When you travel around Asian countries, especially in the most touristic places of Southeast Asia, it is very difficult to walk more than a few steps before being stopped by a driver offering to take you to your destination. Around here you meet the most peculiar kind of transportation, but tuk-tuk is surely the most famous one.
Very popular in its Thai version, this kind of transport has different variations in different countries. Cambodia is one of them, and the roads of the main cities see plenty of remorks, the Khmer tuk-tuks.
Different from its famous counterpart, that is a three-wheeled vehicle, the remork looks a lot like a luxury transportation, being an actual four-wheeled trailer pulled by a motorbike or motorcycle. Its seats are soft and really comfortable. All the Khmer tuk-tuks have then something in common: they are all driven by men.
But not in Siem Reap. In the city of Northern Cambodia, famous because of the presence of the marvelous Angkor Temples, the place with the highest number of tuk-tuks in the entire country, someone tried to change this habit. In a labour market still strongly male-dominated, a woman is the outside voice. With strong courage and dedication, Kim chose to be the first female remork driver in the city.
In a society in which being free is still not so granted, Kim chose to follow her heart, making hope her own fuel, and freewill the engine. There are only a few people like her in the world, and they should be an example for everybody.
We met her for breakfast in the restaurant of a friend of hers. She arrived with her remork and the attitude of who has fought to obtain what she has, punctuated by smiles that show an inherent shyness. Her face reveals mixed feelings, the tiredness of who suffered, the honest smile of who has nothing to hide. That sincerity remains while she starts telling her story.
As many Cambodian, Kim comes from a village in the countryside. She grew up in Kampong Cham province, in the central part of the country, about 350 km from Siem Reap. She gives us just a few information on her past, a very common thing in this country, where the inhabitants prefer not to bring up certain memories. When she eventually starts telling us something, she does it with a tear-stained face.
When she was 14, although too young for working, she was sent to a government sewing factory, where she will work for two years. When we try asking her information about the rest of her family, she prefers not to answer. She just says that she was alone. At age 16, she gets married to a man who she will have two boys from. One of them is deaf from birth.
The bond between this woman to her sons is unbreakable. This relationship is the starting point of her choice to become a tuk-tuk driver. After the factory, Kim started a job considered worth for a woman, selling goods at the market. This job was not though appropriate for her life as a mother, since it was not possible for her to take care of her deaf son in the chaos of the stalls. From here her choice to get a driver license and buy a motorbike and a remork in Phnom Penh, Cambodia capital city.
“Having my own transportation, I was able to take my sons to school and to move wherever I need”, says Kim, proudly as everyone who chooses for their own life. But things do not work out in Phnom Penh. The city was far from being the favourite tourist spot it is today, and Cambodian people who used the tuk-tuks saw it merely as a man work.
During the six months she worked in the capital, Kim tells us that she cried every single day and that she earned not enough money to support her family. She has no customers because “They don’t know a lady can drive”. Moreover, her younger son was having a bad time at school due to his being deaf, that was considered as a flaw by his schoolmates.
Things get worse when Kim gets sick and she needs to move to Thailand to be cured. As if it was not enough, her husband asked for the divorce, and she was forced to take her sons with her, and they missed a whole year of school.
Kim is, however, the kind of person who can make the best of any situation. She never stops until she gets what she needs to make her family and herself happy. She decides to try again with the tuk-tuk business but not in the same city. She flew then to Siem Reap.
Once again, the love for her sons led to this decision. In particular the presence in the city of a school for deaf children, where her son would have less problem, made her choice easier. At that time Kim was not aware that Siem Reap was Cambodia tourist capital. When she arrived there, she tells us crying, she did not have any place to stay, nor she spoke a single word of English, but she was able to borrow some money and buy a new tuk-tuk with a real motorcycle instead of a motorbike.
Things get better when she meets Mr Dee, a senior driver who sees her struggling and decides to help, showing her the most famous places in town and teaching her some essential sentences in English, such as “When you come back, you will find me in the parking over there”. Dee keeps staying next to her helping when necessary. He is there also when we meet.
Finally, business starts going well, and Kim is able to bring the tourists to Angkor Wat for sunrise having also the time to take her sons to school and coming back to continue the tour with her costumers.
She decides to enroll at an English school but she is rejected because not able to write and read. She does not give up, as always. She starts learning the alphabet by herself and every day she fills dozens of pages with letters to do so.
Today Kim goes to school every night from 7:30 to 8:30, after having worked from 5:00 in the morning until 7 at night. Even if she is still not able read, her English has improved a lot. You can find her every day in front of the same hotel but also online thanks to the help of two Canadians who created a website (www.tuktuklady.com) and an e-mail account for her.
All of her customers seem to love her considering all the great reviews she receives also on internet. Business is going well despite the bad influence of the tour operators and of the big tourist groups. She keeps driving her remork with the idea to save enough money to realize her big dream: become a cook and open a restaurant for deaf people in Siem Reap.
With her willpower and the help of people as Mr Dee and Tevy, the lady who owns the restaurant where we meet, we are sure it won’t be long before she will reach her goal.
She left us with a hug and watery eyes, because we are the first westerners to be interested in her story. With her fists closed, she shouts what she keeps repeating to herself every morning: “I can!”.
Kim’s story is that of a simple life, as that of everyone else. A life of dreams and struggle, of problems and willpower. The life of a person who never gives up or walks back, a person who turns obstacles into a leverage to improve her life and the one of the people around her. She has been also an example. The women who drive the tuk-tuk are now four.