Virtual meanderings

Angkor IV: The life of a Khmer guy

We found our tuk-tuk driver (or rather he found us) at the famous Pub street during our first evening in Siem Reap. He was one of three drivers that approached us as we were coming out of a restaurant where we’d just had a “traditional Khmer dinner”.

The other two guys were older and could only say a couple of words in English. He was much younger, say 22-23-years old, and his English was above average. While it was obvious that he really wanted customers badly (there are thousands of tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap and in low season they struggle to find enough customers), he tried to not be pushy. I immediately liked him and asked Kara, my U.S. companion, whether she minded hiring him as our driver to Angkor on the next day. She did not object.

Siem Reap tuk-tuks are generally of the style of motorcycle and trailer.
Siem Reap tuk-tuks are generally of the style of motorcycle and trailer.

(note: the guy on the picture is not our guy, but similar age)

    The guy turned out to be 27 (by the end of our stay in Cambodia I began to suspect that Khmer people often look younger to the European than they actually were), yet he was not married yet. Just like the Khmer girl of my previous post did, he too went to English classes at some private school – and had to pay. He constructed his sentences in English with great care. Also, when trying to say something he often consulted a small Khmer – English phrasebook that he always held.

When we stopped at the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom, he took out another “book” that comprised of A4-sized sheets – photocopied and bundled together – to read while he waited for us. We asked him what it was. He said that he studied the book in order to become a tour guide (obviously a step up in the hierarchy). I asked to have a quick look – the book contained descriptions of the major Angkor area temples (who commissioned the temple, what was this king like, when the temple was built, etc). The information was good but unfortunately the quality of the texts was very poor – they were written in broken English with many grammar errors and wrong spelling. I told our guy that he would be speaking very incorrect English if he memorized those sentences and that he should try to find a better book.

In the late afternoon, on our way back from Angkor, Kara asked him whether he had any suggestions for us for the evening. He immediately suggested taking us to a dinner/traditional dance/all-you-can-eat-buffet that cost $12. We thought it was a good idea, so we made an arrangement. He picked us from the hotel later that evening and took us to another hotel which was in fact within a walking distance – we could easily be there in 10 minutes if he’d simply shown it to us on the map. (I will be talking about the buffet in my next post, I will just say that it was a good choice.)

After the dinner, Kara felt like getting a massage. I too was curious to find out whether Khmer massage was better than Thai. So Kara asked our guy “Do you know a good place to get a massage? You do, right? Take us to where the locals go!” Then she said to me – “it’s always best to go where the locals go”. He nodded repeatedly (the “don’t worry, I’ll take you to the perfect place, guaranteed” kind of nods) – and took us half way across town – it was already dark and we had no idea where we were going – until we eventually arrived at some fancy place clearly targeting foreigners, not locals.  Prices: 50% higher than at the town center. It was not quite what we’d tried to explain that we wanted, but…

At least the massage was decent. But when we came out I asked him straight – “You took us here because they give you something when you bring them tourists. What do they give you? Money?” He smiled back uneasily – no, he did not get money. He got a liter of gasoline for each customer he brought in. It was my first realization of how the whole mathematics worked out (see the paragraph below) and I was not too happy about having been ‘sold out’ for a litre of gasoline. And now that I knew about the massage, I was sure that he got something from the dinner place too.

Then I remembered stuff he’d told us earlier in the day. While he was driving us around at Angkor Thom, Kara asked him to tell us for how long he’d been doing this and how much his tuk-tuk cost.  He explained that he’d bought the tuk-tuk last year with a loan from the bank – and it had cost him around $1200 – $1300. He added that each month he had to pay the bank $120 – for 15 months. So, he was to pay back $1800 altogether. If you think a bit you’d probably come to the realization that a) there are not many small-business opportunities for which banks in Siem Reap lend money, and tuk-tuks seem to be a “safe bet” and b) people like him are being squeezed to the maximum.

We’d hired the guy for the whole day  (for $15, the ‘normal’ fare). I’ll do the math for you – he needed at least ten such full-day customers a month just to cover the bank payments. I tell you, with all those tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap this was no easy task. He also needed to make some money to pay for his English lessons (add another $30), for food (another $30 at least, even at low Cambodian prices), gasoline (perhaps another $30). So, in the best possible case,  he had to work at least 16 days a month every month, before he could draw even a single dollar for anything else (mobile telephone, etc. Also, health expenditures anyone?). Wife and kids? Forget about it before paying off that bank loan. This should help you understand why these people desperately try to find the middle way between being fair to their customers and still make a couple of extra bucks (and understand why many eventually give up and begin to consider the visitors as walking wallets).

With all that in mind, I still chose to stick to our tuk-tuk driver for my ride to the airport on my last morning. Now you know of the life of a Khmer boy and a Khmer girl as I got to know of it.

Khmer kids
Khmer kids

Courtesy: Lyevkin @ flickr


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