The life of a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap
28.08.2011 - 28.08.2011 30 °C
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Decidedly ‘groggy’ from the previous night excursions and with monsoon rains falling none of us where overly eager to leave the hotel at seven-thirty, the next morning, for the ten mile tuk-tuk ride to Tonle Sap Lake. Yet, after arranging the previous afternoon and with the already Batmobile outside, knowing that its driver Koh San had had less sleep than us, we felt duty bound to start our day. As the rain bounced we reached the centre of town before retreating from the rain. Hoping for a big breakfast we ended up with passable bacon and eggs but with undrinkable condensed milk tea.
Fortunately, delaying the start of our journey proper did aid the recovery process. By the time we resumed our journey to the Lake some of us felt a little more awake as the rain began to subside. Soon we were south of Siem Reap and passing rural life. Rice paddies perforated by a few lotus flower fields were our visual stimulation. Approaching the Lake what had become ‘normal’ concrete and bamboo houses were replaced by similar but different residences. Same, same but different (to quote an oft used Asian phrase) the closer the Lake the more houses on stilts we saw. By the time we arrived at the lake houses, schools, shops and restaurants were all on stilts.
Taking a boat out onto the Lake we were promised the opportunity to observe and visit more of these stilt villages at close hand. However, at $15 a ticket we decided that a river cruise in the pouring was not an ideal way to spend the morning, instead heading back towards Siem Reap – we had seen sufficient of the wetter than usual lake.
Stopping to take pictures of the Lotus fields, en route, we pulled over next to a bamboo hut that offered the rental of a karaoke machine for a dollar fifty an hour. Sitting on the edge of a rice field, surrounded by rural countryside, this technology was hardly what we expected.
After visiting the temples of Angkor Wat the previous day there was one that Ed wanted to visit. However, as I had no ticket and no inclination to spend twenty dollars to see one temple our driver had to ‘negotiate’ my entry at the ticket booths. Under strict orders not to leave the tuk-tuk I was able to obtain a free viewing of the great Angkor Wat temple as we rode past on the way to Phnom Bakheng or the ‘sunset temple’. So named due to the number of tourists that arrive at this elevated temple to watch the sun set over Angkor Wat.
With the rain having now ceased Trey, Ed and Marin hiked to the top of the temple hill, leaving me to explore both the gates to the famous Bayon temple, with its four heads and twin Naga and also talk with our tuk-tuk driver about his life and time in Siem Reap. Originally from south of Phnom Penh his account was fascinating. Some 25 years old he had started work earning 25 USD a month. Trained as a masseuse he had then gone to work in this industry earning some 45 USD a month (which gave some insight into the dollar tip we had each left our masseuse the previous night). For three and a half years he had then worked at the reception desk of a Guesthouse for 75 USD a month. However, this had required almost 24 hour working, sleeping at the desk, being available whenever the guests required.
However, some twelve months previous he had decided like another thousand or so drivers in Siem Reap to drive a tuk-tuk. With money limiting his opportunities he rented a tuk-tuk for sixty dollars per month. Often passing days without a single fare he managed to make a reasonable living with the flexibility of being able to work when he wanted. Some seven months ago he drove two young British travelers around the temples and city. Apparently, finding him as pleasant as we did they asked about his circumstances and how much it would cost to purchase a tuk-tuk. Brand new they would cost $650 USD. Used $450 USD. For the bike and carriage! Duly purchasing one for him, demonstrating that there are some extremely good people left in the world, he now has his own business, works hard but makes a reasonable living – sending money home to an aging mother and his brothers and sisters.
Yet, it would seem that those in power wish to remove that opportunity from Koh San and many others. Since 1990 Angkor Wat has been managed by the private Sokimex group. A Cambodian conglomerate whose main business, ironically, is petroleum. Ironic as they want to ban tuk-tuks and other ‘polluting’ vehicles from the temples, allowing only ‘green’ vehicles into the complex. By 2012-13 these ideal temple access vehicles will be banned and countless livelihoods lost. Whilst we have heard only one side of the argument surely this is crazy. What real beneficial environmental impact will this have? It is simply a crazy decision from a company I am sure creates and provides for a hundred times the environmental pollution that the simple tuk-tuks of Siem Reap have or ever will. Yet theirs is a small voice against a conglomerate that must surely have the ear of the Government.
After our saddening conversation and with elephants passing us by as we talked we soon exited the temple complex and returned to the hotel. Saying goodbye to the Batmobile Ed and Marin were quick to finish packing for their imminent flight to Bangkok, whilst Trey and I planned a quiet evening in the city and an early night. After a variety of early mornings and late nights, since our friends arrival, all of us wanted rest. Ed and Marin would obtain it on their 18 hour flight back to the States, whilst Trey and I would be back to travelling by ourselves, able to take a slightly slower pace without feeling any guilt or remorse. Tomorrow would be a relaxing day!