Mr. Sey, my tuk-tuk driver, met me at 4:40am in front of my Siem Reap hotel. By 11:30am, I had come to revere him.
I went to Siem Reap on an 11th-hour whim, and consequently, had no idea what I was doing when I got there. Generally, my travel style is to study a place obsessively in advance, then make informed decisions on the fly. But I hadn’t read up on Siem Reap at all, except for a hurried review of my Lonely Planet guide during the bus ride. Mr. Sey managed my ignorance so gracefully as to border on heroism. When I asked him to drop me “at Angkor Wat” and then fetch me at 11:30 for a ride to the bus station, he said none of the following things: 1. First of all, you barang rube, Angkor Wat is a single temple complex. You surely mean the Angkor Archaeological Park. 2. You’re trying to see all of Angkor in 6 hours? 3. This is not Tulum, fool. It is vast. Soooo, I didn’t quite grasp that you can’t just amble around the various Angkor sites without having access to transport. To Mr. Sey’s infinite credit, he didn’t laugh out loud or roll his eyes when I asked him to drop me off and fetch me later. He smiled serenely and asked me what I wanted to see. “Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, I guess,” I told him, which is still a bit like saying, “Madrid and Barcelona.” “OK,” he said, as we rolled up to the Angkor Wat causeway in the last minutes of night. “To Angkor Thom, too far to walk. Here, you spend about 3 hours. I pick you up then.” With that, he gave me his second cell phone and the number to his first one. And at 8:15 am, when I strode back across the causeway, he was there, waiting for my call. As he let me off at the Angkor Thom south gate, Mr. Sey explained in perfect detail how I should make my way through the next several temple sites—Bayon, Bauphon, Elephant’s Terrace, etc.—and meet him in an hour or so at the next parking area. There can be no more spectacular morning stroll:
Every time I blundered mouth-breathingly into what I deemed to be the next agreed-upon meeting place and anxiously scanned the assembled tuk-tuks, Mr. Sey spotted me immediately and rolled up to collect me. And every time he did this, my nervousness about getting lost, or missing the bus, or just not knowing what the heck I was doing, dissipated a little more. By the time he dropped me off at Ta Prohm for the last hour of my day, I wasn’t anxious at all anymore.
Mr. Sey’s watchful care let me relax a bit and enjoy the strolling, photographing, and tuk-tuk riding, until heat and sore feet sent me happily towards the bus, and rest, and home. For a few hours at least, I didn’t have to worry about the hows, whens, and what-ifs of traveling, the exhausting “what’s gonna happen next” vigilance a solo traveler must maintain. He made my Angkor trip perfect, and I left perfectly happy. I paid Mr. Sey far more than he asked for that day. And it was worth every riel. The world needs more Mr. Seys—kind, patient folks who keep a watchful eye trained on travelers, who by the very act of getting on a plane have made ourselves vulnerable to Travel Error, from sunburn and malaria to being undone by cads and criminals of all shades. I’ve experienced more kindnesses than I can remember from Mr. Seys the world over—the most extraordinary example of this, an Arab sherut driver who dropped me off late one night at a Jerusalem hotel. I’d just stepped into the elevator when he came bursting into the vacant lobby and thrust his arm between the doors, which were beginning to close. “You forgot this!” he cried, and handed me my wallet. I met his eye and sputtered out a shocked “thank you” as the doors snicked shut between us. I was nineteen years old. I’ve never forgotten that man’s extraordinary act. In the future, I think I’ll keep an eye out for folks squinting down at maps, bewildered and searching faces, and especially, anyone with a thick SomewhereElseian accent. I’m sure they’d do the same for me. Related post: Lessons from Cambodia: The Rewards of Vulnerability