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Mountaineering pioneer brings up hiking prodigies to care for Earth

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The Phirom family at the summit of Knong Psar mountain. SUPPLIED

Mountaineering pioneer brings up hiking prodigies to care for Earth

Beneath the backdrop of a spectacular sunrise, peeking through the lush nature surrounding them, William and Reaksmei Pheanu chase each other in a playground.

But this is no ordinary playground. It’s towering atop Knong Psar, a mountain which Reaksmei Pheanu has just summitted.

Whereas it’s normal for the average person to spend at least five hours hiking there, Reaksmei is just four years old.

Meanwhile, her brother, Phirom William, adds this achievement to his other latest summit: the highest mountain peak in Cambodia, Oral. He is all of eight years of age.

The siblings come from a family steeped in Cambodian adventuring. Their father, Chhoun Phirom, 41, found fame exploring hard-to-reach adventure spots in the Kingdom. Nowadays he’s somewhat of an ambassador for hiking locally, sharing trekking tips and raising national awareness about the ‘Leave No Trace’ principle of hiking, where one pledges to keep the site as they found it and not leave trash behind.

The elder Phirom said it was always his aim to raise his children to be strong and love nature.

Through connecting with the natural environment and improving their fitness, he sees adventuring as a key building block for children’s self-esteem, and has championed this activity amongst his own kids from a very young age.

It’s also a highly sensory experience. “Hiking is an education on its own; they can hear, smell and see something different [from their lives] in town,” Phirom said.

A former NGO employee, Phirom has been teaching his children the essentials of survival while trekking and respecting the environment during these hikes.

These lessons, he says, have inspired his young daughter to approach hiking with more resolve.

Training to backpack – or hike with full mountaineering equipment – is an important starting point for all hikers, including children, Phirom said.

“A month before [Reaksmei Phanu’s first] trip, I trained her to walk between one to five kilometres per day in different trail conditions with full trekking gear,” he said.

“I had taught her to walk down steep terrain, use equipment such as trekking poles and torches, and obverse her surroundings and look far to see if there are obstacles ahead.”

At four years old, Reaksmei Pheanu’s walking pace is not far off from that of amateur adults.

Reaksmei Pheanu spent about five and a half hours in her quest to reach the Knong Psar summit, running through the long grass and picking some wildflowers along the way.

It wasn’t an entirely smooth sailing hike, of course. Tiredness got to her and she asked that they took breaks at several points along the way. The hike was difficult and they should return home, she suggested more than once. But these feelings would not overwhelm the young hiker, for whom resilience is a family trait, and she ultimately reached the summit with a big grin on her face.

“She was happy when she could play in the scenic playground, [observe] the landscape and run after other hikers who’d rushed to the summit to catch the sunset. [Those hikers] got up at dawn and had heard a sound of children around their tent,” the elder Phirom recalled.

His children may have taken their interest in adventure and the environment from him, but Phirom’s own journey to becoming an avid trekker was from an unexpected source: studying. He took up hiking as a serious hobby after discovering the existence of Oral, the highest mountain in Cambodia, in a book as a university student two decades ago.

“When I was studying, [I read] a geography book [that] said the highest mountain in Cambodia is Oral, at 1813 meters. I imagined that one day I could reach the top of Oral.

“Time passed, and when I was in my third year of university, I made it happen with my companions, a foreigner and a compatriot, in 2001,” he said.

That first hike met with a number of issues. His expedition members hadn’t prepared adequate camping gear. Then they spent too much time relaxing in the nearby village before they set off. Subsequently, they ran into difficulty finding local guides – it was not common at the time for villagers to guide visitors to the top of the mountain.

Today, as he sees his young children climb similar mountains, he, too, has scaled new heights. In the years since that initial (eventually successful) ascent of Oral Mountain, Phirom has summited several other mountains in the Kingdom and abroad, including Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia and Gunung Kerinci in Indonesia – “the active volcano that’s also the highest in Indonesia,” he’s keen to point out.

As an adventure tour guide, he recently led a 250 km trek through the Cardamom Mountains from Kampong Speu, Koh Kong and Pursat provinces.

But it’s his children’s accomplishments on the mountains that bring the serial adventurer most pride.

