Cambodia is a beautiful country; with it’s ancient history, food, and most importantly the kindness of the people.  My initial reaction when Liz suggested going to Cambodia was a little uneasy, mostly because I didn’t know what to expect, but the country amazed me.  After a day of exploring and and watching the sunrise and set over Angkor Wat (which is a must for all travelers) we wanted to do something different from the normal tourist path.  So we signed up to join a group of 4 Aussies to explore Phnom Kulen National Park along with a Cambodian tour guide.

We woke up bright and early (although not near as early as the prior day when we watched the sunrise over Angkor) and made our way to the lobby of the hostel, The Siem Reap Hostel for breakfast & to meet our group.  Then we were greeted by our tour guide for the day, Tom.

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Tom making sure we make it up the stairs ok

Cambodian Tour Guide Tom

Tom was a very soft spoken Cambodian tour guide with good English skills.  With his large smile and gentle, friendly demeanor, you couldn’t help but to like Tom from the start.  Our small group piled into his white van and headed out of town into the countryside, and eventually toward the mountains.

Tom was very considerate.  Along the way he would call out points of interest and explain to us interesting facts or unique cultural traditions.  He also kept us informed about where we were heading, how long it would take, and how bumpy the road would be.  Very helpful.

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Tom leading the way again. Didn’t really know what we were getting into right about here.

Phnom Kulen National Park

After a good hour of driving into the mountains of Cambodia, we entered Phnom Kulen National Park, and finally arrived at the top of the mountain.  Needless to say, hours in a hot van on a windy (and bumpy) mountain road was less than ideal.  So it was nice to get out of the van.  We were surprised to see a bunch of shop stalls this far out of the way.  Tom told us that we could have lunch at one of the places here on the mountain, and he led us through the market to a restaurant.

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Exploring the markets on Phnom Kulen

As we sat down for lunch, Liz and I chose to sit next to Tom to learn more about him.  He spoke warmly about his family, including his new son, and his day to day life. Tom was very humble and at times apologetic about his English, but we assured him that it was quite good. He explained that in Cambodia you have to go to school to be a guide, and he was fortunate to learn English during his schooling, and while talking to his guests.  Tom went on to explain that he loved being a tour guide, meeting new people from all over the world and showing them his culture.

Eating up on the mountain in Phnom Kulen

When lunch arrived, I asked Tom what he ordered and he said softly “fish soup.”  I asked him jokingly why he made that choice, and he explained that this is what the restaurant gives him when he brings customers to them.  It’s at this point when we realized that his profession provides him certain perks, which are a helpful means of survival for him.  It didn’t bother us that he brought us to this restaurant because the food was great, but we were now starting to get a glimpse into the struggles of living in Cambodia.

While we ate, Tom shared with us his feelings about being a new father.  Talking about his son and the hopes he had for his future, brought a huge smile to Tom’s face; he just beamed with pride. We couldn’t help but smile too and feel hopeful for the future of everyone here.

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Tom explaining how excited she was about her new bike. She wanted to tell us all about it.

Once we finished our lunch, Tom led us on a nice nature walk toward the river to see the ancient Linga carvings, then up to the spring that was the source of the river.  As we headed toward the spring, we were quickly joined by a young girl, about 9-10 years old, who clutched the hand of one of the girls in the group and spoke excitedly in her native tongue. We couldn’t understand her, so Tom translated.  He told us that she was talking about her school and how excited she was about her new bike.  The girl became very comfortable with Tom; in fact, the way that they spoke to each other made it almost seem as though they were family.

Phnom Kulen Waterfalls

Next Tom took us to the main attraction of the area, the Phnom Kulen waterfalls, which was going to be highlight of our trip!  We first admired the water cascading from the top, then began our descent down the make-shift stairs (an adventure in itself).  When we got to the bottom, we could see people swimming in the pool at the bottom of the falls.  The water looked crisp and refreshing on this hot day, so we were excited to cool off.

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Liz following Tom and the group to the waterfalls.

Swimming in the Waterfalls was amazing

Tom explained to us that we needed to pay a lady at the bottom to watch our belongings (placed safely in a bin) for .25 cents each.  Tom assured us that everything would be ok and this is how the process worked.  We had no reason not to trust him, so we stripped down to our bathing suits, handed our clothes to the woman and then jumped in the water.

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Posing for the camera

While Liz and I were getting over the shock of the cool water, we saw Tom coming over to join us.  He explained to us that there were little fish in the water which were going to nibble on the dead skin on our legs and feet; a natural pedicure!  And yes, soon those little critters were nibbling away (usually when we least expected it).  Thankfully Tom told us in advance, otherwise we probably would have been pretty freaked out!

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The handcrafted art in Cambodia is beautiful

After a good hour of swimming under the waterfalls, we headed back up to the van and made our way down the mountain.  Shortly before arriving back in Siem Reap, Tom asked us if we wanted to stop by a shop to see some local crafts.  We were all tired and wanted to get back, but Tom assured us that we didn’t have to buy anything.  He explained that the shop was kind of expensive, but that they would give him a cold soda for bringing us there.  We were all big fans of Tom by now, so we agreed that it was no problem.  With the great tour he had given us, we were happy to look around the shop so he could get a drink and stay in good relations with the store owner.

Saying Goodbye to my new friend Tom

After leaving the shop, Tom drove us back to the start of our journey at The Siem Reap Hostel.  He asked if he could take us on a tour of Angkor the next day, and that he had a van and or a tuk-tuk.  We wish we could have taken him up on it because we enjoyed having him as our guide on this day, but we had already seen the temples and were leaving Siem Reap the next day.  So instead, we asked him if he could take us to the airport early in the morning.  He said he would be honored.

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Tom seeing us off on our journey at the airport. We were leaving a new friend in Cambodia.

The next morning Tom was there promptly at 6 am waiting with his tuk-tuk.  We asked him how his night was and it felt like we were catching up with an old friend.  As Tom saw us off at the airport, he gave us a hug and wished us well on our journey.  And actually, we were a bit sad.  Tom was a major highlight of our trip in Cambodia.  It didn’t feel like we were saying bye to a driver, we were saying bye to our friend, Tom.  He made our trip to Cambodia complete.  Luckily, he gave us his card before he drove off, so we look forward to seeing our friend again in the future.

If you are planning to visit Siem Reap, Cambodia be sure to Tom’s website and arrange for his guide services. www.siemreapdriver.net 

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