Despite setbacks in her life and limited access to education, Pich Oun, a mother of four,forged a successful career as a tuk-tuk driver. She works long hours transporting passengers and goods, but still finds the time to drop her children off at school and cook for her family.

Upon learning about a hotel that was hiring a driver for their guests, Oun, now 46, successfully applied for the position. She rented a tuk-tuk for the first two months before decided to commit to her new career and finance a vehicle of her own.

She initially worked alongside her husband, but he fell in love with another woman and abandoned the family, leaving Oun to raise their four children alone.

“For child support, I received just 1.6 million riel per month, and when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, he stopped paying altogether. I did not see even 100 riel from him. Now, I am raising our children on my own,” she told The Post.

“During the pandemic lockdowns, there were no tourists and no passengers, so my mother, my children and myself scavenged to earn a living. We were lucky to receive a donation of 50kg of rice from the Driver Srey organisation,” she added.

A native of Banteay Srei district’s Phnom Bok area, she said that in general, both national and international passengers value and sympathise with women tuk-tuk drivers, although some men seem determined to be unimpressed with their driving abilities.

Before leaving to pick up tourists from a hotel and take them for dinner, Oun said, “many passengers are aware of the hardships of women drivers, and support them.”

Oun said when she takes people from a hotel to a restaurant and returns them, the Driver Srey organisation charges the passengers or hotel $6. Five goes to the driver, and one goes to the team leader.

With four years of experience as a tuk-tuk driver, including two years with Driver Srey, she said that many of the newer drivers were very nervous about working with foreigners.

An invitation of support

After seeing Oun working as a woman tuk-tuk driver with no connection to the tourist network, Khoy Prokrotey, also known as Nin, asked Oun to join the Driver Srey group, which was established in 2017.

Nin, who is also a tour guide and a tuk-tuk driver, said that most female drivers were very nervous when they began. Although they were confident drivers, they were worried that their lack of foreign language skills would make it too difficult for them to communicate with tourists. Thus, it was crucial to have someone supporting them.

Nin, 48, has experience working with community-based organisations that help women,and also worked as an ecotourism guide when she established Driver Srey: The Women Drivers of Siem Reap.

“I wanted to help vulnerable women and widows to find employment, and I also wanted to help female foreign tourists who are travelling solo,” she said.

Nin said that she specialises in ecotourism, through her experience working in community-based tourism like the Chi Phat community-based ecotourism in Mondulkiri, with the Kreung and Chambok communities. She had met many women who were unemployed, as well as those who were separated or divorced and had no income to support their children.

She taught villagers how to grow vegetables and how to make compost in remote villages. When those projects ended, she began working with other environmental organisations around the Tonle Sap Lake area.

Her organisation created a tourism programme that brought tourists to visit and participate in conservation activities in floating villages.

Knowing Siem Reap was an attractive tourist destination and observing that many of the women in its villages worked on construction sites, Nin decided to establish her driver’s group to give them an alternative. It also meant she would have a worthy project to work on closer to her home, as she was tired of working in far off provinces.

“I wanted to offer this group of women a new profession. I had seen women driving tuk-tuks to the market and thought if they had additional work, I could improve their incomes,” she said.

“When we first began, we had only two or three members, but we gradually built up our numbers until there were more than ten capable drivers working with us,” added Nin.

Women helping women

Besides providing women with incomes, the service also makes solo female travellers more comfortable. Nin said she had met many women who said that travelling alone with a male driver made them feel uneasy, especially at night.

The leader of Driver Srey said that when female tourists visit the temples, they want to have fun and be comfortable, and having a female driver makes that more possible. She mentioned that she and her team had more than once helped out an unwell female traveller and taken her to hospital.

Concerning the lack of communication and language skills, Nin said,“My future goal is to provide language training to my drivers, because that would be an excellent way to give back to my team. Unfortunately, when Covid-19 arrived, all of our plans were suspended.”

“Over the past few years, we have received some support from former customers who became our friends, but live abroad. When I received the donations, I used them to purchase food for our members,” she added.

She said that besides her, there are a few other female drivers on the team who can speak another language, and can communicate with tourists.

Oun’s main priority is ensuring that her four children, aged 15, 13, 9 and 5, are attending school. She admitted that she could not read or write, even in the Khmer language. She has found ways around this handicap.

“When customers, local or foreign, send me messages, I have my children read them for me. I ask my passengers to send me voice messages, because I can understand Khmer, and a little English,” she explained.

Since Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the reopening of the country in November last year, the Driver Srey group has regrouped with seven members. Some had returned to their hometowns and some had begun running other businesses.

Nin wanted to make it clear that she had not established the group to discriminate against male tuk-tuk drivers.

“When our female drivers are busy and unable to provide services, we have four or five male drivers that we use as back up,” she said.

Nin focuses on the safety of both female drivers, and female passengers, which means that transport services are provided only until dinner time.

“We are focused on protecting our drivers and passengers, and so we will not offer services as late as even nine or ten pm. Essentially, we drive only during the day time, although individual drivers can make exceptions of course, and we will always help in an emergency situation, if we can,” she added.

With an increase of connecting flights, including from Bangkok, David-Jaya Piot, president of the Cambodia Hotel Association’s Siem Reap branch, an increase of international tourists, with a significant jump in numbers predicted around the time of next year’s 32nd SEA Games.