Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Kindness of a Stranger

Vanna was my tuk tuk driver in Siem Reap. Some days he was also my guide.  I met him at the hotel where I was staying which employs him to stand by and be available for the hotel’s guests for a minimum wage. He speaks some English. I thought we understood each other well. He drove me all over Siem Reap and all the way to the port at Chong Kneas. There had been heavy flooding in the villages and rice paddies near Tonlé Sap Lake and the roads were washed out in many places. Our tuk tuk was jumping up and down as it crossed potholes along the way. At one point we got stuck in the red mud. Vanna had to wade in the mud to free the tuk tuk. On our way back to town it rained heavily. The driver’s seat is up front and it has no overhead cover so Vanna was drenched but for the raincoat he had thoughtfully bought from one of the stalls at the foot of Phnom Krohm.

Vanna and his tuk tuk

One day I asked him to come and pick me up before dawn so I could see the famous sunrise at Angkor Wat. We were on our way to the temple by 5 a.m. I was surprised at how cool it was considering day temperatures hovering at around 98°F. I was worried about my three-day pass which had expired the day before when Vanna took me for a climb up to Phnom Krohm. I wasn’t planning to enter Angkor Wat. I only wanted to sit outside by the first causeway to watch the sunrise. But everyone going to the Angkor complex must pass through the ticket office where they check the validity of the visitors’ passes. Vanna explained to the inspector, on my behalf, what I was planning to do. The inspector called his supervisor to consult with him about my expired pass. Vanna had to explain again to the supervisor that I wasn’t entering the temple grounds. After much deliberation, I was allowed to go to Angkor Wat, thanks to Vanna’s negotiating skills. Vanna waited patiently for me until the sun was high in the horizon and I was happy with the photos I took.

Vanna asked the monks at Phnom Krom if we
could take their photo with the neighborhood kids
(I was too shy to join the group though they asked me to)

The following day we went farther afield with my tour guide, Mr. Singh, to Banteay Srei. I had brought with me some water and soda for us to drink while sightseeing. This is really a must as it is so hot and humid in Siem Reap in late October. To my surprise, Vanna had brought not only water and assorted beverages; he had also thoughtfully brought a cooler to keep our drinks cold. I couldn’t thank him enough. On our way he pointed out to me where his family lived. We had talked about his wife and son while climbing up the hill to Phnom Krohm. It was a nice gesture on his part to show me where they lived. Then we stopped at a roadside stall near his house to buy gasoline, more drinks and ice. He paid for everything with his own money.

Roadside food stall and gasoline station
(the gasoline is inside the plastic Pepsi bottles)

On my last day I asked Vanna to pick me up early so we could do some sightseeing before dropping me off at the airport. He had a couple of really terrific ideas about what I should see. Our first stop was Wat Thmey. It was here where I saw all the skulls that were picked up from the killing fields around Siem Reap, victims of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. Then we went to the “Queen’s Temple”, as Vanna called this place. It was out of the tourist loop and not mentioned in my guidebook. I love the idea that this site was dedicated to a woman.  As such, it is unique among all the other temples in Siem Reap.

Queen's Temple grounds

Vanna had previously told me that he wanted to give me a present for giving him a job during my stay in Siem Reap. I told him it wasn’t necessary, that I appreciated all he did to make my stay memorable and special. I also had a small piece of luggage and didn’t think I had space for his gift. And I was worried that I would be stopped at Customs for my unusual souvenir.  Vanna insisted that I take the gift with me. He took my backpack and found space for it there. His gift, a drum, was made by his brother with his help. He told me not to worry if Customs took it away from me as long as I accepted it from him. Here’s the beautiful drum he gave me.

Vanna's gift to me

The drum has a snakeskin pad. The wood is beautifully polished. And personally crafted by Vanna's family. What a lovely gift! I had no problems getting through Customs. Thank goodness.

I have beautiful memories of Siem Reap. The people were friendly and candid. They would come up to me and make conversation and before I knew it, they were telling me the story of their life, their plans, their dreams. I’d like to go back to Siem Reap again, if only to see Vanna once more.

“One of the great things about travel is that you find out how many good, kind people there are.” — Edith Wharton

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Images by Charie

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