Story #5: Diamond in the Rough

Story #5: Diamond in the Rough

I definitely saved the best for last. The Grand Finale. All About Thavi.

After meeting Thavi I decided I was going to find and buy some sort of  protective bubble to keep him in, far away from all the mean people in the world. He’s the sort of guy that you love to be around. The kind of guy who is so nice, some people might take advantage of him because he’d just roll along with it avoiding confrontation. When you meet him, you just want good things to happen for him and all bad to fade away. Ever felt like that about someone you knew for a few days– or just me? A guy so thoughtful [but as always in Cambodia] so unfortunate. He was a travel agent turned tuk-tuk driver when the business he worked for folded. He says ‘tuk-tuk driver’ with his head hung very low.

It’s a joke throughout South East Asia about the relentlessness of tuk-tuk drivers in all cities, all hours, everywhere. They never stop haggling you or insisting that they drop you off at a dodgy suit shop. (For people at home a tuk-tuk is like a taxi but instead a motorbike with seats attached on the back. The scariest and cheapest ride you’ll have anywhere.) As annoying as tuk-tuk drivers tend to be, I never stopped to think about the daily grind for a driver and what life is for them. Thavi changed all that. An extremely intelligent man. Great English. Stuck in a system of corruption.


Thavi & his Tuk-Tuk

One hot and humid afternoon after Thavi drove us around Phnom Penh we sat in the back of his tuk-tuk and I asked him every question I could think of. Why does Cambodia work the way it does? What is life-like here day-to-day? How are things getting better? I asked questions about everything ranging from education to corruption to his family. For the record, he never complained once or wanted Rhys and I feel to feel pity for him, he never asked for money, he only told us about the hardships of everyday life when we started asking questions.

Thavi worries about supporting his two little girls and his wife. Life is very expensive for someone making around $10.00/day. School costs $3.00 a day and is his highest priority for his girls. But, no money = no school. He said rent in Phnom Penh is $60.00/month, then add in money for food, electric, and water. He spends a few dollars in gas everyday and $10-15/month for maintenance to his tuk-tuk. His wife works long days selling vegetables in the local market but only makes at most $2.50/day. Add up all the necessities and the cost is around $425.00 per month. Him & his wife make around $300-400 per month depending on tourists, luck, and the month. Doesn’t exactly add up.

His lifelong dream is to open up his own tourist agency. He’s a wonderful tour guide and knows Phnom Penh inside & out. He would do all tourists a big favor by opening up his own shop. It’s Cambodia law that’s stopping him. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer and poorer. He studied English, he learned the facts about all the tourist sites, and then was told he could only be a tour guide if he paid a bogus $1,200 fee. Money he will never be able to put up. He saved every penny he could for 10 years & managed to save $5,000. He invested in land outside Siem Reap hoping the cost would double with growing tourism in the area. Then he could open up his own agency. It hasn’t happened yet. Until something changes he has no choice but to keep on driving and hope for the best.

Keep reading. Don’t give up on this long post. It gets even more ridiculous.

We were staying at ‘OK Guesthouse’. Rhys and I noticed that tuk-tuk drivers seemed to flock to the guesthouse, lining the streets outside of the front door. In no other city did we ever have drivers make ‘appointments’ with us for a specific time and destination. We had a constant stream of drivers coming to us asking for appointments. Apparently, a select few of the drivers are allowed inside the guesthouse & work there. They work in hopes to make inital contact with guests and make appointments with them instead of other drivers. They do everything. Took our reservation. Showed us our room. Distributed room keys. Kept the books in order. Served us food. Took our money. Everything. They run the place. & they do it all for FREE. Thavi swore us to secrecy, making us promise not to talk to the hotel staff or owners, but he told us some days he works from 6am-10pm and makes NOTHING. If he has no one to drive, then he must come in and work all day and make NOTHING. There is no minimum wage in Cambodia, so companies are free to do as they please. OK Guesthouse chooses slave labor. They give the men working long 12-16 hour days  for FREE….nothing. No food from the restaurant. No drinks. Only a slightly better chance at driving guests. Bull shit. We couldn’t say anything and no one can ever complain because they’ll simply walk out on the street and grab the first tuk-tuk driver they see for a replacement.

When our day with Thavi as our driver ended he thanked us over and over again for letting him drive us. In his exact words, “Thank you so much for giving me a job today, thank you so much.” We didn’t know what to say, he was the one doing us a favor. We asked him how much we owed & looking rather shy he told us to give him how much we thought he deserved. I was amazed. Most tuk-tuk drivers take you for every penny they can squeeze out. Always asking for triple the price. Thavi is one of a kind, a bit of hope in a country plagued with corruption, a diamond in the rough.


the one & only!

If your going to Phnom Penh I 100% recommend Thavi as your driver. It’ll be the best decision you make. We’ve had a few friends take our advice and they all agree. He’s on Facebook like the rest of the world, send me a message and I’ll pass on details.


4 Responses to “Story #5: Diamond in the Rough”
  1. Tom says:

    Nice post Nicky, Thavi seems like a legend. I’m not sure how all this inequality can get sorted out, bloody unfair. I want to go to Cambodia so much, seems a fascinating country.

    • Nicky says:

      thanks tom 🙂 when you go, give me the heads up cause i’d love to go back! the inequality there is insane… but if you become a human rights lawyer then you could go fix it up??!!

      • Tom says:

        bigtime, totally going to save the world, but all your pics look so amazing that I imagine I’d go over there, try to do some good, get distracted and just chill in the sun with a beer.

  2. James Bryant jr says:

    I 100% agree and will recommend Thavi to anyone I know that goes to Phnom Penh. Thavi was the exception to a city that sometimes felt a little uneasy.

    Nicky – Thank you for introducing us to Thavi!!

    James & Amanda

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