In Cambodia, due to crippling unemployment, countless people are forced into becoming entrepreneurs, a difficult task even for the small percentage of business savvy individuals in first-world countries that plunge into the task. Therefore, tourists are constantly being solicited for their business.
“Tuk tuk, sir? Tuk tuk?” you’re asked ten times on each block of a major city like Phnom Penh, and maybe five times on each block in the quieter beach towns, like Sihanoukville.
“No thank you,” you say the first few times. Then you become irritated. I don’t want a fucking tuk tuk, you feel like screaming.
Shirt vendors have learned that Westerners can’t stand the constant query. That’s why you can buy a shirt that reads “No tuk tuk. No motobike. No thank you.”
“You buy shirt,” a shirt vendor shouted as I walked through the market.
“No shirt,” I replied. (Put that on your shirt.)
But then I had the opportunity to sit down with a few tuk tuk drivers and learn why it’s important to have patience with them, and really all of the Khmer people just trying to earn an honest buck.
Tree the Tuk Tuk Driver
Our first tuk tuk driver, whom we spent a few days with in Phnom Penh, was a twenty-five year-old named Tree. He had a severe limp caused by an illness at birth. On the day that we were visiting the killing fields at Cheung Ek and the S-21 torture chambers, Tree, my wife, and I took a break for lunch. All the talk of genocide reminded Tree of a story.
“The Khmer Rouge give my mother a gun and tell her to kill ten people. You cannot say no to the Pol Pot and his men,” he explained, shoveling a spoonful of rice into his mouth. “You’re lucky to have been born in another place. There’s so much corruption here. I try to pass my tests so I can go and work in Korea, but when they see my leg, I cannot pass.”
He ordered more rice, pleased to inform me that rice was unlimited at this restaurant and that I wouldn’t have to pay more for his lunch. It’s okay, I wanted to say. Eat, I nearly said the way my Holocaust-survivor Grandma used to say, coaching me through meals.
“What do you eat everyday?” I asked him.
“Egg for dinner and rice for breakfast. Everyday.”
A good work day for Tree usually brought him twenty dollars, but there weren’t many good days. Gas was expensive, paying the bus station to solicit arrivals was expensive, the bedroom he rented was expensive. There wasn’t much money left for food and never enough money left for lunch.
Tree’s friend sat down with us. He had a huge smile on his face and he was drinking a can of Angkor Beer.
“Today,” Tree said, “my friend drinks a beer because he gets twenty-five dollars.” The happy tuk tuk driver was celebrating as though he had earned a few grand for his holiday bonus. “The worst is when we get a hand grenade. You know hand grenade.” Tree made an explosion sound and giggled so hard that his eyes closed. “This is when a customer makes an appointment for you to pick them up and they don’t show. That’s a hand grenade.”
Learning from Our Tuk Tuk Driver in Battambang
The next day, Tree dropped us off at the bus station. We left for Battambang. There we met our second tuk tuk driver, Sokha, who was more like a tour guide, leaving his tuk tuk to tour us around the killing caves and killing fields, where thousands had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. After our day of death, Sokha brought us back to his house in the outskirts of Battambang. It took him nine years to build his lofted home and when we arrived there were more than a dozen kids playing on the patio.
“These are my three sons,” he said, pointing to the two youngest, who hid together in the folds of a hammock. The eldest, a nine year old boy, was a little less shy. The other children at his house were neighbors or belonged to his wife’s relative, a woman whose husband had left her alone with the children. “Now I take care of them in my home.”
“Who lives there?” I asked, pointing at the bamboo hut beside his home.
“Another relative did. But he died of AIDS.”
I looked at all of the children as they stood in a line-up in their dirty Angry Birds shirts.
“Do most kids go to college after high school ends?” I asked.
“It costs too much money for people. Sometimes it can be three or four hundred dollars per year. And the bank doesn’t offer loans.” Sokha explained how paying sixty dollars each month for all three of his children to attend the Catholic school in town, a better alternative to the public school, was difficult for him.
He told us all about the terrible economy, highlighting this point with the salary of employees in the garment factories: $61 per month.
I thought about how sixty one dollars is an average night out in New York. It’s a decent dinner for a couple ordering an appetizer, two meals, and two beers. Sixty one dollars in salary a month is unthinkable and they’re the lucky ones with jobs.
Chan, The Car-Sick Tuk Tuk Driver
When we left for Siem Reap, Sokha told us that his friend Chan would be waiting for us at the bus stop and that if we needed a tuk tuk, we should consider hiring him. Chan was the most giggly guy I had ever met.
Chan told us that his mother had been pregnant with him when she was a refugee sitting on a plane bound for America. But before the plane took off, she panicked and got off, scared to leave her war-torn home. “We stayed,” Chan said. “Unlucky.” He laughed. We were standing in front of more bones collected from mass graves.
Chan is a tuk tuk driver with a university degree in project development, but there are no new social projects in Cambodia because all of the coffers are emptied by corrupt officials. He tried to travel to Phnom Penh to take an exam that would allow him to work in Korea, like Tree, but his attempts to go to the capital have all ended haplessly. Chan suffers terribly from car sickness, an ironic ailment for a driver, though he doesn’t get sick on his tuk tuk.
But he’s happy to be a tuk tuk driver, even though it means living five hours from his wife and kids. It’s better than the job he used to have, working along the Thai border, carrying 150-pound sacks of fruit through the K5 mine belt, the most heavily mined area in the world. He watched many workers lose their legs to explosives. After paying the mandatory bribes to police and army officers, his daily, back-breaking labor left him with one dollar to take home.
So the next time you’re traveling to a poor country like Cambodia and the men on the side of the road sound like they’re harassing you to take a ride, maybe ask them to drive you to a coffee shop, buy them a drink, and engage them in conversation. They’re probably sick of repeating, “Tuk tuk, sir,” too.
Tree, Sokha, and Chan were some of the best people I met in all of Southeast Asia. To hire them the next time you’re in Cambodia, email them at:
Tree from Phnom Penh
Sokha from Battambang
Chann from Siem Reap