Monday, February 22, 2010

The Tuk-Tuk Driver

Usually I don’t really like Tuk-Tuk drivers. Every once in a while I go to the riverside to have breakfast at the Al Fresco at the FCC. Of course, this is a prime spot for them to pick up business. But their constant ‘Tuk-tuk, sir? Have good price’, etc., etc., really gets on my nerves. They even do it although I just arrived by car, which they couldn’t have missed. But then again, this is their livelihood and how else can they compete in this overcrowded field of business? And, of course, it is one way to survive in this deplorably poor country. Sometimes I just wonder how all these motodups and tuk-tuks can make any money at all in view of the seemingly thousands and thousands of motodups and tuk-tuks roaming the streets of Phnom Penh, and elsewhere.

But recently I met a tuk-tuk driver whom one can call a true entrepreneur in his own right and whose efforts and endeavors engendered the greatest admiration in me, not only for him but for all those small businessmen in the mini-transportation business. He may be a singular example with his success so far. With his show of ambition, perseverance, honesty, uprightness, and keen sense for business, he could serve as a role model not only in Cambodia but definitely for some spoiled Western young people as well. As it happens, he is a member of my wife’s extended family in Kratie province. He is now making his home in Phnom Penh. For some reason I had never met him before but the last couple of weeks we spent a lot of time together. During this time, I got to know him really well and also got to hear his life’s story.

He was born the third son of a farmer’s family with three brothers and two sisters. As is still the case, in traditional Khmer families, the family connection is very strong and seeing them interact one can easily discern the love and respect the children have for their parents and their siblings. He grew up in the countryside, attending the local village school, and helping his family tend the small piece of land. At the age of ten, he started his career as a businessman, so to speak. North of Kratie City one village after another stretches out along the country road. He loaded up his bicycle with loaves of French bread and delivered those to all the villages down to Kratie City and even into Kratie City itself. Thus, he contributed to the meager family income and from that time on practically supported himself.

The next step when he was 12 was to collect old broken things, whether it was a bicycle part, a cart wheel, or a car part, that people in the villages had discarded because they thought it had become useless. But not to Nan (that’s his name). He took those things home and fixed them in order to sell them at the local market, or sometimes sold them only as scrap metal to mostly Vietnamese traveling merchants, who could also use practically everything. His oldest brother is still in this business part-time. When I was there the other week, he repaired one of those big drums they use in the pagodas. It had been left in some corner of the local pagoda. After fixing it, it will be as good as new and will fetch around $500 from the Wat. Not too shabby, in my view.

At age 23 (in 2003) Nan got restless and wanted to do more with himself. Over time, he had saved some money so he was the proud owner of a moto, or moped as it’s called in other parts of the world. One day he got up and set out for Phnom Penh to try his luck there. He was drawn to it like many country people in search of a job that could make him more money. He traveled to Phnom Penh, which is after all about 340 km from Phnom Penh, or about 250 km if one takes the road along the Mekong, which has recently been repaved except for the last 17 km – no easy trip on a moto. Since he didn’t have enough money, he pushed his moto part of the way in order to save money for the gasoline. People would stop and stare at him asking why he was pushing instead of riding his moto. One can imagine how dog-tired he was on arriving in Phnom Penh.

He knew a monk in his village who had moved to a Wat in Phnom Penh. This monk arranged for him to stay at the Wat. This was free but he had to help the monks in the Wat. To this day, he still lives at the Wat and gets up at 4 o’clock in the morning to sweep the rooms, prepare food for the monks, and pray with them in the morning. Following that, he sets off for a day’s work that sometimes doesn’t end until midnight.

The first few weeks in Phnom Penh left him bewildered by all the things he had never seen or known before. Initially, he didn’t know where to start. But if he is one thing, he is smart. He had his moto, just watched all the other motodup drivers, and simply did it the same way they did. Because he lived at the Wat he didn’t need to spend any money on food and board. That’s, of course, a big plus. Pretty soon, he thought being a motodup driver is not enough. Part of the money he made he sent home, the other part he saved. So after about a year he had saved about $800. Now he wanted to buy a car in get into the taxi business. But with $800 you can hardly buy an old jalopy, even in Phnom Penh. As luck would have it, one of his uncles was prospecting for gold in the mountains and had found 3 kilograms of gold, not as dust but as lumps, which is very rare. He is one of his uncle’s favorite nephews and without much fuss; he borrowed money from him to buy his car – a 1994 Camry, what else. Virtually everybody in Cambodia drives a Camry, unless you are better off; then is a Landcruiser or a Lexus. But the Camry was good enough for him. Now he set out to drive around tourists and local Khmer. The long-distance trips are the more lucrative ones, of course.

Being the ever-restless, ambitious young man that he is, he thought that the car would be good for long-distance trips, but in the city a tuk-tuk would be more ideal. Foreign tourists just like to ride it. It gives them that local feeling, and at home, they usually do not have it, so it’s really fun to ride it. He saved up more money and bought himself a used tuk-tuk, which he attached to his moto. To round it all off he also owns a bicycle that he rents out to tourists. Young foreigners like to ride around the city on a bike.

Over the last three years, he has created a good following among Khmer people, and also among foreign tourists and businesspeople. His phone rings incessantly. His customers range from 10 Karaoke girls, whom he took to Kien Svay for a girl’s day-off-picnic in his tuk-tuk, to foreigners going to Kampot or Sihanoukville in his car. Recently his brother who is a licensed tour guide in Siem Reap called him for a 4 day around the Siem Reap area for two foreign couples. He came back with us from Kratie to Phnom Penh at 4 p.m. At 7 p.m. he left Phnom Penh with a couple of customers had picked up by phone in the meantime. The next morning at 8 a.m., he started his tour with the two couples. After 4 days he came back to join us for a picnic in Tonle Bati. That trip netted him $200, which he shared with his brother, of course. Sometimes, he even has to hire a driver for his tuk-tuk to fill in as he has customers for both car and tuk-tuk.

This all goes to show that with energy, diligence, and a good portion of ambition and flexibility, there is a chance people can earn a decent living. Of course, it takes special people, or should we say, people with an iron will to make it if they start from scratch.

And last but not least, he goes to college and studies tourism at the same time. He has one year left until graduation.

If you want to meet this remarkable young man, you can contact him at

012 343 065 or 011 674 817

Of course, you can also email him at

I am sure he will appreciate your business.

Nan and his bicycle
His tuk-tuk
His prized Camry
His sleeping quarers
His 'kitchen'
Wat Oh Komphi
Wat Oh Komphi
Nan and some of the monks
His friend, the monk

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