Conversations with a Motorbike Driver showed me more about Cambodian Culture….
As I sat in this open-air, garage-like structure with lawn chairs, I knew I was “not in Kansas anymore.” Despite being technically outside, cigarette smoke filled the air. Just a few feet away there was a group of men loudly playing some sort of game. Or maybe gambling. Who knows. But I wasn’t about to stare in curiosity to figure it out.
When my driver asked if I wanted to stop to get coffee, this wasn’t what I imagined. I envisioned proper tables. And actual coffee, not some strange ice-tea concoction. (When I say “actual coffee” I mean instant Nescafe. I would never get my hopes so high and expect an espresso or cappuccino maker in the Cambodian countryside.) Maybe if I was so lucky there would even be snacks or bottled water available.
But instead I found myself here, sitting on a lawn chair, sipping my ice-tea/coffee concoction beverage. My eyes were glued to the two televisions sitting right in front of me. One blasted Cambodian music videos. Per usual, the videos featured very over dramatic plot lines. The other TV played some Chinese film that appeared to take place in ancient times. There was English subtitles, for better or for worse. From what I saw, the film was very depressing. It involved a ghost haunting a man whose wife could not conceive a child. Great.
And beyond this unconventional coffeeshop scene, I was not just the only foreigner, I was also the only woman. Even better. The only other girls in the vicinity were “waitresses” if that’s what they should be called, I am not sure. They simply brought over this tea-drink along with cups of ice and fresh packs of cigarettes for the men. But somehow, by the grace of God, this random coffee shop slash smoke-den had WiFi. So I was able to nervously WhatsApp my best friend. Unfortunately in the US it was at 3:30 AM. Meaning no one was awake. So I was left to experience this intense culture shock without a hand to hold. Maybe in hindsight, it was better this way.
On the whole, spending two days with a Cambodian motorbike driver in Kampot showed me how little I actually know about Cambodian culture, despite seeing every war museum, the Angkor Wat, and several day trips to the countryside.
Conversations with my driver showed me a layer of Cambodia I had not seen before. Perhaps even more it showed me aspects of my own American culture and personal beliefs I had not realized before; such as, believing the foundation to everything is oneself. More specifically, loving and appreciating yourself as the basis of functioning relationships with all people one comes in contact with.
Meetings and Musings
“I don’t want to do the tour because I don’t like people,” I explained to the poor guy working at the tourist office by the river in downtown Kampot, a southern provincial capital in Cambodia.
I was trying to arrange a private tour. Or a personal driver. Or a tuk-tuk. Any alternative means of transportation. I didn’t want to go on the tour advertised all over Kampot at all the tourist offices. The thought of being carted up the 34 kilometer high Bokor Mountain in a stuffy mini van sounds like hell. And to go “trekking” to a waterfall afterwards? No thank you.
Tours can be okay, but I knew in this instance I would not be so happy. From what I had read online, the tours up Bokor mountain were so inexpensive because there is lots of competition between the local companies. Basically, they try to “trap” you into an all day tour so you don’t spend money at any of the other competing companies. All the tours include “lunch”, a “waterfall trek” and a “boat cruise” — which basically locks you in for a day.
On the contrary, I wanted to be free. I wanted to go to the top of the mountain, where an abandoned casino and church rest, and be able to stay as long as I pleased. The trip itself should not take a day — it’s only an hour ride one way on a motorbike. Plus, I personally was not interested in the waterfall trek (it was dry season, so the waterfall was apparently nonexistent). Nor interested in any kind of “dinner cruise” where I would be confined to a boat and forced to overpay for food and alcohol.
In any case, back at the tourist office, I suddenly heard out of nowhere from behind, in near perfect English, “Why don’t you ride a motorbike?”
I whipped my head around and saw a gangly Cambodian guy standing. He appeared to be around my age, but looked sort of goofy. He wore purple shorts and a polka dot button down shirt. He also had big Ray-Ban-like sunglasses hanging off his little face.
