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.