If you want to experience the culture of a place you have to interact with the locals on a different level. One of the best ways we have found to interact with the locals is to live with them. This is possible by staying in what is called a homestay. A homestay is a room or rooms usually private with your own bathroom in a larger house. You are actually staying as a guest in someones home. Much like a hotel they offer you amenities and facilities that make you comfortable, but they offer something more.
A look into their lives and culture. We have stayed in several homestays and it has given us a unique perspective. We spent 2 1/2 weeks recently in a homestay in a very touristy city. The differences in how we were treated when we first arrived as opposed to when we left were very different. We were able to get known in the small neighborhood and were met with knowing smiles and genuine waves. They were not the waves and smiles of someone trying to sell us something but the smiles and waves of neighbors. Our host and her family were amazingly kind and very helpful.
The cooked breakfast of our choosing every morning, they introduced us to resort owners at the beach who let us sit in chairs with umbrellas that we normally would have had to pay for daily. We were given bicycles and told places to go and see off the beaten track. We were taken to the market and learned the local price of things and introduced to vendors and store owners that would take care of us. We sat down for meals with our host and family that were prepared for us as special guests.
We were taken a few streets down and introduced to a family that makes lanterns for sale at the market and did not feel the pressure to buy more than we wanted. They shared part of their lives with us, and for a while we lived there. These are experiences that tour companies try to manufacture but cannot. They have to spring from genuine interaction and one way to do that easily is to stay with a local. It may not be the Hilton or the Four Seasons but I can guarantee that the experience will far outweigh any other stays you have had. Traveling for us is all about the connections and experiences and this is one way we have found to magnify both.