Robbie at the airport
Robbie at Siem Reap International Airport. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Robbie is the name of our tuktuk driver. It’s not his real name but one that rolls well in a Westerner’s mouth. He works at the guesthouse where we’re staying in Siem Reap. His job is to fetch visitors from the airport and drive them around the place if they so desire.

I don’t know whether Robbie is a member of the family, an employee or a freelancer. I don’t know whether this makes any difference in Cambodia. For one week, Robbie takes us across the great archeological park known as Angkor Wat. He’s unfailingly cheerful and polite. When we stop for a meal, we invite him to join us but he never does. Our conversations are strictly limited to destinations, timing and where to meet.

I’ve got so many questions for him.

No country for old men

For example, how old is Robbie? From 1975 to 1979, while the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia, they murdered up to 20% of the population.

Mass killings primarily targeted the middle class and intellectuals — such as doctors, lawyers, journalists, artists and students — as well as ethnic Vietnamese and Cham Muslims. Private property, money, religion and traditional culture were abolished, and the country became known as Democratic Kampuchea.

Casey Quackenbush, “40 Years After the Fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia Still Grapples With Pol Pot’s Brutal Legacy” in Time, 7 Jan 2019

The regime sent the rest of the population to labor camps in the countryside. The Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia into an agrarian utopia. In Cambodia, 1975 is known as Year Zero.

Robbie in Angkor Wat
Robbie waiting for us in Angkor Wat. Photo credit: Karen Kao

40 years later, I see no one of my age on the streets of Siem Reap. Those who survived the Khmer Rouge did so by fleeing the country for Vietnam, France or the United States. Today, half the Cambodian population is younger than 24.

Robbie doesn’t look 24 to me. He hovers somewhere between 40 and 60, in that way that Asians do. If he really is in his 50s, then Robbie is one of the few old enough to remember the Khmer Rouge.

In the wet season

The peak wet season in Cambodia runs from July to September. It’s also when the fewest tourists pack the temples of Angkor Wat. We take the risk and get “lucky” in the sense that Southeast Asia was experiencing a mild drought.

Drought or no drought, we see plenty of rain. We sit on the rooftop terrace of our guesthouse and watch the sheets of water fall down. We venture out into the streets, considering ourselves hardy Dutch able to handle a little rain.

The roads are a maze of potholes. Each hole fills with red mud. Passing cars splash the mud onto unwary pedestrians. Those pedestrians are all tourists because the locals know better than to go out in the rain. Unless of course they have to.

Karen Kao, Travel journal entry for 22 Sept 2019

Robbie has agreed to drive us to Banteay Srei, the citadel of the women, some 20 kilometers outside Siem Reap. His tuktuk is outfitted with a 50cc two-stroke motorbike. Robbie is used to getting wet and muddy despite his yellow poncho. He swerves deftly to avoid the worst potholes as we leave the city limits of Siem Reap and head into the countryside.

Out in the countryside, babies sit naked in the mud, happily splashing. Roadside markets close shop: the vegetable sellers, the barbers, even the women selling petrol in repurposed wine bottles. If you’re wealthy enough to have a second floor to your home, you retreat upstairs. If not, you sit out the rain.

Karen Kao, Travel journal entry for 22 Sept 2019

Rich and poor

If you’re rich, you live in Siem Reap where there is electricity and running water and schools where the children can learn English. If you’re poor, you may live in a home that gets flooded every time it rains, where the water rises to the level of your hammock and rats swim nose to nose with your children.

Robbie sleeps at the guesthouse on the days when we’ve arranged for an early start. It could be out of a desire to be punctual. It could be because not even Robbie could navigate country roads in the pitch-dark. Does he have a family: a wife and children perhaps? I wish I had been brave enough to ask.

An American expat who lives in Siem Reap tells me a story about Hershey opening a new factory that needs 10,000 workers. Hershey offers to sponsor 30,000 Cambodian refugees to migrate to the US. Hershey would build housing and schools. The Cambodians would receive union jobs. According to the expat, those Cambodian-Americans are returning to Cambodia for retirement. Their US dollar pensions would allow them to live like kings in the old country.

Families in Angkor Wat
Kids in Angkor Wat. Photo credit: Karen Kao

I can’t find any evidence online to back up this chocolate fairy tale. It seems unlikely given the high poverty and incarceration rates suffered by Cambodian refugees in the US. But maybe it’s true. If either of your parents is Cambodian, you can get into Angkor Wat for free.

There seem to be plenty of Cambodians who take advantage of this right. On the weekends, Angkor Wat is a site of family picnics, young couples on the promenade and kids just having fun. I didn’t see Robbie among these happy faces but maybe he’s here somewhere.