CHARMED BY NIM | Sharon Henry
“I-hear-you-want-to-go-to-the-Killing-Fields,” sings a tuk tuk driver in Phnom Penh, approaching us from behind as we walked by the Royal Palace.
Knackered from the 38 degree heat, wary of scams and having just walked a gauntlet of touting drivers, Darrin’s BS radar is on full alert, “Oh yeah, who told you that?”
“Your wife just told me,” comes the cheeky reply accompanied by a wide grin. I hadn’t uttered a peep. Darrin eyes him up and (probably from sheer tiredness) surrenders and laughs; because you’ve just gotta love that snappy sales tactic which was refreshingly different.
That was our introduction to Nim Chantra the best tuk tuk driver in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Disarmed by his humour, non-confrontational manner, good English and that certain likeable quality; he was our driver for the entire stay. Plus he resembled a St Helenian friend of ours.
With practiced ease he’d slip into the organised chaos of Phnom Penh traffic and deliver us safely to the city’s attractions. We’d chat about Cambodia, travelling and photography. How to get his website up and running, the English language and the class he teaches back in his home province of Kamport.
Yes, you read right, Nim is a qualified teacher. Two days a week our tuk tuk driver in Phnom Penh teaches 30 high school students then swaps hats the other five days driving in the city. We met him during school holidays.
“I enjoy doing the tuk tuk,” he told us. “But really I like teaching because I want to share knowledge of everything around me and the world with the children. So for me when I come back from Phnom Penh I always tell them everything that happened.”
Nim gained a Masters Degree in IT after four years studying at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, a subject he teaches along with Economics at a state high school and “just basic ABC” English to primary aged children.
It was during his student years he took up a moto (bike) taxi service to supplement his income. Two years later he added a red, wooden tuk tuk. “I took a loan from the bank and paid it back in eight months. Now it’s mine!”
Every week Nim waves his wife of 10 years and two little girls goodbye, travels 187km in three hours by bus to the big city and his second job. He parks the tuk tuk in Phnom Penh. “I want to build my home and make something for my family,” he told us earnestly.
Government teacher salary is $200 (USD) per month for a 16 hour week. A new house will cost $20,000.
The tuk tuk taxi service is an expanding business and not all drivers have licences, “This is fine in Cambodia, but I don’t agree,” he told us, “I have a licence for the bike.” Thank goodness for that.
Like many of the tuk tuk drivers, Nim doesn’t always wear his helmet. His sat perched at the front of the tuk tuk looking back at us like a headless fiend. The only time he did wear it was to make space for our luggage going to the bus terminal.
“When I started out (in the business) there were not many hotels or tuk tuks,” he said as we watched, fascinated by the buzzing traffic. “But now there are too many, I’m like ‘wow where did this come from?’ ”
Competition however, doesn’t cause problems. “All the tuk tuk drivers have a friendship together,” he smiled proudly, “even though we don’t all know each other. Like if I have some problem on the way they’ll always stop to help me figure out what’s wrong. Always. Not like, stand by and then steal my customer!”
He told us about Lakeside, a once flourishing tourist hang-out. “That place was popular especially for the backpackers. But now the government took it to develop. They are rebuilding everything and closed it down. The lakeside had a floating village and people had to move outside. So now that place, is empty,” he shrugged his shoulders sadly.
Phnom Penh has many attractions and according to Nim the most popular are Wat Phnom, Central Market and Russian Market, S-21, Killing Fields, Silk village, Mekong island and the Old City.
A suggested itinerary for someone visiting for a day; the Royal Palace, National Museum, Killing Fields, Russian Market, then to S-21 and finish at Wat Phnom. A full day’s schedule. “But, better if they visit for a longer time, it’s easier to take pictures and get to know the culture of Cambodian people.”
We wanted to know if tourists are usually nice. “Both,” he laughed, “some are happy, so polite, and some don’t say anything. Sometimes I pick them up from the Riverfront, take them to the Killing Fields and they don’t say anything! But it’s okay.”
Those who do engage in conversation mainly hail from Australia, Europe, Malaysia, USA and of course, St Helena!
We asked if he’s travelled outside Cambodia. “No, never,” he replied like that’s a joke, “only six provinces in Cambodia.
“I used to want to go to the US, because I wanted to know about the technology I see in Hollywood films. But now I want to go to Australia because they have a lot of work there. Also, now I have the internet, I can check anything about the US!”
Anyone travelling to Cambodia and looking for a reliable tuk tuk driver in Phnom Penh, why not give our friend Nim a try? While you’re at it, be a chatty ambassador for your country; give him a few stories to share in class.