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Chhoun Phirom, patriarch of the mountaineering family, on an adventure trek. SUPPLIED

“Since you were able to succeed, you must have been very proud of yourself. You are younger than daddy, who was 21 years old when [he] could reach it,” Phirom said to his son about summitting Oral.

“I want to be an example for other parents that [their] children can climb Oral – just like my son did,” he said.

While hiking, he encouraged his son to be in touch with nature and slow down. Patience was the lesson of the day.

There were met with many obstacles along their journey to the Oral summit. These were challenges faced daily by local communities, Phirom said, and he wanted his son to understand their way of life and appreciate their struggles.

But Phirom’s intentions for adventure hiking go beyond educating his children. He’s interested in the economic and social benefits the activity could bring to the local community, particularly how they might be able to leverage such tourism by becoming hiking guides.

The trip to the summit of Oral Mountain took two nights for the father-son duo.

They spent a night at the nearby village – the site of Phirom’s planning failures two decades ago – before riding a motorcycle to the hike’s starting point at the crack of dawn.

William hiked for an impressive six and a half hours before they called it a day. They spent a night camping halfway up the mountain.

“He rested in the tent with me so I was able to make sure he slept and ate okay. But it was hard for him to take a bath up at the mountain peak as it was so cold,” recalled Phirom.

The trail up Oral was steep and long, and even the sturdy young adventurer was not immune to its effects. “My son complain[ed] very often, saying he was exhausted and that he wanted to come back,” said Phirom. But with some encouragement from his parents, William made the remaining 3.4km journey to finally step onto the highest mountain peak in Cambodia, where he saw the grand landscape for the first time – just like his father did as a young man 20 years ago.

After a brief rest at the summit to take in the breathtaking views, they headed back to the village – spending a total of 8 hours for the journey down. So challenging was the climb, in fact, that Phirom forbade young Reaksmei Pheanu from joining them.

Though he is familiar with the many other tourist attractions in the Kingdom, Phirom said that hiking remains his preferred form of holidaying: “I am never bored with trekking and hiking since we can constantly contact with nature,” he says.

Phirom has his sights set on more challenging ascents at home and abroad. “I will [be] heading to the northeast part of Rattanakiri and larger part[s] of the Cardamom Mountains.

“Eventually, I want to make a trip to Everest Base Camp and the highest mountains in Southeast Asia and around the world,” he said.

He’s noticed that, compared to a few years ago, more Cambodians have embraced adventure, though he laments that it is still but a small portion of the 16 million strong population.

Nonetheless, the increasing trend of adventuring in the Kingdom has had a net positive effect on the environment and local community, he notes.

He says that the trekkers he encounters on the trail nowadays “are more responsible and tend not to leave trash at tourism sites.”

Phirom also observed that Cambodian adventurers from urban centers have eagerly shared their culture with the rural communities that live near these sites.

However, he stresses that there’s more improvement to be made in this symbiotic relationship. The incidence of littering and waste at such sites can certainly be improved, he noted. Noise pollution, too, continues to be an issue, disrupting animal habitats and the local community – as does hiking without a tour guide, as non-locals are more likely to go off the trail.

His message to would-be hikers everywhere is to always keep the environment in mind and leave no waste behind.

While hiking locally and abroad, he stresses the importance of taking local tours to help boost communities’ economies.

Characteristic with his desire to help other people embark on adventures, Phirom shared some important advice on hiking.

Preparing the necessary gear and adequate supplies, and starting with easier hikes, is of paramount importance.

He recommends Knong Psar, Oral Mountain, Knong Veal, Knong Krapoer, Chay Yuong Waterfall, Steung Kep Waterfall, Samkos Mountain, Tupor Mountain, Da Lay Mountain, Knong Preah as good hikes in the Kingdom.

For families interested in taking the plunge, he’s expressed his wish to take his children and wife to scale Samkos Mountain, Tumpor Mountain, Phnom Veal Thom Wilderness Trek in Virachey National Park, Knong Krapoer, Knong Veal and Knong Preah.

And finally, Phirom encourages people to hire local guides who can lead trips safely and knowledgeably; in doing so they also help the economy of the local community. He heartily recommends hiking and trekking as an activity to truly appreciate Cambodia’s vast and lush natural offerings.

To learn more about these tours, contact 087 794 580 (Mao), 015 750 131 (Kuy), 096 248 4566 (Pu Nem), 096 919 6535 (Rith) and 015 70 49 88 (Sao).

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