Planes, Tuk-Tuks, and Bikes

Arrival to Cambodia was less of a hassle than I had imagined. All, the finals, graduation, my parents visit, and an upcoming move, didn’t leave me any time to apply for a Cambodian visa. Knowing that one can get a visa right at the border made our visas a low priority. On the flight from Seoul to Siem Reap, we were given visa applications requiring a photo which I didn’t have. So I started devising a plan for negotiations with the border control. Reading and hearing about no-so positive state of Cambodia I lowered my expectations and was determined to enjoy my summer experience no matter what. The first scene at the airport made me hopeful and thankful of not having to deal and negotiate with the Cambodian passport control. A visa production line was extremely efficient (I’m sure Prof. Shri would approve it): 1 man was taking applications, another was taking money, a few others were masterfully stamping visas, and my name was called within a min. Paying an additional dollar for not having a picture seemed like an excellent deal.

My colleague, Anna, met us (my husband and I) at the airport and we found a local taxi, what I learned was a TUK-TUK. It is basically a modern coach with a motorbike instead of a horse, a cheap (($1.5-2) and very popular way to get around the town. Pleasant night breeze and unusual taxi felt very welcoming – “Cambodia will be great” I told my husband as we continued our ride to a hotel. Next day, not even 5 min passed since we started our walk I received around 20 solicitations from Tuk-Tuk drivers who lined up along the road promising to take me to any place in Siem Reap and if I didn’t wanted it today, they offered booking them for the next day. Their determination and confidence that they can get your business only if they keep asking and following you still amazes me. It is quite a competitive business especially during the low season.

Back in my home country, Kazakhstan, people drive horribly (many just buy a license) and multiple accidents per day in Almaty serve as prove to the statement. What I saw in Cambodia completely blew my mind. Cars, tuk-tuks, bases, motos, bikes all are moving into different directions and often times a direction opposite to the flow. The first day I couldn’t really understand what was going on, as our tuk-tuk driver was maneuvering around other vehicles. It just didn’t make sense. However, such chaotic motion still had some logic behind it and I am getting used to it, while still have hard time understanding why people prefer to drive in between two lanes. Getting around in tuk-tuks is fun but costly to do it everyday and everywhere. Walking on the other hand is feasible, but too hot and takes time. So, we headed to a market to pick up bikes. Refurbished Japanese bikes are plentiful and quite affordable. $70 dollars later we were riding along the streets of Siem Reap. OK, I know how to ride a bike even if my last time doing it was 17 years ago, though the traffic was freaking me out, especially those guys choosing to ride directly at me. Do i go around them to the right or to the left? Can they see me? My confusion was freaking out other people on the road (and rightly so); a few times I had to break fast stopping basically head to head with motos. It was really frustrating the first few times, now I pose less danger on the road and just go with the flow. If you want to take a left turn, it is better to get on the other side of the road before the turn (going against the traffic for a few moments, then gradually merge to your lane. Given the low speed and niceness of Cambodians, people slow down if they see I need to get get over, so it all works out. The lack of traffic lights in Siem Reap ( i counted 4) leave it to a driver to figure out who has a right of way, so being on the look out is extremely important.

Motorbikes are definitely the most popular transport. Seemingly small, they manage to transport whole families. I once counted 6 people on one moto including 3 kids between ages 1-5. Something tells me that safety is not among the highest priorities for most Cambodians, but again – safety is privilege.

