Cambodia's traditionally conservative culture remains heavily steeped in sexist attitudes and patriarchal or paternalistic domination of women in society.
Domestic labour is still mostly considered “women’s work” – in contrast to the “man’s work” that takes place outside of the home – despite the fact that most adult women now join the regular work force as well in a variety of roles, including some that were previously considered men-only by their very nature.
Next time you think your life is tough, imagine being a 50-year-old single Cambodian woman working as a tuk-tuk driver to provide for her elderly mother and her niece.
The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Sometimes the grass is dead and there’s nothing left but a patch of dirt and a lot of dust. But in Cambodia an open patch of dirt is an exciting retail opportunity just waiting for somebody with a mobile cart who can park it there and start profiting. Hope springs eternal –just ask Ms Sokleap.
Her life is a genuine reflection of the kind of hardships one has to endure as an independent woman in the Kingdom, but it also highlights another of Cambodia’s cultural fixations: Filial devotion, something she has an abundance of as a loving and grateful daughter to her mother. That loyalty mixed with her work ethic and determination to earn a living in a field long-dominated by men has inspired many people who’ve met her and earned their respect.
Some have encountered Sokleap while getting a ride from her across town, while others have seen her standing by at the Olympia Mall on Monireth Blvd.
“Before working as a tuk-tuk driver, I used to be a coffee seller along with some canned beverages from a cart near Olympic stadium. Back then, because I was selling on the street without any permit, I was often chased by the police whose job it was to keep public order.
“I got fed up with having to move all of my stuff from one place to another constantly and it was hard to find any stable locations where I could park and transact business so I gave up on that,” Sokleap, who began driving tuk-tuks in 2018, tells The Post.
After deciding that getting chased away by police for selling coffee wasn’t a good way to make a living, Sokleap found herself at home with her mother for a long period of time thinking about ways she could make a living and getting really depressed because everything seemed like a dead-end to her and she had no savings to invest in starting a business.
“If I want to sell things, I think unless I have a proper rented storefront it’s never going to work and I’ve tried that before too and it’s pricey. We didn’t earn much and no matter how good our business was going it would only ever cover the rent. I had enough. So it really left me with no choice. I ended up deciding to buy a tuk-tuk on an instalment plan instead,” she says.
With all of her savings she managed to cover half of the price of the tuk-tuk and then after that she began making monthly payments by working herself to the bone to get out of debt.
Sokleap isn’t sure what prompted her to try tuk-tuk driving because she knew nothing about it. She had never driven a tuk-tuk and couldn’t even use Google Maps on her smartphone at that point. But the company she bought the tuk-tuk from gave her a free lesson on how they work and afterwards she slowly made her way home in it with stops and starts along the way.
“Of course, it’s never an easy task to start from zero. No one actually desires that first experience although we obviously know that there is always a first time for everything. Like my case, although I’ve lived in Phnom Penh for a long time, I’ve never gotten a chance to roam around far out from my comfort zone where I lived and did my business. So, for me, driving people around the city everywhere was insane. At my age I also didn’t know much about smart phones or Google maps. It was really a rough time for the first few months.
“I have a bad memory and I’m lousy with directions. I gained no profit for my early days because after dropping passengers off, I was often lost driving back and forth before I could find my way home. But life teaches me to move on. At that point in time I didn’t even think of losing or gaining profits.
“I was caught up in wanting to know where I was and to remember the way I’m going and successfully dropping people off at home. But I can proudly say I made it. I know everywhere in the city now and I don’t get lost anymore since now I know how to use Google maps,” Sokleap says.
The way she tells her story proves how strong she is and how she has used her strength to the fullest.
Currently, she’s driving passengers from around 4pm-9am – all night long and into the morning. She says she does it according to her strength. If there are days she feels like she is full of energy then she will start early at like 2pm and not finish until 10am the next day.
The reason she chooses to work the night shift is that unlike many Cambodians, she doesn’t feel at home in the heat and she says her health begins to deteriorate after a couple of weeks out in the sunlight. Also, she feels she has less competition and fewer traffic problems driving at night.
“Of course it is time for people to sleep, and I wish I could sleep, but not everyone is privileged enough to do that. I need to choose what works best for me. In terms of that it’s also a fact that I do not work well under the sun – the moon works well with me. I think I’ve saved quite a lot of energy by driving at night since there’s no traffic jams. At night I can run twice the trips taking people around compared to the afternoon,” she says.
Sokleap has three siblings – one brother and two sisters – and she is the middle daughter. She says that some people who see her driving a tuk-tuk wonder how her family could allow her to do it, but she says her siblings tried to help her but they live hand to mouth like she does, so they need to do their best for their own families as well.
The niece that stays with her is still studying at the university. She’s not earning much from work, but Sokleap says it is at least enough for her to cover her own daily expenses.
She says her work doesn’t earn her a regular salary like people with formal jobs. Sometimes she earns more, sometimes she earns less and sometimes she earns nothing at all, though it’s a good thing that does not happen frequently. During Covid, like everybody else, she has suffered from the lockdown consequences but she is thankful that she can do better now.
“I am glad that people have reached out to me and I’m so thankful for their being kind-hearted to me. It means the whole world to me – although my motive is never to ask people for money because my mom has always disciplined me to do everything with my own sweat and blood. I have limbs to work with and we should help ourselves in whatever ways we can,” says Sokleap.
For more information or to book Sokleap for a trip, she can be reached via phone: 096 845 3960.