Highly commended at the Wanderlust World Guide Awards in 2018, G Adventures’ Angkor Wat expert Phauk Kimhoun talks travel experiences, temples and what life's really like on tour...
Phauk Kimhoun won a Highly Commended award at the Wanderlust World Guide Awards 2018.
A self-confessed history buff, Phauk spent hours exploring Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex when he was younger, reading about the temples and listening to guides recalling their history to travellers.
It was these grassroots interactions that inspired him to become a guide. Meeting people from all over the world is the thing Phauk loves most about his job.
He is passionate about sharing cultures, beliefs, food and, in his own words: “Being part of something bigger than he is.”
He goes above and beyond in his role, not just introducing travellers to various sites but also educating them about local projects that give back to the communities they visit.
At school in Cambodia, I always liked to read about history. After finishing my studies, I moved to Siem Reap, where I worked in a restaurant – but I was fascinated by the temples of Angkor.
So, after my job finished, I’d go and listen to the guides talk, lingering behind them, sneakily, learning what I could. Then, when the guests left, I’d ask them questions about how it was built.
It was Angkor’s big stones that fascinated me – just how did they lift them into place? In the stories they said the temples were built by magic, but I didn’t believe that, so I studied, passed exams and learned so much that I became a guide there.
Most people spend a whole day there, but between midday and 1pm, when the tour buses go for lunch, and at about 5pm (arrive at 4, as the park closes at 6), just as people start to leave, are when the big temples empty out and are least crowded.
I’m not, for example, saying eat a whole tarantula spider, but try it. I tell all my guests: when you go back home and people ask you how it was, wouldn’t you rather say you did something than not?
It can get busy, but if you stay on a boat overnight, those who do day tours quickly disappear and you get the waters to yourself late at night and early in the morning.
I always tell my experiences to the tour groups. If they don’t engage with the stories, I lead by democracy and move on. If people have their own thoughts, you can’t change their mind.
In my country we believe in ghosts. So, I often tell my own ghost story. There were 800 families in my community, and only three had kids who studied; I was one of them, my friend another.
After school he offered to give me a lift on his bike but didn’t show up. I later learnt he’d died. We believe that seven days after death, people wake up. On that day, I rode past the temple where he was cremated.
Suddenly, the trees moved independently of the wind, my hairs stood on end and my bike got so heavy that it felt like it weighed 200kg. I think that it was my friend coming to tell me something – then I felt something jump off my bike, and I pedalled on.
I was on a three-day cruise with 16 people up the Mekong River when the engine burnt out on the first day.
We got another, but it was an hour before sunset and we couldn’t make our stop, so we found the nearest village and moored there.
I sent out someone for food and, in the end, the guests had a great time, sleeping on the boat beside each other – they enjoyed that the most.
Travellers want a guide who will change how they see things – that and lots of patience.
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