Nonetheless, the suggestion of me driving up Bokor Mountain on a motorbike was laughable. For starters, I never rode a motorbike in my life. After hearing and witnessing so many crashes in Southeast Asia, the thought of driving myself was terrifying. And if I were to get so gutsy one day and decide to try it out, I would not choose riding up the windy Bokor Mountain as my maiden voyage.
So I laughed. “No, no, no,” I insisted, “I don’t drive. I want a driver.”
“No, no, no,” he continued, “I would take you.”
The thought was somewhat appealing. Nevertheless, I was not so sure I trusted this guy with my precious life in his hands. Motorbikes in general are very dangerous. As Australian Dept of Foreign Affairs points to, “Each year nearly 400,000 people under 25 die on the world’s roads; on average more than 1000 a day. Most of these deaths occur among vulnerable road users (pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists) and those using public transport.” (WHO study)
For anyone who has travelled in Southeast Asia, seeing other foreigners with bumps and casts from motorcycle accidents is very common. And yes, hearing stories of death happens, too. To me, it’s a very sobering reality that I don’t think enough people take seriously. Anyways, it is one of the reasons why I never rode a motorbike myself and practice caution in many situations — like going up a huge mountain on motorbike.
So, I continued to insist that I would feel safer in a car. From what I read, the road to get to the top is bumpy and windy. (Turns out: the road is windy, but has been recently paved to make it more accessible for tourists.)
After hearing the price quote for a personal driver, it made much more sense financially to go with this young guy on motorbike. It would be $20 USD, so half the price of the private car. And truthfully not all that more than this dreaded tour I was dying to avoid (priced at $15 USD).
Still, I was not sold. What if he was a horrible driver? And all these other “what if” questions popped into my head. I have to admit, I can sometimes be a nervous Nancy.
So I agreed he could take me that very day to a few other sights I wanted to check out around town. Then, if I thought the driving was okay, the following day (Saturday) he could drive me up Bokor Mountain.
Little did I know this agreement was the start of an amazing, adventurous and culturally awakening weekend in Kampot.
I guess you could label me as “adventurous” or as a “risk-taker.” But there are two main cardinal rules I follow– especially as a young woman traveling alone. The first is that, by and large, I am always back to my hotel/place of stay by the time the sun sets. This, of course, depends on the city/country. Like in Ubud (Bali) I felt very safe and maybe was out a tad later than normal. But then in Jakarta, unless I was being dropped at my doorstep by taxi, I would never dare be out on a street when it was dark outside.
Another major rule I follow when traveling is not drinking alcohol. Of course, this has its exceptions. For instance, if I am with people I know and/or trust. Or if I am treating myself to a nice meal and would like a glass of wine. But two “rules” I always follow with alcohol when traveling: no hard liquor (only beer and wine) and never, ever, EVER drink enough to become intoxicated in anyway that could deter better judgement. Also, people can tell if you have been drinking.
Nevertheless, during the day I usually exercise a bit less caution. Especially in a tourist-friendly city like Kampot. Of course I always hold onto my purse and never venture down any abandoned alleyways– but that’s just common sense.
The driver’s name was Sefey. And from initial exchanges, I felt like he was a trustworthy person. He didn’t ask any obscure questions that raised any red flags. Plus, he was basically half my size. I know that doesn’t mean anything, but the fact my arms were bigger than his made me feel a bit more secure.
Sefey lived with his family still right in the downtown area of Kampot. This was actually just a block away from my hotel.
I know this because we first stopped at his place so he could unhitch the tuk-tuk attached to the back of the motorbike. Off the bat I noticed that, for a tuk-tuk driver, the house he lived in was quite nice. It was right in the quaint touristy riverside areaVery quickly I picked up on Sefey’s sarcastic sense of humor as we weaved through the countryside to get to this little fisherman area called Try Koh (aka Shore Island). This was a part of Kampot even he, who had grown up here, had never seen.
