The Magical Tale of Mr. Yen
He grew up in a village in Cambodia, and was working in the rice fields with his parents, making very little money and getting nowhere, so he decided to try his luck by moving to the city of Siem Reap to look for a job, which he found as a tuk tuk driver at the guesthouse where I was staying.
“I have a confession to make,” he told me, as we ate lunch on my day trip to Angkor Wat. “The reason I was late this morning to pick you up was because I was sleeping. I have a second job.”
He explained that his first job in Siem Reap is at a 5-star hotel, working in night security. But it doesn’t pay enough to live on ($60 a month), so he went looking for a second job, and after much searching and rejection (I know what that’s like!), he was tested driving a tuk tuk at the Okay Guesthouse, had to drive the owner and his family around, and then he was hired! I told him he’s persistent, and he was happy he learned a new word in English today.
What else I found out alarmed me. Dave, the guy in New Zealand who told me about this guesthouse, had also told me that the drivers, if hired through the hotel, only get about $2 of the $18 that the hotel charges to go to Angkor Wat for the day. So I asked him it this is true. He said he gets paid $60 a month at each job, and I said “So about $15 a week for each job?” He said yes, and I asked how many days a week he works. I was shocked when he said 7, no days off!! That’s about $2 a day, per job, and he works really long hours. Today it was 5:00am to almost 6 pm, just at the guesthouse job. Then he goes to his other job at either 8 or 10pm and works all night. That gives him about 2 to 4 hours a day to eat and sleep. No sleeping on the job allowed of course, there are security cameras.
At the other hotel, rooms go for $200-400 a night (mine was $23 at my guesthouse). He’s providing security at $2 a day for people who can afford a $400 a night hotel room. I asked him how much it costs to buy a tuk tuk and he said new, about $900, so he can’t afford his own, although he’s trying to save for one. For work, he uses the guesthouse tuk tuk. So a few night’s cost to stay at that other hotel could buy someone like him a brand new tuk tuk!
I first met Mr. Yen at the airport, where he greeted me with a sign with my name on it and a huge grin, to give me a ride to my guesthouse. He picked up my backpack, even though he’s smaller than I am, and had me follow him past the rows of cars to a tuk tuk, a sort of carriage attached to a motorcycle, where he helped me aboard and proceeded to skillfully navigate the crazy Siem Reap traffic.
I couldn’t figure it out – the road appeared to be one way, with a cement divider between us and the traffic going the other direction. However, sometimes, suddenly, traffic would appear coming head on on our side of the divide, usually something big, like a bus!
We made it safely, and when he offered to be my driver to Angkor Wat the next day, I remembered what my friend said, to hire the drivers outside the hotel, rather than book through the hotel, so the driver gets to keep all of the money. But when I asked Mr. Yen if I can do this, he said that he’s paid a salary by Okay Guesthouse, and would get in trouble doing it outside. So I hired him through the guesthouse.
He was an excellent driver, told me lots about the temples, and made sure I got to places either before or after the biggest crowds. When I treated him to lunch, he was delighted, and we shared stories of our families – his parents are still in the village working in the rice fields, and he tries to send them money when he can. That’s when I asked about his pay, and he confessed to being a little tired, and why. I’d noticed other tuk tuk drivers had hammocks that they’d hung in their vehicles to take a nap in while their customers climbed the ruins, and thought I might buy him a hammock.
Later, talking to my friend Beth in Michigan via FaceTime, I told her about Mr. Yen, and without thinking, I said, “If I had a job and the money right now, I’d buy him a tuk tuk. Then he could have his own business, quit the other jobs, work reasonable hours and keep all of the income.”
Without hesitation, Beth said, “Can I buy him a tuk tuk?” I was stunned. Was she serious? “Absolutely!” she told me. “If you can figure out how to do it, I will pay for it.”
And so began the quest to buy Mr. Yen his own tuk tuk.
It was a little trickier than I thought. First, I wondered if it was a good idea to interfere in someone’s life like that – would he use the money for what it was intended? Beth taught me a lesson in giving here – she said it’s a gift with no strings attached. If he decided to give the money to his family or spend the money some other way, that’s his choice. And I wondered if his sudden windfall would somehow make him a target for jealousy or other related problems.. But a woman I met while eating dinner that night, when I told her the story, said, “This is an opportunity to change someone’s life for the better. How can you not do it?!” I thought she was right, so I set off to figure out how to make this happen in the 3 days I had left in Siem Reap, as there was a fast approaching end in sight to my time here.
