Airbnbs, hostels and boutique hotels are fine ways to see the world, but while they provide local experiences, there’s a much more intimate way to travel.
Staying in a local home is becoming popular as guests look for a more immersive experience, as well as the chance to meet local people.
Homestay hospitality includes a level of service and local knowledge you won’t find in a hotel, not to mention the proper home-cooked food.
These are some places where our own specialists have felt most welcomed into the local community, from a family-run Indian farm, to an isolated village in the northwestern tip of Borneo.
Homestay Experiences in India
No country has embraced the homestay concept as enthusiastically as India. Opening up homes to guests fits naturally with a culture that takes pride in hospitality: the Hindi saying ‘Athithi Devo Bhava’ (‘the guest is god’) can be seen on plaques in homes across the country.
Chanoud Garh, Rajasthan
As told by India specialist Sophie
The Singh family have painstakingly restored Chanoud Garh, a 300-year-old fort that has been in the family for 13 generations. On arrival, I was greeted by brothers Jairaj and Mehraj and given a complete tour.
The fort is set around two courtyards, one lived in by the family, the other split into spacious suites for guests. My suite still had the original, intricately carved wooden ceilings and polished stone walls.
Keen to show me the local area, Jairaj drove me and a few other guests to the nearby salt plains. Flamingos and pelicans dotted the otherwise barren landscape, which stretched for miles. When we stopped, Jairaj produced tea and cake from the back of the 4x4 and we ate watching the sunset across the plains.
The family is heavily involved in the local community, funding a health initiative and buying local produce. In the morning, guests can join a village walk, visiting a local school and hospital. The local residents are often keen to welcome guests into their homes for a cup of chai.
Accessed down a narrow, bumpy track in a secluded part of rural Kerala, Dewalokam is owned by Jose and Sinta and their two teenage children.
My hosts ran out to greet me as I arrived, placing a garland of marigolds around my neck and blessing my forehead with a dab of sandalwood oil.
Jose gave me a tour of the family’s organic farm, which includes a dairy, spice garden and a small trout fishery in the nearby lake. He selected fresh herbs and spices for me to try — I picked my first nutmeg, which grows in yellow-husked fruit.
In the evening, guests are invited to come together on the terrace for drinks before eating around one big table. Most of the food served is grown on the farm, and I was welcomed into the kitchen to watch the chef cook his signature butter chicken. Due to popular demand, Dewalokam now has its own cookbook.
Kampong Melano Homestay, Tanjung Datu National Park, Borneo
As told by Borneo specialist Kimberley
As you arrive into a tiny jetty, you can see the forest-covered hills of Tanjung Datu National Park stretching out behind the village.
The Melano Homestay initiative helps villagers open their homes to guests, giving them the chance to share their culture and earn extra income. I stayed with a woman whose children had grown up and left home, so I slept in her basic but comfortable spare room. She spoke no English, but my guide, who journeyed from Kuching with me, was on hand to translate.
In the daytime we trekked into the national park, past dozing monitor lizards, monkeys and bright tropical birds. For dinner, my host cooked a simple but delicious dish of rice and fish. As there’s no electricity, in the evenings we relaxed on the veranda under candlelight, listening to the hum of the nearby jungle.
Llachon Peninsula, Peru
by Peru specialist Fiona
As our boat pulled ashore, my guide pointed out one of the brown, thatched-roof buildings with bright blue window frames: my home for the night.
My host family greeted me in a stream of excited Spanish (your guide can translate) and showed me around their home and carefully tended garden.
We work with a number of families on the peninsula, all offering a private room in their respective homes. Facilities are simple, with an outdoor bathroom and no running water, but it’s a rare chance to be welcomed into the indigenous Aymara Indian community.
In the evening we sat down together to a hearty meal of fried fish (caught a few hours before), rice and beans. My hosts then showed me some of their traditional clothing.
After marriage, Aymara couples make garments for each other, choosing patterns and designs with a specific meaning; although my host couple were a little shy to tell me what theirs meant. You’ll see the women of the village wearing vibrant polleras (skirts) layered with petticoats, while the men don thickly weaved ponchos.
The next morning, we walked along the headland and climbed the nearby peak of the peninsula, Cerro Auki Carus. From the top we enjoyed views right across Lake Titicaca to Bolivia.
Sumiyoshi, Takayama, Japan
As told by Japan specialist Caitlin
There’s lots of laughter in the Sumiyoshi Ryokan as I try to communicate with the owners using the occasional Japanese word and lots of gesturing. Luckily, their adult son is on hand to translate.
