If there’s one word of friendly advice I have to travelers it is: get to know the people of the place you are visiting.
Don’t just show up, hit the tourist trail, hang with English speaking travelers, take a bunch of pictures of local people (and not talk to them) and call it a once in a lifetime trip. That would be such an epic fail! One of my favorite aspects of traveling is gaining perspective of those living a completely different life than I am, and remembering that so many of the “problems” I face daily are insignificant when looking at the big picture. I wish I had spent a lot more time hanging with locals on my trip, but it’s also important to find a balance. It becomes exhausting and difficult to try to communicate and initiate conversations with strangers… but it is so rewarding, and more often that not, down right funny to try to communicate.
I met Mao at the Siem Reap airport when I hired him to be my mortorbike driver. Though I had initially planned to find my own driver and not book through the airport, I couldn’t resist Mao’s smile and charm. I paid $55 for 3 days of driving, a standard fare. On our fourth day, after three days of climbing up, down, and around the temples of Angkor Wat, I asked Mao to take me to meet some of his friends and eat at his favorite restaurant. We played volleyball and played games, and I drank some icy beers and played with the kids.
I learned a lot about Mao’s life, and I was somewhat surprised to learn of the hardships he still endures, despite having a regular job. In order for Mao to be a member of the airport’s association of motorbike drivers, he must pay $500 a year in fees! I couldn’t believe this. This is huge money for Cambodians; he explained that only some months does he make a profit, the rest he just breaks even. He has to take turns with many other drivers, and as a result, some week he only works one day. He explained that had I not hired him to be my driver, he wouldn’t have had work that week, as it would have been someone else’s turn to try to get hired. In addition to paying these crazy fees and taking turns with other drivers, he sends most of his money to his mother, whose motorbike he borrows (the fees do not include a motorbike). He would like to save up to buy a tuk tuk, because then he wouldn’t have to work through the airport, but tuk tuks cost over $700.
Despite the fact that Mao barely can make his own ends meet, every time we were approached by beggars, he generously gave what he had. I’m so sad because I actually LOST all of his contact information. I had a plot to start a kickstarter campaign to help him buy a tuk tuk, but without contact information, I can’t. Please, if anyone is traveling to Siem Reap, especially if you are flying there, request Mao to be your driver at the airport (you can even present a picture of him, from the photos below). Just tell him Erica from Okay 1 Villa, sent you. I would love to stay in touch with him, and help him raise funds for a tuk tuk. I was truly humbled by Mao’s generous and curious spirit, and I hope that this post can help him find more work and put us back in touch.