“Sir, you want tuk tuk? You want massage? You want lady?” Western visitors in Phnom Penh need nerves of steel when they walk around the capital, due to the army of tuk tuk drivers shouting their services.
But En Sarin never has to force any tourists to go with him. Sometimes they even seek him out.
“The driver speaks German” is printed on three signs he stuck to his tuk-tuk, and when the 45-year-old takes tourists to the Royal Palace, the Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng, he regales them with the history and culture of Cambodia. He also answers one frequently asked question: how does he know the German language so well?
In August 1986, Sarin left Cambodia to work in the East German province Thuringia. The trip was made possible through a cooperative agreement between the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and Cambodia. With stops in Vietnam, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, he flew to Berlin and travelled by train to the small town of Hildburghausen. There, he studied German for six months, before he became an electroplater at the world-renowned Zeiss factory in Jena.
The cold climate, the language and the social life presented big challenges. “Everything was new to me, and life in the GDR seemed to be a dream”, said Sarin.
But while his life took an unusual turn, his early years are sadly too familiar. Born in Takeo province as the youngest son of a rice farmer, his life was affected by the Khmer Rouge at an early age. His father was killed and he was sent to the rice fields, where he suffered hunger, humiliation and oppression for five years.
After the liberation of Cambodia, Sarin had the chance to go to school again. Confronted with a bleak job market, he was hooked by a leaflet circulating his school, about the Cambodian government and some socialist partners providing jobs and training courses in the GDR and Eastern Europe.
Sarin applied and was chosen due to his good school grades.
“The opportunity to learn in a peaceful and well-developed country changed my life forever,” he said.
Once in Europe, he made good money and established a good social life. “My German colleagues were all very friendly and helpful. We played football, went to the cinemas and theatres, and enjoyed beach holidays at the Baltic Sea.”
Only a few weeks before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Sarin returned to Cambodia, where his skills and knowledge were highly sought after. He worked in a metal factory near the National Museum for four years. In those days the UN peacekeepers arrived to monitor the first free elections and the fragile peace in Cambodia.
Due to his language skills and international experience, Sarin became a police officer in 1993. A growing number of German speaking tourists and expats have benefited from his German language ever since.
For many years, Sarin was recommended as a reliable moto-driver within the German community, and did the odd job with his motorbike.
In February 2010, a Swiss friend surprised him with a brand new tuk tuk. Ever since then, he has taken tuk tuk-ing as a second job, when he is off-duty as a policeman.
Sarin mainly parks his tuk tuk in front of La Croisette restaurant on riverside. The owner, Tassilo Brinzer, introduces his German-speaking guests to Sarin on a regular basis.
Other westerners usually become curious as soon as they read his signs.
Tourists from every big and small city in Germany, Austria and Switzerland have experienced Sarin’s service. And of course he attended the recent German Oktoberfest on Diamond Island to eat original sausages with sauerkraut and potato salad.
“Since I lived in Thuringia, I’m a bit dependant on German food”, he said.