Mike and I have talked about wanting to see Angkor Wat for a while now, and we were lucky enough to experience that this year. When we landed in Siem Reap and got to our hotel we knew the next day we would go explore Angkor Wat but didn’t really know how to get around the area. At the very last minute we decided to get a 2 day tour guide which is a very popular way to see the sites as it’s such a massive area. We did some research, found a company and luckily last minute were able to secure a tour guide.
The next day we met our tour guide Thean. He was polite and on time, but initially I wasn’t sure what kind of vibe I was getting from him. I was worried that if it wasn’t going to be a pleasant experience then we would be stuck with this person for two days. As the day went by and we got to know each other better, Thean began cracking jokes with us and opening up more about his personal life.
Thean is extremely knowledgeable about the area, he provided so much information that it was hard to remember it all! At the end of the first day we sat and waited for the sunset in a remote area that he knew wouldn’t be full of crowds. As we sat there and had some time to kill I started to ask him more about his life, his family, his career and as I listened I thought to myself, this is probably such a common story of people’s lives in the developing world. When I asked him why he decided to become a tour guide, his eyes lit up and he began telling us his story.
Growing up in the village, he came from a poor farming/fishing family. His family consisted of his mother, father, and siblings, Thean being the oldest. Like many from the village he decided to go out to the big city to try and make more money so that he could help support his family. He moved with only 2000 Baht in his pocket (about $80.00 cad) and with no real skills, he chanced it. He found a small room to rent and got a job working as a receptionist at a guesthouse during the day and a night he drove a tuk tuk. He used that experience to help him improve his english and learn more about Angkor area. He told us about how he always admired the tour guides he worked with when he was driving the tuk tuk, and that inspired him become a tour guide.
He felt that he had no real skills but that he was always interested in history. He put together $500.00 USD (which is a lot of money for a Cambodian) and studied with a mentor. During this time there was a lot of corruption in the system and that if you paid $3500.00 USD you could just get the license without truly having to pass the exam. But he was determined to do it honestly. He decided to learn the history of Angkor Wat with a mentor in Russian (meaning he had to learn Russian on top of it all!). On the day of his exam he passed the written no problem but was nervous about the interview. However he had his interview all in Russian and felt that it went okay. When the list came out to see if you passed or failed, he found his name at the top of the list and was so proud of himself. He passed at the top of his class! Now he was a fully licensed tour guide and could provide a better life for is family. While he was telling this story, I could see just how proud he was, feeling like he had no real skills and took a chance on himself!
Unfortunately in 2011, at the age of only 47 his father passed away and Thean felt responsible because he didn’t have enough money to get his father better medical treatment. Once his father passed Thean assumed fully responsibility of his family. He says he doesn’t want his siblings to work but instead go to school. His mother is also sick and he fears he will not have enough money to help with her medical bills. He also a 3 hour motorcycle ride away from home which makes his situation even more difficult.
Now at the age of 34 he has a bad knee and fears that this will end his tour guide career. He is unsure of his future and worried he has no other skills, how will he provide for his family if he cannot be a tour guide, something he is truly passionate about.
After hearing this story I thought to myself his story and his struggle is probably that of so many others in this world. I truly admire his courage, his strength, his determination and mostly his dedication to his family. This is a hard life, a constant struggle that I will never truly understand or encounter because I won the life lottery. I have every single opportunity, I will never understand these struggles and I know just how incredibly lucky I am.
Thean’s story pulls at my heart strings and a reminder to me not to take what I have for granted. I really admire all that he has accomplished on his own, pushing himself upwards and being proud of himself. My hope is that his knee will not end his career as a tour guide. He has worked so hard, as most people do over here. Life is a constant struggle of trying to have enough to get through to the next day, to protect your family and just to have enough money to have a modest life.
If you are ever planning a trip to Angkor Wat I would highly recommend reaching out to Thean. He is kind, polite, passionate about what he does, is incredibly knowledgeable about the area and is a great photographer too! If you are interested please check out his page on tripadvisory at Angkor Guide and Transport . Like most things it is an extremely competitive industry and my hope is that his story can help further along his career so that he can provide for his family and not have to constantly worry.
I think about his story quite often. My hope is that one day he is able to travel the world and explore areas like that of Angkor Wat. I told him if he ever makes it to Canada we’ll be his tour guide! Keep pushing Thean, you’ll do great!