TUK-TUK driver Kong Savannaro can be found every morning scouting for passengers in Phnom Penh’s Toul Tom Poung district.
That in itself is not unusual, the city has at least 20,000 tuk-tuk drivers – almost all of whom begin their workday ferrying customers to work or calling out for prospective passengers.
But 31-year-old Sovannaro does not have the luxury of loudly touting for his business. The Phnom Penh native was born hearing and verbally impaired, leaving him at a distinct disadvantage when finding clients.
“Driving a tuk-tuk in my condition isn’t easy. People flag me down for a ride and when they learn that I am deaf-mute, they refuse to go with me. If I get a customer through PassApp and the customer calls me and learns that I’m deaf-mute, they almost immediately cancel the ride,” Sovannaro tells The Post through the aid of a sign-language interpreter from the Deaf Development Programme.
Still, Sovannaro’s challenges have not held him back despite growing up in Cambodia’s post-war era in the early 1990s, a time in which facilities for those with specialist needs were especially poor.
He credits his durability and innovation to his mother.
“[When I was a child] I thought that my mother was trying to kill me because I cannot speak or hear. My mother explained to me that all I have to do is try because I still have my hands, feet and eyes,” says Sovannaro.
Sovannaro relies on notebooks, maps and messaging and translation apps to communicate with passengers. Through these innovative methods, he has carved a small niche for himself, with tourists and expats in particular hungry to support his work.
Cambodian passengers are promptly shown a page from his notebook informing them that their driver cannot hear or speak and are handed a map to point to their location, while foreigners are handed an iPhone so that they can translate where they want to go.
“I remember a foreign man called me and I told him ‘I can’t listen and speak’. I showed him my map and he showed me his location. I took him where he wanted to go and we didn’t have a problem. He couldn’t speak Khmer anyways,” says Sovannaro.
Like mother, like son
Sovannaro’s mother Khy Chanthou is the reason he has this opportunity at all. She herself drove a tuk-tuk in her younger days, and after years of her son being rejected by employers unwilling to hire someone deaf, she took matters into her own hands and spent a year teaching him the ropes.
“I understood that my son was deaf when he was about nine months old. I remember I was making funny faces for him and we would laugh so heartily, but when I would call his name when he couldn’t see me he wouldn’t react,” Chanthou says of the day she discovered her son was different.
“At first, I wanted to commit suicide. Afterwards, I decided I have to live for my son because I have to feed my boy and take care of him,” she says.
Chanthou has four sons in total, with Sovannaro’s younger brother also born deaf and mute. But thanks to their mother’s tutelage, both are able to work as tuk-tuk drivers and provide for their six-person household. In addition, their two other brothers work as police officers.
A proud grandmother, Chanthou has tears in her eyes as watches Sovannaro taking turns with his wife gushing over their three-month-old son.
Sovannaro met his wife Ben Sreyleak while at Krousar Thmey Organisation School for people with special needs. The couple welcomed a healthy baby boy into their life earlier this year.
“This is all I could have dreamed for. A mother’s love can overcome anything. No one can understand what love is until they are a mother. But Cambodian boys are a problem, they eat too much. I needed a girl,” Sreyleak says.
To book a ride with Sovannaro you can contact him via Facebook (@Kongsovannaro) or message him via telephone (095 226 095).
His promise to you as the customer is absolutely no small talk.