This post isn’t about SEO, so skip it unless you are interested in something personal.
Over winter break last year, my wife and I visited Siem Reap. Cambodia has a tragic history, but the Angkor Temples are magical places with a 1000 year old history carved in stone. It is something that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.
The most striking thing about our trip was not the temples, it was the Cambodian people. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries on earth and you be face to face with swarms of street kids, mine victims and more than a small amount of tragedy. Like any tourist destination, the locals are skilled at working westerners for money, but beyond the obvious hustle, Cambodians are friendly, happy people who seem genuine and warm to foreigners.
Barely an hour after we arrived, we struck up a conversation with a local woman named Ara while we had lunch. She was our hostess at the Khmer Kitchen Restaurant located on Avenue 9. We started chatting with her about the places to see and where to get a guide, arrange a Tuk-Tuk, etc. She offered to set us up with a guide and a driver as well as accompany us to help translate (although many Cambodians speak at least some English). I am not naive, I know that she makes a commission from both the guide and the driver, but that is a small price to pay for having a human recommendation instead of asking our hotel to arrange it for us (and paying more, and knowing the hotel also gets a commission).
Over the course of two days riding from temple to temple in a Tuk-Tuk, we heard Ara’s incredible life story. She was born in 1984, only a couple years after the Vietnamese over through the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. She was abandoned in the hospital at birth, presumably her mother was a “Taxi Girl” and and her father could have been a Vietnamese soldier, a foreign aid worker or a local.
She lived in the hospital until she was three years old, at which point she was essentially kicked out on the street to join the legions of orphans who survived by a combination of begging, selling postcards and books to the occasional tourists and stealing so they would have food to eat. When she turned 10, Ara was taken in by a group of Buddhist Nuns, who raised her until she was 16.
Ara’s life is full of dangers, catch-22’s and contradictions. All of the other girls who she grew up with have died of AIDS, drug abuse or the other consequences of prostitution. Young women (and girls) are frequently kidnapped by human traffickers and poverty is so pervasive that families also sell their daughters into sex slavery. Cambodia is a very traditional society, so there are still very few opportunities for women in business. She doesn’t date because men are looking for women with family status and besides, as she puts it, “who wants to marry a women with no money and wind up with six mother in laws”.
The amazing thing about Ara’s story is not the heart wrenching tragedy or the suffering this young woman has both witnessed and endured. In America her story is the stuff of a lifetime movie special; a voyeuristic portrayal of tragic circumstances and emotive suffering that leads to an unhappy life, followed by the redemption of a Hollywood ending that requires a box of tissues and the complete suspension of disbelief.
In real life, Ara is a happy person. She works three jobs on top of whatever money she earns as an ambassador to tourists. She happily arranges for official tour guides and Tuk-Tuk rentals, takes visitors to local stores and arranges any other activities tourists are looking for. Every month she walks for two hours to carry supplies to the Pagoda she grew up in (the roads are too bad for a motorcycle). Her dream is to own a couple of Tuk-Tuks so she has her own business (of course, she doesn’t want to be a Tuk-Tuk driver, because there is only one female driver in all of Siem Reap and Ara thinks she is “looks and dresses like a man”). She aspires to essential save up enough for an investment of about $2,000 and is content to work three jobs to get it.
We were so moved by her and taken with her that we decided to buy her a cell phone as a gift, in addition to paying her $20 a day for being our guide. The phone cost $50, which is more than a months rent and about what Ara would earn working in the restaurant for a month. Combined, the whole thing cost us less than a dinner with drinks at a decent restaurant in the bay area and about half of what is costs us for a night in the Sokha Hotel (we splurged for three nights at what turned out to be the only five star hotel in Siem Reap).
Hopefully the phone will make it easier for her to get business arranging tours for foreigners. Note that Ara is not a “Tour Guide”, which is reserved for men and requires two years of college and a license that cost $1,200. If you are going to visit Siem Reap to tour the Angkor Temples, be sure to email Ara, Makaralon@ yahoo.com and let her be your Cambodian Hostess.
What a great story, thanks for taking a break to tap into the world.
Great story. Way to encourage others to get to know Ara. -Buddy
I just got back from Cambodia. Through this website I was able to connect with Ara who picked me up at the airport in Siem Reap and arranged for everything during my stay. Siem Reap is a small town just south of the temple area. Ara introduced me to all of her friends and made me feel like a temporary expat. She is an expert in the history of the temples and a great all around young lady. I would highly recommend her as your guide. Her email is listed above.
Jonah Stein says
I am delighted that you found the site helpful and particularly happy that Ara was able to assist you. We had a wonderful time in Siem Reap. Please contact me if you would like to write up a post about you visit.
Alfons Van Hoof says
You’re right. Ara is just great.
I just returned from Siem Reap, where I spent almost one month from mid-May to mid-June.
While preparing for the trip, I read this blog and wrote to Ara. The day after my arrival I met her, and she was my personal guide and assistant for the entire time. She’s a great person and her knowledge is just invaluable. To give you just one example: the first week (when I was working over the internet from the guest house), she a huge straw archery target for me. Cost her multiple trips in the countryside to follow up on the progress, even while she wasn’t too sure about what I really needed. But the target was delivered on time and of very good quality. She really knows to ‘think out of the box’.
During each weekend we toured the temples, aided by a regular tuk-tuk driver, who is now working most of the time for Ara. She knows the temples in and out. I also introduced here to ‘geocaching’. Took us a while to find a cache (many of them have just disappeared) and it was great to see her happiness when, at our third try, she discovered her first cache.
On weekdays I was mostly working, but nearly every evening Ara joined me for dinner, and quite often we went together for a body massage too. I also took her out one time to the Paul Dubrule Hotel School for a gastronomical lunch. And we had some great time visiting the nearby Cultural Village too.
Meanwhile she has given up on all but one of the odd little jobs to keep alive. She is still working as housemaid/nanny for a local family. Basically she takes care of the house whenever she has time, and is due back by 10 or 10.30 pm to guard the children, and bring them to school early morning. This gives here a secured place to live, as well as all the freedom she needs to cater for her customers visiting Angkor.
To provide here with some financial security, particularly during the low season, I have promised her some monthly financial support for the next 12 months, and at the same time I’m helping here to get her started with a ‘real’ travel agency.
I made her open a bank account, and arranged for a Moneybookers account too. Both are now in operation. Next step, I’m trying to build her a website (www.makaratravels.com) – still writing on that, but the basic framework should be up and running in a couple of weeks – so there’s something more tangible to promote. I know very well that ‘having’ a website is only a first step, but hope to use it to spread the word and do some marketing on it. If I’m lucky I’ll go back to Siem Reap by the end of this year and give her some more ‘on the grounds’ support to bring it all to the next stage. I really wish to see her getting on her own feet and making enough money running her travel business. I have some experience in this field (running a part-time motorcycle tours business in Sri Lanka), have a bit of free time to spend (I’m now mainly working freelance as a translator), and in future may start dividing my time between Cambodia and Sri Lanka to help her grow the business.
So, all of you who have met Ara in the past, and enjoyed having her as a guide, please help me spread the word. I’m sure you would be equally delighted to see her blossoming and realizing her dreams!