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.

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 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.

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.