I didn’t want to tell Mr. Yen anything about it until I was sure we could pull it off. First, I did some research on line about tuk tuks and found out that yes, a new one costs about $900, but that didn’t include the motor cycle, which brought it up to more like $2000. When I told this to Beth, she said, “Then that’s what I shall give him.” But how to transfer the money? I have a small limit on my credit card, and my bank only allows a limited amount of funds removed each day. Is there a Western Union, Beth asked?
When I next saw Mr. Yen, I asked him a few questions. First, if he has a motorcycle. When he said no, and I asked how he gets to his jobs, he said he walks, or borrows a scooter from a friend. When I asked him what it costs to buy a motorcycle, he told me about $1100, which fit in with my research. So I told him that even though I don’t have a job or much money right now, I have a friend in America who wants to help him buy a tuk tuk so he can start his own business. The look on his face was priceless! He could’t believe it!
“Oh, thank you, thank you!!” he said, hugging me, then getting down on his knees. I was a little embarrassed, that was totally unnecessary. “You have changed my life!!” he went on. Then suddenly, he stopped. “But your friend, she doesn’t know me, has never met me…” and I explained that I told her about his situation, and that she trusts me, and wants to help him. His exuberance reappeared instantly.
“But we need to figure out how to get the money from America to here,” I told him, and asked about Western Union. He didn’t know about that, but said he has a savings account, where he’s managed to save $300 towards buying a tuk tuk, and she could maybe transfer the money to his account. So he took me to his bank, where the manager printed out a form with all of the account information on it, and told me to take it back to the states with me to my bank. When I explained I wasn’t going back just yet, and it was my friend sending the money, he said I could take a picture of the form with my phone and email it to Beth back in Michigan. Sometimes technology amazes me. “It might take 2-5 days to go through,” the bank clerk told us.
The next 2 days, Mr. Yen was gone. His grandfather had fallen ill, and he needed to help his parents get him to the hospital. On my last day in Siem Reap, I asked the guesthouse if I could hire him for a couple of hours to run some errands – go to my ATM to get money to pay my guesthouse bill (they only take cash), check out the local temple, and so on. When Mr. Yen appeared, I explained my errands, and also said, if he’d like, we could go to his bank to see if the money went through yet, and then go tuk tuk shopping!
He was thrilled! And even more so when we discovered that the money did indeed arrive, and he saw the amount. I hadn’t told him that Beth was sending $2000, instead of $900, so that he could buy a motorcycle as well as a tuk tuk, and still have the $300 he’d saved to go towards license, registration, and a helmet of his own.
I said now he can quit his jobs, have his own business, and have time to sleep! He said, “And I can go back to school!” I asked what he wanted to go to school for, and he said to speak better English.
Then we headed out to look at tuk tuks! At first, I wondered where he was taking me, as instead of driving to the highway filled with big stores and showrooms, he took me down a rutted dirt alleyway lined with shacks. Until I saw one particularly big shack, and I understood…
…we were at the place where they make the tuk tuks!
I got to see how they were constructed, from pieces of metal and wood cut out and pounded, glued, and welded together. The friendly guys waved and smiled as they sawed and hammered and shot sparks.
After that, we went to a tuk tuk sales lot, and I asked if he would buy one already made, or order one. He said he would have one made to order because, “I like the traditional style, and the color of the sky, blue!” Most of the ones on the lot were black, and a little more contemporary, definitely not as pretty as Mr. Yen’s will be.
We also stopped at the motorcycle dealer, where tons of sleek bikes stood in rows. “The Hondas are more expensive, but are the best, as they will pull more weight, and won’t wear out after a couple of years,” he told me.
The next day, he drove me to the airport, and as we hugged goodbye, he told me he will paint Beth’s and my names on his tuk tuk and send us photos. He has an old phone, and no camera, but said he’ll try to find someone to take pictures.
He has since emailed both Beth and I to thank us for our kindness, and later, to say that he has ordered his tuk tuk (they can take 20 days to make) and will quit at least one of his jobs when it is finished. I hope to see his tuk tuk, but even if those photos never arrive, it feels good to have helped someone along my journey, and I wish him much success in life. He is only 22, and now has the opportunity for a brighter future, where he can work hard, but also get some sleep, help his family, and perhaps one day have a family of his own. Thank you Beth, for making all of this possible!!
*Note: Mr. Yen is the name I was given at the guest house, and the name on their tuk tuk. His actual name is a little different, and longer, but for the sake of privacy I have left it as Mr. Yen. If or when those pictures come in, I will add them to this post!
**Mr. Yen did get his tuk tuk, and as promised, sent us pictures. It is blue like the sky.