A date with an American-Cambodian tuk-tuk driver

Travel, for me, is not so much about ticking things off a list as ‘completed’, but the whole experience of being in an unfamiliar place. I enjoy meeting locals, learning about local culture and history. I love trying out local food as well as merely soaking in the surroundings.

Cambodia was a little challenging as I struggled to meet locals that spoke English. There were less than 3 people with whom I had a full conversation with. Most did not go beyond ‘tuk tuk’, ‘have you been to killing fields’, ‘please buy’. On a solo adventure in Phnom Penh, as I walked out of a café heading across to the Mekong River, I heard the usual, ‘would you like tuk tuk lady?’, I ignored this. I heard it coming from someone else and again, ignored it. I then heard ‘those are cool dreadlocks’. I looked up surprised, trying to find who had uttered those words. It was coming from a Cambodian-man driving his tuk tuk across the road. I lifted my head smiled, stopped and with a look of confusion, I said thanks. I guess he took this a cue that I was engaged and stopped his tuk tuk for a chat. He introduced himself as Klo, and explained that he had lived in the Bronx in the US for about 20years. He had just moved back to Cambodia four years prior. He also felt the need to mentioned that he had dated a black girl. That is why he was familiar with black hairstyles, including dreadlocks, braids, weaves. Perhaps my face was asking the questions my mouth felt were too impolite to articulate.

He invited me into his tuk tuk to sit and talk. The curious cat in me wanted to jump in, but the rest of my body screamed ‘stranger danger’. He picked up on this and assured me that it was a free chat and he would not take me anywhere. He then took the key out of the tuk tuk and placed it in his pocket. It was exciting to finally meet someone who could fill in the gaps in my understanding of this interesting country.

He spoke to me about the political system, which sounded like it was partly communism with hints of democracy. The country has a lot of Chinese and Russian influence. This is reflected by the Russian Market and Chinese buildings all over the city. He shared his frustrations about the country since his return. For example children begging with their parents in the streets, instead of being at school, the lack of a proper rubbish disposal system, monks who rip off tourists and locals by placing beads into their hands which they automatically had to pay for. Most shockingly, for me, was that there was an active sex trade that facilitates and provides minors to tourists who prefer ‘younger girls’.

As we sat and talked a couple of tourists were led to Klo by a local man. The tourists asked Klo what he had, his response was did not have anything but he could provide a translation. They wanted to buy marijuana. The guy that had brought them over then took them to sit in another tuk tuk to complete the transaction. Klo explained that many tourists come to this area to buy drugs. Many of the tuk tuk drivers on this strip would have a supply or could direct you to a person who does. He said that although it is illegal, people caught with the drugs are just given a slap on the wrist.

In spite of all the challenges that Cambodia has, he was happy to be in a place he felt he belonged. He shared about some of his challenges in the US which explained his longing to return to his motherland.

We sat there and talked for over 4hours straight. He then offered to take me around, off the tourist track the following day… I was admittedly intrigued. I had planned to go visit the Kings Palace after a cooking class at a local restaurant the following day. I however felt I I would get more from hanging out with Klo and so agreed to meet him. I waited for him at the restaurant after the cooking class. It felt like I was waiting on a date who was running late. I was nervous but hella excited at the same time. He eventually arrived, apologised for being late and we were off exploring.


Apart from the White Building, there was nothing else I had in mind therefore he worked out a route for us. The White Building was build in 1963 as a symbol of modernisation in Cambodia to house mid-income tenants. Tenants fled in the 1970s during the Cambodian Genocide. The building declined in value and status and became more synonymous with poverty, drug use and prostitution. It is derelict and unsafe in parts, therefore the government wanted to demolish and redevelop it. This has been protested by both locals and other foreign interests who say it is a reminder of their history. Klo, was not only surprised that I knew the place, but that I wanted to go there. I’d heard that there were many artists that had lived there and the walls were tattooed with graffiti and images full of colour and hope. He drove in front of the building where we also saw many make shift stalls. As we drove past without slowing down, I figured that we were not going to stop or go in. But I got to see the whole block up close.

We went to a local shopping mall. Then visited Diamond Island, so called, as it is a redeveloped area from a swamp to residential and commercial area. We drove to a building site of some luxury apartments under development. Less than 300m off the sites along the bank of the river were some boats where people lived. We walked down to the boats, bought some water and he told me how the settlement had come to be. Afterwards we continued to drive around to different parts of the city. I saw several government buildings and several abandoned housing.

Afterwards, he took me on a bit of a local food tour where he introduced me to different local street food. It was such a great afternoon, I did not realise how late it was. So he drove me back to my cousin’s. That experience is still in my top 5 Asian adventures of all time.

Comment below and let me know if you would you go on an adventure with a stranger to get deeper understanding of a location?

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