The family-run property is a traditional merchant’s home, and has been in the family for over 100 years. It’s filled with antiques that have been collected over the years, including at least three full suits of samurai armor.
My room has tatami-mat flooring and washi-paper doors, which open out onto a little veranda with views over the Miyagawa River below. Some rooms have a private toilet, and there are two shared bathrooms, one of which has a steaming sento bath (similar to a traditional hot-spring onsen).
The Grandma of the family is in charge of the meals, cooking a selection of small, traditional dishes for dinner. Each dish was brought out as soon as it was finished, and Grandma hovered nearby to see what we thought. The tempura (vegetables fried in a light, crispy batter) were a highlight, served with a rich dipping sauce.
Right across the street from the ryokan is the Miyagawa morning market, which sells fresh produce from 6 a.m. I suggest visiting before breakfast so you can try some local delicacies, including rice cakes, grilled fish and toasted marshmallows.
Breakfast back at the ryokan can be a continental affair, but I tried the Japanese option, which included small chunks of raw fish to fry on my own small grill.
Tash Rabat, Kyrgyzstan
As told by Central Asia specialist John
Journeying along the Silk Route, we drove for a day from the Chinese city of Kashgar, crossing the border into Kyrgyzstan. Along the way, my guide and I passed nothing but arid mountains and mossy scrubland, until a handful of white yurts emerged on the horizon.
The camp is set at Tash Rabat, a stop on the Silk Route high in the Tian Shan mountains. Near the camp there’s a caravanserai — a brick building so old that no-one really knows anything about it (it’s thought to be where camels were once traded, but some historians argue it could be a former monastery). Apart from the occasional crowd of goats being herded through the valley, there’s no one else for miles.
We got a big hug from our hosts Yuri and his wife on arrival, who immediately served us a hot bowl of plov (a hearty dish of rice and whatever meat and vegetables are available) and vodka.
The family lives in their own yurt, with a second yurt housing a banya (traditional sauna). We spent a refreshing afternoon in the banya steaming ourselves before jumping in the nearby river — a process we repeated several times.
My home for the night was the third yurt, with a wooden bed piled with sheepskin rugs. Yuri came in before bedtime to get my little stove fired up, powering it with yak dung. It was incredibly cozy — I had my best night’s sleep in a while.
Cobden Garden Homestay, Napier, New Zealand
As told by New Zealand specialist Lindsay
Visiting Rayma and Phillip in their 19th-century timbered house feels like you’re staying with friends. They’re keen to share a welcoming pot of tea with you on arrival, before showing you around their home.
The rooms at Cobden Garden Homestay are furnished with antiques, plump sofas and floral drapes, in keeping with the period of the house. Three bedrooms are available for guests, along with a sun-filled lounge and reading room.
My hosts really went to town with breakfast, cooking up a huge farmhouse spread of sausages and bacon, as well as offering made-to-order waffles and eggs. In sunny weather, food is served on the veranda, where you can sit alongside Ronnie the cat and watch birds in the well-kept garden. A small group of quails has made the garden their home, and sightings of tui, a member of the bee-eater family, are common.
The house is set on a bluff overlooking the city of Napier. From a lookout point a few minutes’ walk away you can see right across the bay to the port below.
Down in the city itself, you’ll find a concentration of Art Deco buildings, best explored on a walking tour. Enthusiastic local residents run the tours and can explain how the city was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1931.
Bayon Smile, Siem Reap, Cambodia
As told by Craig on our Southeast Asia team
In Cambodia, we’ve begun building relationships with a range of families and villages across the country so we can offer a Khmer homestay experience. I’m excited about our latest addition, Bayon Smile Homestay in Banteay Srei village.
About an hour’s drive from the busy streets of Siem Reap, a one-night stay in the village gives you the opportunity to be the first visitors of the day at Banteay Srei, a 10th-century temple.
Part of the great Angkor complex, this petite temple boasts fine Angkor-era sculpture, with elaborate carvings covering almost every surface. Arriving in the quiet of the early morning, you can enjoy a private tour with your guide as the sun rises over the red sandstone bas-reliefs.
The homestay itself is a traditional wooden-slatted stilt house with simple facilities, but you’ll receive a warm welcome and a home-cooked meal (usually with plenty of fresh vegetables and steamed rice).
Local host Saroeurn is on hand to show you around the village and suggest additional ways to spend your time — the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity is nearby, which helps rare animals including civets and pangolins back into the wild.
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