Khek Thuon is likely the first person visitors to the 30m tall Phnom Tbeng, or Thma, waterfall in Preah Vihear province’s Tbeng Meanchey natural heritage site.
The almost 30m uninterrupted waterfall offers stunning views, and streams running off provide refreshing bathing spots shaded under tall, lush trees.
Carrying a rice sack over his shoulders as a backpack, the 42-year-old Thuon asks visitors arriving at the foot of the 1,345 steps leading up the mountain if they need help carrying their belongings to the top. He also acts as a guide.
“Most people can’t carry heavy loads as they hike up the mountain. So they can hire me to do this for them. Because some parts of the stairs are very steep, some visitors can’t carry anything with them at all,” said Thuon, who has been working as a porter for more than 10 years.
Able to carry up to 50kg, he waits patiently for his clients as they stop to visit the pagodas and bathing areas, and take in the views – and as they catch their breath.
“From the foot of the mountain to the top, there are 1,092 steps with three stops to visit. Once at the top, there are another 253 steps to reach the Tbeng, or Dombouk Khmao, pagoda,” says Thuon, who charges 30,000 riel for his services.
Thoun even offers to carry the elderly up the mountain in a hammock if they cannot make it themselves.
“But I rarely carry people up to the mountain because the elderly are usually too nervous to sit in the hammock. Those who do are determined to pray at the pagodas,” Thuon says.
Climbing the stairs with a large group of young people, an exhausted Oum Soun, 60, says: “I am very tired, but wanting to see the views at the top and pray at the pagoda pushes me on.”
Without any restaurants on the trail, visitors need to carry their own food and offerings of worships as the small shops scattered about sell only packaged noodles, crisps and drinking water.
“Though recently a lot more tourists are visiting the mountain, there are no restaurants or guesthouses. Local tourists who want to spend the night on the mountain, they mostly stay in pagoda while foreigners prefer to camp,” Thuon says.
Phnom Tbeng waterfall is 600m up Tbeng Meanchey Mountain – around 35km from Preah Vihear town.
Tourists tackling its stairs pass the Phnom Tbeng or Dombouk Khmao pagoda after around a kilometre.
After another kilometre, there is a choice of paths – one down to the bottom of the waterfall and another one heading to the top.
Whichever one they choose, the lower and upper streams are connected by a tunnel-like path beneath the waterfall.
The white cascade of water against the backdrop of the green vegetation covering the cliff walls make this the ideal spot to take photographs.
“People rather take selfies here than bathe. For bathing, they usually choose the upper stream, which is another 200m or 300m further up,” Thoun says, sitting on a rock while keeping an eye on his clients.
In timely agreement, a group of beaming young people coming down say that bathing in the upper stream was indeed a memorable experience.
Tbeng Meanchey in Preah Vihear province – covering 25,000ha across five districts: Kulen, Sangkum Thmei, Tbeng Meanchey, Preah Vihear town and Roveang – was listed as a natural heritage site in 2016.
Around 280km from Phnom Penh, Phnom Tbeng waterfall is reached by taking National Road 6, before turning north onto National Road 62 in Kampong Thom’s province’s Trapaing Russey commune.