Prom Thamcheat is just a normal Buddhist monk who once lived a largely solitary life at his hermitage Wat Prey Metta Nature. He is certainly not a professional guide in any capacity.
However, Thamcheat has unintentionally found himself acting as a tour agent as his hermitage – a modest wooden home in the jungle with a few Buddhist statues – has become a tour centre and homestay for both local and international tourists.
“People from different countries messaged me on Facebook and I asked them how they know I’m living here because I don’t have any promotional website. They said that they heard from other people that I have a tour guide service. I ask where they come from and they tell me Canada, America, Argentina, Brazil, Finland and New Zealand,” said Thamcheat.
Tourists enquire about Thamcheat guiding them around the nearby Cardamom Mountains – an area the monk knows well as he built his secluded lodging in nearby Oral district’s Poumeas village in Kampong Speu province 20 years ago as a peaceful place to practice the Buddha’s teachings.
The monk – who posts pictures on his Facebook page with wild animals and writes about deforestation – said it was a chance encounter with one foreigner in the mountains that ultimately led him to receive an influx of visitors.
“One day in 2010, I met a foreigner visiting Oral Mountain and he asked to stay in my cottage for a night. When he went back to his country, he spread the information to his friends, so I started to arrange for villagers to guide visitors to trek in forest,” Thamcheat told The Post.
When not staying in the hermitage, the monk’s permanent home is in Trapeang Pou Community, an eco-tourism collective located in the southern Cardamom Mountains.
“I ask tourists where they want to visit and give them guidance if they wish to trek in the Cardamom Mountains, or if they prefer a short trip to Oral Mountain,” he said, adding that he arranges trips on demand, rather than in advance.
Besides organising trips, the monk offers space at his hermitage for visitors and interprets between locals and visitors looking for guides or cooks.
“My English is learned from the jungle. I learn word-by-word from visitors. If I want to ask or know how to say something, I gesture and they reply with words,” Thamcheat said. “I can interpret common words used in daily life. No problem!”
The monk also said he has an ability to connect with wild animals, which are remarkably tame around him, with wild peacocks in particular always showing up at the campus in the morning and evening.
“It is a spiritual connection I have with wild animals, especially peacocks. At first, they also panicked with me and ran away from me. But if we stay calm like a priest and move quietly and gently, practicing this action daily, they get used to you. I put leftover food under trees and they come to eat without fear,” he said.
But Thamcheat said hunting and deforestation are threatening the wild animal populations in the area.
He said when he first built the hermitage 20 years ago, there were many types of wild animals, including boars, deer, elephants and peacocks.
“Two decades ago, we could see some of those wild animals running around. But now we rarely see them here,” he said.
But Thamcheat said he hopes that by putting locals and tourists in touch with one another for trekking and hiking that the local community will benefit from ecotourism and will move away from illegal logging and hunting.
For more information about the monk’s unofficial tour agency and bookings, you can contact Thamcheat on Facebook (@Metta Forest) or telephone (015 354 545).