Making Sense of Another World

A first impression of Phnom Penh for any newcomer will likely relate to the traffic.  Sitting at intersections beside trailers piled disproportionately high, their loads towering ludicrously into the sky, you may have fleeting images of death-by-crushing.  Ladders stand tall on seats of motos between the back of the driver and the front of the first passenger, who often has a paint pot hanging from the crook of an elbow and a third passenger behind.  Other ladders balance horizontally along the length of their moto.  Motos and moto-pulled trailers carry long rods of steel protruding into the surrounding traffic space, causing images of death-by-impalement.  None of these near-death visions are helped by the way that everyone weaves around each other, edging into crossroads slowly but persistently so that you are eventually in the middle of an intersection with traffic purring towards you from all directions.  It takes some experience to learn that it’s probably going to be okay and you’re probably going to make it across the intersection without incident.  At major junctions children, elderly women and disabled men wait at the centre barrier for lights to turn red before venturing out into the crowded vehicles to beg for a morsel, knocking on car windows or waiting hesitantly at tuk tuk steps.  Often they have chains of jasmine for sale or dusters made from chicken feathers fixed to a stick of wood, offering to dust car windows.  Many have nothing to sell, only mumbled words of begging.  Blind people busk along congested sidewalks, amputees sit at the same corners where naked and malnourished children play with loose bricks or dirt while scavenging parents rest beside their parked, hand-pulled wooden barrows on what must be a long, hot and dirty work day.

It’s all very interesting.  At the same time there is a harshness and injustice to it which many of us might only fleetingly consider before making our way again towards our comfortable lives.

Local elections are imminent and both major parties have been parading through the streets with megaphones blaring from tuk tuk roofs, crowds piled into trucks, pick ups, tuk tuks and trailers, party flags flying jubilantly.  According to Cambodia Daily, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who makes regular televised monologues of many hours long in parliament, said two days ago he was willing to “eliminate 100 or 200 people” to prevent his overthrow.  Smashing teeth, slitting throats, burning homes, references to war (far from trivial in a place still traumatised by years of violent war), imprisoning journalists and bloggers, are all a part of the rhetoric being reported, little of which appears to make news beyond Cambodia’s borders.

Yesterday I had a particularly grueling lesson in my ever-emerging comprehension of the “lot” of tuk tuk drivers.  During my 2015 year-long holiday I met a tuk tuk driver who I will call “TTM” (Tuk Tuk Madame), in a seaside resort town who showed me some sights and transported me around for a few days. During this interaction I learned that until recently TTM had worked at a shoe factory in Phnom Penh where he had to rent a room and buy food-for-one as well as budgeting to feed his wife and family separately.  The micro-salary was essential to his family’s survival but it came at some cost including the sacrifice which so many Cambodians make, of living away from a young family.  Sometime before I met him, he had resigned from the factory job and bought a tuk tuk and moto to generate income from home.  Reliant solely on paying customers, I knew even in 2015 that it was a hard gig.

Caz and I visited his town in March for a few days and since then we have had more contact, as I’ve returned again for a long weekend and he occasionally says hello on Messenger.  Last night it came as no surprise when he said hello out of the blue, until he shared a crying emoji.  I asked why he was sad and he slowly but determinedly told me in very broken, misspelled, almost indecipherable written English.  Slightly horrified and slightly cautious, I rang Samantha who agreed to call him and find out the detail for me.  A number of conversations later, by Messenger with him and telephone with Samantha, I had the full story, my caution demolished and my horror bolstered.

The purchase of his moto and tuk tuk had been made via a loan from a well-known, prevalent micro-finance company.  This particular company feature in my mind because when we were looking for ATMs in Siem Reap recently I was moved by Seth’s reference to them as “the PLC Bank”, highlighting the minimal cause he has had to ever notice financial institutions.  The ubiquity of such inexperience is highlighted by TTM’s need to use a micro-finance company, with extremely high interest rates, over a bank, because without a bank account there is no choice.  It is not viable if you earn a tiny amount of money, to have a bank account, as the fees can exceed your income.  In 2013 the World Bank reported that less than 4% of the Cambodian population had a bank account.  This makes people immediately susceptible to exploitation.

According to Investopedia the intention of micro-finance is to give low income people an opportunity for self sufficiency, most often associated with low-interest lending but some offer additional services such as bank accounts and information to increase financial literacy.  As with so many well-intentioned activities in unregulated nations such as Cambodia, micro-financing has been corrupted into an exploitative enterprise, offering loans to the very poor who have no other available options, at excessively high interest rates.

TTM took a loan of $2,000 to purchase his moto and tuk tuk, thinking that by being close to home (with less expenses), and in a resort town (with the chance of paying customers), he could pay the loan off over the contracted 20 months and be in a better financial situation than he was, working at a shoe factory.  With Samantha’s final phone call this morning I learned that he has been committed to $100 in principal repayments and $35 in interest repayments, every month since his venture began (ie 35% interest rate).  In a place where the monthly average income is about $90, this is a massive commitment which he has struggled to maintain.  He took an extra $500 loan last year to help relieve the repayment stress, but he remains $800 in debt.  When Samantha called me to explain she said “last month and this month is wet season and not so many tourist, and also is election season, so he cannot find customer so he cannot find money to pay back the loan”.  I asked her what election season had to do with it?  She replied “because when it is close for election Cambodian people are afraid of the war again, and we will not go anywhere and we will not spend any money because we might need it if the war happen.  If you ask all Cambodian people, maybe 80% of us think like this”.

With no customers, TTM has had no way of repaying the lending institution, who sent him a letter informing him that the tuk tuk would be repossessed in two weeks unless his repayments were honoured.  He photographed the letter and his repayment information and sent them to me this morning.  I forwarded them to Samantha for translation and she confirmed the loan, remaining balance, principal and interest amounts.  With the threat of losing the family’s only income-generating asset, TTM was desperate and I was his only connection to anything resembling possible assistance.  I did assist him a little and he has some time now, to try and earn enough to pay the rest of the loan.

Recently Caz and Rav both informed me that the hotels who have their own tuk tuk drivers, often in some sort of hotel uniform or numbered tuk tuk, charge these drivers a commission in order to be connected to their hotel.  Fees differ per hotel, but are usually between $400 and $1000 as a one-off payment.  Keen to earn a regular income, drivers will take loans to pay this fee in order to have a guaranteed income with exclusive access to a niche customer market.  Once connected, drivers are guaranteed a small daily stipend (smaller than most fares), regardless of whether they transport customers or not.  If you book into a hotel advertising a “free tuk tuk”, your driver is the one paying the price for your saving.

I hope that anyone thinking of visiting Cambodia who comes across this blog, can know one thing.  The fun and smiling, or humble and quiet character who calls “tuk tuk Madame” or “tuk tuk Sir” at you, is one of this country’s poor.  He probably has no education and he may well be struggling with debt.  His tuk tuk might be rented, reducing his revenue further.  Look at his moto, the upholstery of the seat you’re sitting on, the condition of the roof and floor of the carriage you’re riding in.  Ask him about his life.  While you need to pay a fair market price for the sake of the micro-economy you have entered, you also should not negotiate him down to an unlivable tariff and if there’s anything you can do to help him, maybe you would both benefit from the experience.  When you touch a tuk tuk in Cambodia, you are touching the essence of this nation’s austerity.