A pack of about twenty tuk-tuk drivers stood waiting for our boat to pull up to the dock at Siem Reap. They leaped on board while we were still a few feet out and immediately rushed us, frantically trying to secure a customer. My Battambang hotel had called ahead to have a driver waiting for me, and I spotted someone on the riverbank holding a sign with my name.
Mr. Noy, the driver, turned out to be a low-key guy who spoke great English. “How much for a ride to the center of town?” I asked.
“For free,” he offered. “I just want to be your driver to temples.”
Thanks to all the tourist dollars, Siem Reap has attracted a glut of tuk-tuks – over 3,000, according to several of the drivers. With so much competition, prices for Angkor tours are even lower now than they were four years ago. Great for tourists, bad for drivers.
Noy said he’d charge me $12 for a full-day tour of Angkor, sunrise to sunset. Driving around all day costs him about $3 in gas. So – assuming his tuk-tuk doesn’t break down or have a flat tire – he’s clearing about $9 for over 12 hours of work. And that’s when he has a customer, which he said is rare, especially during low season. Most days he can’t find work.
I used to think being a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap seemed like a pretty nice gig. You spend your days at one of the most amazing sites in the world, and while you wait for your customers to wander around a temple – which is most of the time – you get to kick back in the shade, nap, or talk to your buddies. But I was starting to appreciate that many of the drivers were struggling to support their families. Noy, who had a wife and a one-year-old named Kita, said he was about ready to sell his tuk-tuk and try something else.
I wanted to spend one more day exploring the temples so I hired Noy and asked him to meet me at 4:45 the next morning. I’m not sure what time Noy showed up, but when I walked out of my hotel at 4:40am he was ready and waiting. Riding to Angkor Wat through the pre-dawn dark, very conscious that I might not be back for a long time (if ever), I tried my best to appreciate everything about the experience.
After sunrise I sat down on the north side of Angkor Wat. I hadn’t been there long when a group of three monkeys emerged from the jungle and jumped on a temple balustrade. They behaved exactly like humans who’d just woken up – yawning, scratching themselves, and acting cranky towards each other.
The central tower of Angkor Wat was closed when Marie and I visited the week before, but that day they were letting people up.
Usually I make a point of orienting myself soon after arriving in a new city. I feel better when I know roughly where I am on a map and which direction I’m facing. But at Angkor I’d always been too distracted by the temples to worry about orientation. Finally that morning I put the pieces together and could follow our progress on a mental map, which made me much happier as Noy drove us from temple to temple. After Angkor Wat we hit Bayon and Ta Prohm.
In the mid-afternoon we went to Preah Khan, a large temple Marie and I had somehow missed the week before.
Before returning to the hotel I asked Noy to drop me off at Bayon one more time so I could photograph the late afternoon light on the temple.
While I was walking back to the tuk-tuk I noticed a monk taking a smoke break and caught him in the act. Are monks hoping for cigarettes when they collect morning alms? I’m not entirely sure the Buddha would approve.
I stayed in Siem Reap a couple more days but just read, worked on photos, and caught up on the blog – downtime I hoped would help brace me for the inevitable chaos waiting in Bangkok.