It was four o’clock in the afternoon. It was hot and dusty. I couldn’t steer my bike through the mounds of red sand, spotted with large rocks — my gears only spun dejectedly. I didn’t speak Khmer and I was lost.

When I found myself in the middle of a maze of unmarked red-dust village roads in Cambodia without a functioning phone, map, water, or command of the local language, my first instinct was to panic. My second was to cry.

In situations like these, it is difficult for me to ask for help — but after pedaling in circles, I knocked on the door of the first house I found, a low, split-level with a corrugated tin roof and a large pot boiling happily on a fire outside, even though it was at least 100 degrees.

The door remained closed, so I tried another.

This one swung open — a child answered. He looked at me in amusement and chattered something to his father, who quickly followed suit. Through a series of hand gestures and expression-filled facial features, I explained my predicament. He didn’t know much English, but he did know how to say “don’t worry, my friend.”

He repeated it until my prominent forehead wrinkle smoothed. Then, he called for a neighbor, who brought family, children, and other neighbors. Soon, there was a group of about 10 villagers trying to piece together a makeshift map to get me back to my hostel doors. It took about 30 minutes, but when I got there, my relief was immense. I peddled into the main complex and the hostel owner waved from his perch at the front desk — “you’ve been gone a long time, my friend!”

He fixed me a plate of noodles with vegetables and handed me a jar of hot sauce. Then he sat down to ask me about my day. And that’s when it struck me. Even though it wasn’t the most luxurious accommodation, this was true hospitality.

My understanding of hospitality changed after Cambodia — whenever I booked a hotel or a home-share, I looked for the additions that would truly make me feel at home, even when I couldn’t be further away.
This guiding principle worked: I enjoyed courtesy in Canada, homemade pancakes in Panama, local vineyards in Argentina, and tea service in London.

But my most recent trip to Hong Kong revolutionized my understanding of hospitality yet again.  

I was whisked from the airport at the crack of dawn to the lobby of the InterContinental hotel just in time to watch the sun rise over the waterfront. Exhausted from a long flight, I was relieved to hear that my room was ready for a quick nap before a full day of exploration. 

The rhythm of Hong Kong is unlike any other place I’ve been to — the streets crawl with an undeniable energy, and new and old coexist symbiotically side by side. There is a deep reverence for tradition coupled with an excitement for progress. It’s an invigorating place.

I nibbled on the city’s best delicacies, explored the tea houses in verdant parks, watched generations practice tai chi together, and enjoyed the sky scraping city’s close proximity to lush forests and sandy beaches.

Hong Kong welcomed me with open arms, much like the InterContinental did during my stay, making me feel as comfortable as possible, sharing the culture of the city through its food, decor, and traditions.

And while the comfort and hospitality of the hotel impressed me, its culture of care touched me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

On my third day, I visited a farm 40 minutes outside of Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood. The farm — which partners with the InterContinental — employs volunteers who are in rehabilitation for mental illness, a stigmatized issue that people in this industrious city are just now starting to speak on. New Life Farm and InterCon extend a helping hand to those in the community who need work experience and compassion.

In return, the farm provides fresh produce to the hotel’s kitchen, which is transformed into a namesake salad. But it doesn’t stop at a single plate — InterContinental continues to support the community by hiring farm volunteers as full-time employees, holding events and fundraisers multiple times a year, enabling and empowering a group that is otherwise marginalized. For InterContinental, the initiative is at the forefront of much of their community work.

When I spoke with the manager who had been overseeing this partnership for the better part of ten years, she explained that while the InterContinental’s culture supports community initiatives like New Life Farm, their care also extends to the health and wellness of the individual, their family, the environment, the hotel facilities, and their guests.

A couple of days later, it came time to leave Hong Kong and the InterContinental. Departing, I could see the hotel with new eyes: yes, it was pristine, its staff friendly, its functioning near flawless, but it was also a community in itself, ever willing to welcome those from just down the street or halfway around the world.

What I found here, in essence, was true hospitality.