As we made our way, Sefey kept pretending to veer off the side of the road. It was a jab at me because I had been so reluctant to get on the motorbike with him. Perhaps it sounds frightening to be on the back of a bike with a guy who is pretending to swerve off the road. But on the contrary I find this dark kind of sarcasm absolutely hilarious. I loved that he was ragging on me. It was funny because clearly he knew how to drive a motorbike well; Sefey, like many other people in Cambodia, began learning to drive a motorbike when he was 8 years old. So, he has had about twenty years driving experience when you think about it. After Shore Island, we then ventured down the main Kampot River. We stopped at a spot past the zoo, which had a little market.
On the whole, it was a fantastic Friday afternoon. Actually, one of the best days I have had on this trip so far. I guess it’s easy to get swept away when one is riding on the back of a motorbike through gorgeous fields and Cambodian countryside.
Feeling safe with his driving, Sefey took me to the top of Bokor the following day. The roads were not as bad as I imagined. But the top was as ghostly as I had read. After lunch and coffee, we went to the Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple.
But it was our conversations, not all the adventurous sightseeing, that stood out to me. I guess sitting on the back of motorbike for hours on end allows for conversation. Plus Sefey’s English was very good, making it easy to converse.
From the beginning, I thought Sefey and I had pretty many things in common. He laughed at my jokes and I laughed at his. Sefey also had a fair amount of Western acquaintances and friends, so he was pretty familiar with pop culture trends. Even something trivial like Instagram can apparently bring people together. He also enjoyed Western movies. Sure, maybe I don’t like Rambo, but it was something I could at least relate to. But by the time Saturday evening rolled around, these points of similarity seemed meaningless when I realized the immense differences between Sefey and I.
After the long day we stopped for dinner at a local Khmer-style place. This “restaurant” in itself was uncomfortable. We had to sit on the floor of a little straw thatched hut. Sitting on the ground and eating food is just awkward for me, I guess as a Westerner. Plus, the open-air hut left tons of mosquitoes, ants and otherwise to swarm around as I tried to enjoy the meal. However, the food itself was delicious.
From the get-go I noticed subtle similarities between Sefy and I: such as, a similar sense of sarcastic humor and we both have newer Android smart phones. To a certain degree we even dressed alike. For instance, on this day he was wearing jeans, brown-colored sneakers and a button-down plaid flannel shirt. I was also wearing jeans and light brown sneakers. However, rather than a flannel I wore a simple green tank top. Sefey also knew English so well, you know, like me (obviously).
But I began to unearth these insane contrasts. For instance, he didn’t want to settle down till age 35 or older. On the contrary, I told Sefey how I wanted kids and I wanted them soon. Sefey then explained how he loved his freedom and didn’t want to set roots till later. This sounds a lot like some people I know in the US. But when I asked why and heard his response, I was shocked: he called himself too lazy and stupid to get a wife right now. Sefey knew English quite well. Still, maybe the way he intended to use these harsh words was not so harsh as it sounded. Nevertheless, he was certainly being negative towards himself.
And these negative words made me cringe. I rolled over inside a hundred times when he said these things. I even questioned how we had gotten along so well before this. The “lazy” and “stupid” comments especially made it seem like we had absolutely nothing in common.
After we finished dinner, we then headed to a nearby karaoke place. This was also somewhat of culture shock for me, but to a far lesser extent. (There were actually tables, so I was happy.) Over beers I gave him the rundown of my five-ten year plan: find relatively stable career/vocation, ideally get married between ages 26-28, have my first child before turning 30, the second before I turn 33 and buy a house by the time the kid are school-aged.
Saying it out loud made me realize how clear-cut my focus is. Maybe it is my personality type. Or maybe it is because I am an American and have been cultured to think this way. Perhaps it is because I am a woman and in the back of my head my biological clock is ticking away—forget dream weddings and houses, I think about what state on the East Coast has the best public school systems for my future children.
Maybe it is a confluence of all these things that makes my thinking so different than his.
Hearing Sefey call himself “lazy “and “stupid” infuriated me. I think one of the most fundamental things in life is loving yourself. In order to be successful in whatever one wants to pursue, one must be proud of what they do and grateful for their accomplishments. Moreover, I genuinely believe one must love and appreciate themselves to ensure a healthy relationship with others: partners, family, friends and even professional relationships. It’s just so important, at least in my mind.
