.
If he can get them in the door they almost always have wonderful things to say about their stay. “The owner makes the place” for he gives “golden advice” mixed with “Aussie humor” are typical comments.
Matt has also found and trained outstanding staff. I hired one of them, a tuk-tuk driver named Mr. Lay to take me to different sites for three days. Mr. Lay is young, good looking, with a touch of ‘attitude’ and an interesting background. His clothes were always spotless, particularly the white Australian t-shirt that matched his white helmet and made him stand out in the crowd of drivers waiting at the various sites.
May I introduce Tom Harrisson, the barefoot anthropologist of Borneo
May I introduce Jesús Lopez, my driver in Mexico
May I introduce Rigo, a tour guide in Todos Santos, Guatemala
May I introduce Jim, a Tibetan who runs a hotel filled with westerners in Dali, China
His father died when he was young and with the help of his sister he bought his first tuk-tuk and motorbike. Before Matt hired him he worked freelance, picking up tourists in the downtown area. His current employment is much better, he says, because it is reliable.
His home is far away so he rents a room close to the B&B. He’d like to get married but in Cambodia the men have to give a dowry to their future wife’s parents as well as pay for the wedding and he still hasn’t saved enough for that. But Mr. Lay is restless to move ahead. I tell him he has achieved much and life will continue to improve; that he should keep practicing his English and then maybe he can become a tour guide, which pays a much higher wage.
Matt tries to support his staff but at the same time says he “can’t solve the problems of Cambodia”. He loves a good discussion and we had several animated ones on everything from foreign aid to Buddhism. This is just the place for someone like me who’s been travelling on her own for a while and needs to be engaged.
I loved watching two friendly Australian women talk Matt into rearranging the garden, which meant moving large pots around and buying new plants. Matt seemed to appreciate a bit of mothering and went along with it but I could tell some of his staff had another opinion. The same staff, upon hearing that I was travelling on my own by bus to Phnom Penh, quietly approached me with advice, telling me to watch out for bad people and to always hold onto my bag.
That’s why it’s special, because it’s a caring place that sort of reminds you of home.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Joe Scheiber (Matt Elliott and staff) and Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012