Sharon Opstal [F 2017] left after graduation to travel for a year, and to this day lives with her boyfriend in M'pai Bay in Cambodia. In recent years she ran a guesthouse, but due to the corona crisis, things did not go as expected. Despite the crisis, she saw new opportunities and is now building a bar and family cottage on the island of Koh Rong Samloem!
I look back on a very nice, fun and educational time at the hotel school. It was also the time where I discovered my passion for travel! I did my internship in Hangzhou, China. After that I did the minor Young Professionals Overseas in Bangalore, India. After graduating I wasn't quite sure what I actually wanted, but one thing was certain - I wanted to discover more countries and cultures and a big trip was planned.
I returned to my old job at “'t Pannenkoekenhuisje” in Scheveningen as an assistant restaurant manager. I worked here for 1.5 years to save up money for my trip. I also did a graphic design course. I always had an interest in graphic design and it was an opportunity to see if it was something for me. It could also be a small source of income for traveling. Prior to my trip I had already done some small graphic design assignments, but I was aware that this was not enough to keep me busy while traveling. Besides discovering new countries and cultures, I wanted to keep busy. I knew that I wouldn't be able to just hang out on a tropical beach for a year with a cocktail in my hand... I found a website where companies post vacancies and you can "apply" to work for them for board and lodging. This was the perfect solution for me. With my background in hospitality, many companies could use my help. I could keep myself busy and also save money on accommodations and food.
I arrived in Cambodia 4 years ago, on the island of Koh Rong Samloem. I went to help an Australian couple set up a vegan restaurant. Arriving in the village of M'Pai Bay felt right from the first moment. It is a small Cambodian fishing village where the locals and foreigners have formed a close-knit community. I was going to stay on the island for a month, but it turned out to be six… In these six months I had the chance to see this special place grow and develop, where I also spotted many opportunities! I decided to inform the home front that their next vacation would be on Koh Rong Samloem in Cambodia ;-)
When I was sure I wanted to stay in M'Pai Bay, I started looking for a property. I was looking for a building of which the foundations were already in place, but where there was still enough work to be done to give it my own twist. The renovation took nine months - I had underestimated renovating as a 23-year-old on a remote island in Cambodia... Luckily I had help from friends who came by while traveling and finally there was: Dahlia Guesthouse!
During this period I met my English boyfriend Jon, who had been to M'pai Bay a few years ago and had lost his heart here too. He had come back to build his house here. This came in handy, because this way we could get rid of our construction frustrations. The bookings poured in at Dahlia and from then on it only went upwards!
Until the first cases of COVID came... In the town of Sihanoukville, where you take the boat to the island, several flights from Wuhan came in daily. Because of this, me and the others on the island decided to close the bookings and close for the time being. At that time, little was known about corona. The risk that people would get sick was too great on an island without (real) medical help. There you are... On an island you are not allowed to leave, without income, without government aid, with bills to be paid. For a while I was able to keep it up with some online jobs and what was left of my savings account. Unfortunately, the savings ran out, and the online jobs were not stable enough to go to bed without worries. This made me decide to put Dahlia up for sale, I couldn't have lasted much longer. Within 3 weeks Dahlia was sold, and the worries a lot less.
In the meantime, fortunately, another door had opened. Due to corona, the prices of plots of land had dropped and thanks to selling Dahlia I had some money again. The decision to sell Dahlia was a huge rollercoaster and I swore off ever doing something this big on my own again. The same goes for my boyfriend, who spent two years building his house. You might have guessed it, we couldn't pass up this opportunity to buy the most beautiful piece of land on the island. We bought the land together with our Cambodian neighbor and have been building there since April 2021.
The plot of land consists of two pieces. One side is on the water, where we built our bar (Bar Bok Bowie). The other piece of land is inland, and we have built a family house (Lucky Cat House) there that we are going to rent out. We are now in the final phase of construction and hopefully we can start renting out the house within a few weeks. The bar is already open from time to time, depending on how busy it is on the island. Now only the tourists ;-)
I think the Hotel School Maastricht has helped me a lot to get to where I am today.
Of course I have benefited a lot from everything that has to do with entrepreneurship. Without that knowledge, I would never have dared to undertake this adventure - and perhaps I would not have been so confident I could make it a successful business.
The programme has not only helped me in the entrepreneurial part and the fact I know how to write a business plan, but also - and perhaps mainly – how to analyze and reflect. This was certainly not an answer I had given when I was still a student, because I never liked it and I didn't understand why it had to be done so often! Looking back, this is precisely one of the parts that I (unconsciously) work with on a daily basis. I think it’s one of my qualities I was able to develop during my studies (and still develop). It helped me in my decision to stay in Cambodia: discovering a gap in the market, developing the concept of the guesthouse, but also deciding to put my guesthouse up for sale. Thanks to self-reflection, I was able to examine my own role within the guesthouse, which in turn has brought different insights and decisions. This ultimately helped start and build the new bar and accommodation. This way, analyzing and reflecting will always remain, in my opinion, an extremely important part in making a (business/personal) decision!
My last advice is 1. Only do it if it feels right, and 2. Run away from people who don't give you energy ;-)
Sharon Opstal left to travel for a year after graduation, and to this day lives and works in M’pai Bay in Cambodia!
Sophie Bozon combines travelling in her van with setting up her own business, 'Virtual Sophie'