Rem Thoeun is one of many villagers who live near the peak of Phnom Tbeng, earning his income in the eco-tourism sector at Preah Vihear province’s Tbeng Meanchey natural heritage site.
Thoeun earns most of his living as a motodop driver (a motorbike taxi rider) transporting tourists to popular local attractions – including Tbeng Waterfall, the Three Rock Pagoda and the Taing You waterfall and pagoda – in and around Phnom Tbeng.
But he also works as a porter, carrying things from the mountain’s foot to the peak.
Thoeun says his only option is to take up jobs requiring hard labour to support his family as he did not have educational opportunities as a child.
Some 24 years ago, when the last remnants of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge militants were fighting the government, Thoeun’s family moved him from the line of fire and went to find a better life on the mountain.
Thoeun, 27, told The Post: “I’ve lived here since I was three years old when my parents moved us from Kulen district because of the fighting.
“They were worried about safety and kept shifting from place to place before finally settling on Phnom Tbeng. After the whole country was freed of the rebels, we decided to remain here permanently, even though at the time we barely survived going up and down the mountain [for money].”
Growing up on the mountain, Thoeun did not have the opportunity to study at school or learn a trade.
So though he now wants to find a new job outside his backbreaking labour on Phnom Tbeng, Thoeun says he does not know what else he can do.
“I want to find a job in town but I don‘t know what to do. I want to start a new life that can earn me a higher income.
“I first studied in Grade 2 when I was 15, but I found it difficult as I was pretty old for that low grade,” says the illiterate father of two.
Driving a tourist on the back of his motorbike, Thoeun navigates along the muddy trail, taking the time to describe the scenery to his passenger.
Driving past a stack of rocks he remarks, “they [locals] are superstitious about this place. They believe if they can pile the rocks up high, it will boost their fortunes”.
On the days when Thoeun works as a guide, he picks up his customers around 9am. They have lunch at Dombok Khmao Pagoda before heading to a waterfall located about 1km from the temple.
Thoeun says tourists also love hiking to the Three Rock Pagoda before visiting Taing You waterfall and pagoda.
Tourists can choose to spend a night at Taing You Pagoda or return in the evening, with a round trip costing 150,000 riel ($37) per person.
Thoeun says: “Most tourists hike up Phnom Tbeng via the 1,345 steps of the Three Rock Pagoda. Then, they head to Taing You temple and the waterfall. There is another option ... they can take the 15km trek up an unpaved trail from Bakkam village, in Chheanmuk commune, but it is not popular.”
At the Three Rock Pagoda, where his client prayed for happiness at the shrine and enjoyed the valley view from the mountain top, Thoeun takes a break and sips a cold drink at a small store.
He is stood among a dozen porters standing at the mountain peak, waiting to receive bookings for porter and transport jobs.
“I also work as a porter to carry things to the mountain peak. But sometimes I have nothing to do as most people don’t bring heavy items and they don’t know we offer such services,” says Thoeun.
Like the other porters, Thoeun gets 30,000 riel to carry a load of between 30 and 40kg.
“Occasionally, generous people give me 40,000 to 50,000 riel to carry a pack of milled rice. I can carry things about three or four times per day. But usually, I only get one job per day, or nothing at all,” he says.
For those who plan to visit Phnom Tbeng and need transportation, Thoeun can be contacted via telephone (088 773 3062).