Tuk Tuk Drivers of Cambodia

Tuk Tuk in Phnom Penh

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.”

Sokha, Our Tuk Tuk Driver in Battambang

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, Our Tuk Tuk Driver in Siem Reap

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
and.tree@yahoo.com

Sokha from Battambang
sokhameth502@yahoo.com

Chann from Siem Reap
channvong@yahoo.com

Posted on by Noah Lederman in Asia, Somewhere

29 Responses to Tuk Tuk Drivers of Cambodia

  1. NaEun

    Love the post! If we just take a moment to stop and try to look at it from a different perspective, it teaches us so many valuable things about life and appreciating the little things we tend to dismiss.

  2. Juliann

    Great post. I really enjoyed reading your interview and learning about their lifestyle there. If I ever go, I’ll use your links to hire a local.

    • Tree

      Hello every body if you come to PP don’t forget to call me my Phone is +855 16393469

  3. Amira Rusly

    Hi,
    This post reminded me about my visit to Siem Reap last June. It touches me. Luckily, I was patient enough during my visit in Cambodia and you are right. One thing I like about Cambodia and Cambodian are their honesty. I was offered some guidance by “illegal” tour guides and they told me to pay any amount of money, they won’t mind. So I picked this one guy, forgot his name. And since I just left my job (and I really feel the pinch when I converted my Malaysian Ringgit to USD), I could’nt pay him more than 10 USD even if he willing to guide me the whole day- I did warn him about that. But he did not complaint, and he told me stories about how he have to bribe the police and pay them USD 5 everyday and their daily struggle. It was sad to see such young kid have to go trou all that. Well, there are more stories of course. Cambodia is one country where I feel most peaceful and deeply sad, both at same time. Don’t knw how they fit.

    • Noah Lederman

      Hi Amira,
      Thanks for sharing your touching experience. I think your point is true for many visitors to Cambodia: they “feel most peaceful and deeply sad.”

      • Tree

        Hello friend how r you ?

        • Noah Lederman

          Hi Tree,
          Good to hear from you. All is well. How are things in Phnom Penh? Glad you found the tuk tuk piece.

  4. CompassWhistle

    Great article. I appreciate seeing it from a different perspective…but I still really want one of those “No tuk-tuk” T-shirts. Know where we can get one? Thanks!

    • Noah Lederman

      Thanks for reading. You can get one of those shirts at the central market in Phnom Penh, but I have a feeling it will only encourage the tuk tuk drivers. I teach and if a kid came into my class with an “I Don’t Want to Learn” shirt on, I think it would up the number of times I called on them that period. Buy the shirt, do the experiment, and then let me know if you were hassled more or less.

  5. ricardo

    Honest living? You have no idea how many tuk tuk drivers offer me dope, even when Im walking with my wife and and son. When Im alone they offer me “lady”.

    Some of them disgust me to no end…

    • Noah Lederman

      While I have no doubt that this happens often, I think it’s fair to say that there are ignoble people in all professions. I wouldn’t cast aspersions on all.

    • Tree

      In Phnom Phen have some driver like that but they also have some driver never say that too

  6. Michelle

    Thankyou for this post – I wish that all travel blogging was this insightful. It’s also so nice to hear that people such as yourself travel to these parts of the world to actually learn from the locals and show interest in their culture, as opposed to exploiting the country for cheap beer and cheap thrills.

  7. paul

    Our driver tried to force us to drink alcohol and than he didn’t even bring us back to the hotel after s21 I think he wants us to gambling

    • Noah Lederman

      Sorry about that, Paul. Among those trying to earn an honest buck there will always be a few sordid characters.

      • Matthew

        I’m in Cambodia now and I am fairly sure that about 90% of the tuk tuk drivers that I come across in Phnom Penh are also dealing drugs. I’m not making any judgments about that since I don’t think that should be a crime in any case, but when they say “tuk tuk” and then follow up with “weed?” one tends to feel a lot less sympathetic than you do in this article.

        To be thorough any t-shirt should say ‘no tuk tuk, no moto, no massage, no weed’.

        • Noah Lederman

          90%? What was your sample size and can I see your records? While I’m sure many drivers do sell drugs, the best numbers to check out are those that report the statistics linked to unemployment, child labor, and education levels. In a society that is poor, corrupt, and rebuilding after genocide and civil war, I think people do a lot of things first-worlders who have the opportunity to spend money on travel wouldn’t be forced into doing.

  8. K

    Thankyou for your stories. I am writing a report about Cambodia and your post really helped. Thanks!

  9. Ratna

    Hi Noah,
    Thank you for taking the time to share your experience. I was researching about ABOUTAsia when I came across your article and found what I was looking for: a real reference on how to put our money towards the local. I hope you don’t mind using your name as a reference to contact Chan in Siem Reap, if he is still available.
    ps, do you know any similar article for Luang Prabang and Vientianne (Laos)?

    • Noah Lederman

      Hi Ratna. Thanks for your comment. Tell Chan I say hi. I don’t know of any similar articles for Luang Prabang and Vientiane, but if you head to Luang Prabang, you’ll probably only need a driver for the waterfalls. Most of the best sites are in town, as well as up and across the river in Xiang Men. For that, head down to the Mekong and chat with the boat captains. If you check out my posts on Luang Prabang and Xiang Men, you’ll learn about three kids on the opposite side of the river who showed me the Buddha Caves. I hope you find them on a weekend when they’re off from school. They were such sweet kids. The best thing to do outside Vientiane is Buddha Park, which you can get to by tuk tuk or bus. Unfortunately, I did not meet any tuk tuk drivers in Vientiane as I spent most of my time walking and riding the bus.

      • Tree

        Hello my friend how r you ?

  10. Tree

    Hello all friend if you come to Phome Phen don’t forget me my name tree Tuk Tuk in PP

  11. Ant

    Great little piece. Well composed and very interesting.

  12. Kevin

    This post has touched me and I’m near tears. I’m going to Siem Reap this weekend and I hope to reach Chann to tour us around. Thank you for this heartfelt post!

    • Noah Lederman

      Thanks for sharing Kevin. Let me know how things work out in Siem Reap and give Chann a big hello from us.

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