Our Siem Reap Guide

March 8, 2009

in Angkor-Text

This site is inspired by our trip to Cambodia in December of 2008 and particularly by Ara, our Siem Reap Guide*

We met Ara an hour after we arrived in town while having lunch at Khmer Kitchen on Avenue 9.  She spent a couple days as our local guide and arranged for our tuk-tuk, for a licensed temple guide and showed us around her city. Ara has now started her own Siem Reap Travel Agency, so if you are planning to visit Siem Reap, you owe it to yourself to contact her and let Ara make all the arrangements for your stay.

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 threw 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 ten, Ara was taken in by a group of six Buddhist nuns who raised her in the pagodas until she was 16.

Ara’s life is full of dangers, Catch-22’s and contradictions.  Most of the other girls she grew up with on the streets have died of AIDS, drug abuse, or the other ravages of prostitution.  Young women (and girls) in Cambodia are frequently kidnapped and sold to human traffickers and poverty is so pervasive that families  sell their daughters into sex slavery.   Cambodia is a very traditional society with very few opportunities for women in business or “professional” trades because the assumption is that they will quit working to have children.  Ara says she does not date because no Cambodian man would want to marry a  women without a family and besides, as she puts it,  “who wants to marry a woman with no money and  six mothers.”

The amazing thing about Ara’s story is not the heart wrenching tragedy or the hardships she has witnessed and endured.  In America her story is the stuff of a Lifetime TV movie special— a voyeuristic portrayal of triumph over tragic circumstances and emotional suffering that leads to an unhappy life, ending with a Hollywood redemption, a box of tissues, and the complete suspension of disbelief.

The striking counterpoint to this Dickensian up bringing is that Ara is a happy, balanced and  grounded person.  She works two regular jobs plus whatever money she earns with tourists.  She arranges for licensed tour guides and tuk-tuk rentals, takes visitors to local stores and arranges any other activities tourists want.  One day every month she goes shopping and then walks for two hours deliver food other supplies to the nuns at the pagoda where she grew up; (the roads are too bad for a motorcycle).   Her dream is to own her own business by buying a couple of tuk-tuks and hiring some drivers (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 “looks and dresses like a man”).  Somehow, despite the fact that she has has been forced to struggle for everything she has, that she learned to read by standing outside the window of a classroom and lives in a country where all the rules are against her, Ara is happier with her life than many people who have everything we could possibly need available with a few strokes of the keyboard.

We were so moved by her and taken with her that we bought her a cell phone as a gift, in addition to paying her $20 a day for being our guide (she told us to pay her what ever we wanted).  The phone cost $50, which is more than a month’s rent in Siem Reap (including utilitites) and about what she earns each month working in the restaurant.   Combined, the a guide for two days cost us less than a dinner with drinks at a decent restaurant in the Bay Area and about half of what it cost us for a night in the Sokha Hotel where we splurged for three nights at what turned out to be the only five star hotel in Siem Reap.

*Note that Ara is not a “Temple Guide,” which is requires two years of college and a license that cost $1,200. All the licensed guides we saw were men.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Rahmi 03.18.09 at 1:15 am

Thanks for sharing. Yeah, allthe temple guides are men, except one that I know of. Would be nice to see some female guides at the temple.

Tamarind 01.12.10 at 6:43 pm

A nice story, well-written, well-put, I enjoyed reading through the whole paragraphs. I & my bf are planning to visit Cambodia next week (Jan 2010), and I have been browsing about Cambodia. It is nice blog here, and help us out a lot to get to know things about Cambodia (Espc. Siam Reap as we will be spending more time there). Thanks!

Joe 05.28.10 at 8:07 pm

I just got back from a one week holiday in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I contacted Ara my local tour guide through this website. Ara was great. She introduced me to everyone we ran into in town and made me feel right at home. She arranged for everything. From picking me up at the airport to taking me drinking around town. I had a local friend with me the whole time. In addition to her being an expert in temple history. She has a great personality and a very sweet demeanor. If you are heading to Siem Reap Ara is your girl. She can be contacted through this email address. Makaralon@yahoo.com

Sharynn 06.23.11 at 2:37 pm

I sort of came across this site in my research on a local guide for a coming holiday trip to Siem Reap. I believe what’s written here about Ara interested me enough that I have just e-mailed her. I’m looking forward to hearing from her soon.

Alfons Van Hoof 07.17.11 at 1:30 pm

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!
Regards,
Alfonso

kam 11.05.11 at 8:35 am

Sharynn – did you meet Ara?
I’m not quite sure what service I should ask about. I would like a guide with very good English skills to take me around the temple area including some of the less visited temples (I have 4 days there)

Maki 01.30.13 at 7:46 am

Thank you for introducing me to Ara. I just came back and had a great time in Siem Reap with help from Ara. She now had new email address, makaralon1lon1@yahoo.com. She also has facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/page/Makara-Travel/133195833512982. Please like her page to help her get more exposure.

Marion 10.03.16 at 12:44 pm

Ara is a great woman, great person and a great guide. Understood my needs as a tourist and helped me fulfill all the wants and doubts about life as a woman in Cambodia today. Will hopefully be back and request Ara to guide me again.
Marion

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