For the past two weeks we already did a fair share of traveling outside of Siem Reap (went to a Thai border and Phnom Penh)and I got to experience the outside of town traffic. It is a completely different beast. Not that it is busy, but traveling speeds are considerably higher than in the city, though the logic of driving is same. All of that makes you really hold on for your life. From what I saw, country highways are two way roads with only one lane for each direction. I have been impressed by the quality of main roads in Cambodia, may be some of the international development money were put to a good use (all the corruption aside). Though outside of 3 main roads, it is pretty challenging to reach most locations.If a road is clear from the opposite direction, drivers choose to drive in the left lane until the incoming traffic gets REALLY close, or between the lanes. People who travel by motobikes or bikes get really pressed to the side of the road and often get almost ran off the road. The use of horns is quite a norm and a way of communicating between the drivers. Our van driver on the way to Phnom Penh didn’t let the horn go even for a second until it got dark and then he switched to headlights signaling. After dark driving gets even more fun, as not all vehicles have properly functioning lights oftentimes they are buses and trucks. In that case, it is easier to misjudge the size of a vehicle coming right at you. So far, our drivers delivered us to our destination in one piece, but every time I wonder if we make it with no accidents
More travel is awaiting us. This long weekend when all Cambodians are celebrating the Queen’s birthday, we are heading to a former french-colonial town, Battambang, about 3 hours away.

Cambodia – the beginning

I anticipated this tripĀ  for the past 6-7 months, since I heard about the opportunity at the Gigot Center at Notre Dame offering a social internship with one of the partner organizations in multiple countries (South Africa, Cambodia, Haiti, Kenya, and Jamaica). A few of my classmates had an amazing experience last summer, and I thought it could be a great way to finish my Notre Dame MBA adventure.

It is my second week in Cambodia, and so far my stay has been full of interesting experiences, extensive travel, and gradual adjustment. Hence, my well overdue fist post. My main purpose for the trip is to help a Cambodian-American social enterprise, PEPY Tours, discover and design a new business segment and revise and structure the company’s internal policies. It is not an impossible task for an MBA and I am excited and eager to help, though I suspect I also have a great deal to learn from PEPY, Cambodia, and its people during my short 10 week stay. PEPY has a very interesting, yet not an uncommon story. It started when back in 2006 an ND grad went on a bike tour across Cambodia to fund-raise money to build a school, solve a problem of poor/insufficient education in Cambodia, and continue saving the world. Since then, the organization went through a series of metamorphoses: from building schools and offering volunteer trips to building teachers’ capacity, empowering and supporting Cambodian youth, and offering educational adventures tours while strongly advocating for responsible tourism. During the past 6 years PEPY greatly matured and became two organizations: an NGO (supporting education), and a social enterprise (tour operator that inspires responsible travel). I am working with a for-profit arm of PEPY, a very inspiring and enthusiastic group of people.

I’m stationed in Siem Reap, the most visited town by tourists due to Angkor Wat, the biggest religious monument and so-called the 8th Wonder of the World. Fortunately for me, it is a low&wet season, and the town is not overflown with thousands of tourists who usually stay no more than 2 days in Siem Reap. I have to admit I was ready to a much more rural and less developed (in a western sense) environment. It still has only a few main streets and can be crossed over in less than 20 min, and a 2 min bike ride from my office reveals more common rural sites. Riddled with budgets guest houses and 4-5 star hotels, Siem Reap is not only a mecca for tourists but also for hundreds of international NGOs who collectively are trying to make Cambodia a better place to live. The question however is for who? The expat community in Cambodia lives quite comfortably, saving the world, opening new businesses, and enjoying low-cost luxuries (posh restaurants. trendy cafes, and spacious housing) that are not affordable to the Cambodian population. Everything in this town is geared for tourists and westerners, and while it is true that it creates more local jobs, the money doesn’t stay in the region making it one of the poorest provinces in the country. Cambodians understand this trend, a young waiter in our guest house who is a university student studying English shared with us his dream of opening a nice restaurant in Siem Reap serving foreigners. I can’t complain much, my student budget is sufficient to enjoy the summer and explore the country. However, I am trying to be more cognizant to support locally owned businesses – an already noticeable influence on me by PEPY Tours’ strong advocacy for responsible tourism. I greatly enjoy my Khmer food (it deserves a separate post) lunches in a local cafe around the corner from our office and we live in a Cambodian family owned guest house.

More posts to come soon!