But as we sat outside and drank Angkor beer with ice, I realized all these thoughts were probably so American. Maybe in Cambodia the idea of loving yourself and being content with who you are as a foundation for success does not really exist. Perhaps it is not so important in this culture.
I think in our American culture, it is all about “you”. Like James Altucher’s book, “Choose Yourself.” The metaphor behind this line of thought being the fact that on airplanes a mother is supposed to put her own oxygen mask on before the child. Because you have to help yourself first before you can help others around you.
On the other hand, I don’t think this is an underpinning in Cambodia’s culture. Like many Asian cultures, it is about the family. Ideas are communal. Money and homes are shared between the generations. It doesn’t matter what “you” think, it matters what your family thinks.
With these thoughts, I then realized it didn’t matter what I said to Sefey:
“But you taught yourself English on your own, how can you call yourself stupid?”;
“You took time everyday to learn English, how can you call yourself lazy? I don’t think you are lazy.”;
“You can do anything you want, like start a business with your English skills. Maybe organizing tours for people like me.”; or,
“I believe in you.”
I do believe in him. But I don’t think it matters what I believe. A conversation with me is not going to change the way he thinks about himself. Self-love and appreciation comes from within and is shaped by other external forces like family, religion, education systems, celebrities, music, TV shows and so on. Essentially, all the voices and materials one consumes from a young age. Again, there was nothing I could say to really change Sefey’s line of reasoning despite how much I disagreed with it.
And while Sefey and I do have these surface commonalities, sense of humor and smartphones, in reality he and I are profoundly different.
This realization and all the others that swarmed my head at this moment made me feel so out of place. And not just because I was the only white person at this outdoor karaoke venue. Listening to Sefey call himself “lazy” and “stupid” was actually a form of culture shock. And it was more intense than the rural Cambodian countryside with stick-thin cows and children hand plowing fields. Sefey’s words of self-doubt, but without desiring to take any concrete steps towards change, were like slap in the face. Especially since I see him as having so much potential.
I think self-doubt originates in low self-confidence. Or low self-esteem. Whatever you would like to call it. Nevertheless, self-doubt and low self-confidence practically go hand-in-hand. A person with high confidence will not likely doubt themselves. Instead, they believe in themselves and what they can accomplish.
I guess I am just not accustomed to being around people saying such things. Nevertheless, I had an amazing time in Kampot. And I am glad I spent so much time with Sefey. Aside from seeing so many amazing places, it really opened my eyes and made me aware to not just these surface differences, but the deeper ones that have to do with self-appreciation and how to enjoy a fulfilled life.
Will I ever see Sefey again? I highly doubt it. Truthfully, he was just another face on this journey. I’ve been moving around a lot these past two months. Country to country, city to city, but always alone. I am typically not really engaging with others face-to-face. Sefey was one of the only people (aside from old friends I met up with along the way) I had a “real” conversation with.
Moreover, he has been the only guy I have spent time with since being in Asia. Talking to the guy downstairs at the hotel lobby for five minutes does not really count. In the end, despite just being friends, the two days with Sefey ultimately led me to appreciate my own boyfriend back at home more.
This is not the first time this has happened. It has happened lots of times when I lived in Bangkok last year. I would be out with my girlfriends and guys would come over to talk to us. Interactions were always lame. Or the guys were creeps. So it always left me appreciating my boyfriend more. It would be like a little reminder, “Oh, that’s right. Most guys are totally weird or jerks. That’s why I’ve been with my fabulous boyfriend for so long!”
Even trying to compare Sefey to my boyfriend is absurd. Sefey was funny like my boyfriend. But that is where it ends. My boyfriend and I share so many of the same values, dreams and passions. We are like extensions of one another. It doesn’t matter that we have a twelve hour time difference. It doesn’t matter that we don’t always get to Skype or chat or whatever. He’s with me everywhere. One would maybe think spending two days with another guy would bring us further apart. But in reality, it’s the exact opposite. It has only made me feel closer. It has reminded me of all the amazing and inexplicable similarities we share. Because sometimes it’s easy to forget the little things when you’re 8,697 miles apart.