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Das leben ist gut! The career of a German-speaking guide in Siem Reap

Soeun Chamnan with German tourists at Angkor Wat.
Soeun Chamnan with German tourists at Angkor Wat. Photo supplied

Das leben ist gut! The career of a German-speaking guide in Siem Reap

“Fear is inevitable at first”, says tour guide Soeun Chamnan. He’s recalling the experience of shepherding a group of well-built, long-nosed, white-skinned foreigners around for the first time.

Chamnan has been a tour guide for twenty years in Siem Reap and knows Angkor-era history, and the layout of the huge city site like the back of his hand. However, as a local, he is also intimately familiar with the traditions and lifestyle of local people, and for the German tourists he guides this makes him a mine of fascinating tid-bits of information.

Reminiscing about his first experiences has a tour guide, Chamnan says: “I was scared at first because I didn’t know foreign languages so well. Also, I couldn’t yet remember the history of all the areas in Angkor zone. It made me feel quite insecure.”

After working as an English-speaking guide for a few years in the early 1990s, Chamnan learned that there was a real high demand and a big market for German-speaking tour guides. Last year, almost 130,000 German nationals visited Cambodia. In 1998, Chamnan had got to know students who used to study in Germany. He had then started learning the language so he could use it to give tourists a tour. “I learnt German from a student who had a master’s degree” and studied very hard as well as practicing it whenever I had the chance.

“Within just two years, I could speak German and I’ve been offering German-language tours instead of English ones ever since,” according to Chamnan. “At first, we only focused on the history, culture, and information about the temples, but after having been to many villages and communes in the provinces, I could see that every group of German tourists was very interested in local Cambodians’ village lives and other activities, too.

“Time went by, and the German tourists always asked about how the local Cambodians live, what they use in their traditional activities rather than asking about history or the temples,” said Chamnan. “They are very interested in the daily lives of our Cambodian people.”

Soeun, second from left, with a party of tourists in the Kulen Hills near Angkor.
Soeun, second from left, with a party of tourists in the Kulen Hills near Angkor. Photo supplied

The tourists Chamnan guided often stayed in touch, too. “The German tourists I guided weren’t only interested in our country during their trip to Cambodia, but very often they continued to email me, asking about the activities they saw during their trip and what they learned in the village.”

It wasn’t long before Chamnan had made numerous German friends, and in 2003, Chamnan’s friend Atheg offered him a private scholarship to study in Germany. “I went to the Goethe Institut in Berlin for three months, and it has made me even more skillful in German language,” said Chamnan.

After nearly two decades, his German-speaking tour service has brought this tour guide with a family of four children a better life. Compared to the daily income of a general tour guide, he added, “German tour guides get paid more than French- and English-speaking guides, as my daily average income is $45.”

Chamnansays that the high fees he can charge are not what motivates him to admire the German poeple. “From my own experience and what I heard from my friends who are tour guides speaking other languages, including French and English, I came to understand that German tourists have very good attitudes and are very friendly and punctual.”

German tourists are very careful when it comes to spending money, when compared to French- or English-speaking tourists, “my customers are very careful. They don’t spend on unnecessary things. They don’t really eat lunch, but fruits as appetizer. I also noticed this when I went to study in Germany. However, they eat a lot for breakfast and dinner.

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