About 10 years ago on my first trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia I met a young tuk-tuk driver named Seth. I really didnít think I would ever return so I didnít bother to get any contact information for Seth.
Plans change and I returned a few years later. I wanted to use Seth again as my driver, but I had no way to contact him. I brought along a photo of him from my first visit and took it down to the old market area where the drivers hang out looking for customers. At that time there were not more than about 80-100 tuk-tuks in all of Siem Reap (now there are probably several thousand). Within a short time I was lucky enough to find one of the drivers that knew him and we were reconnected quickly and I had another great trip with him as my driver. On this trip we were invited to his house and met his family for the first time.
After that trip I made sure I had his cellular number and I used him for several more visits to see the temples of Angkor Wat. One year my buddy from Bangkok and I decided to do something different and hike between the main temples. We had Seth drop us in the morning and told him where to pick us up in the afternoon. Photos from that unique trip are here. Bill started the trend of handsome tips (and even an expensive wristwatch) that was to follow my future trips.
On another occasion I had Seth and his wife travel to Phnom Penh to act as a translator for me at a friendís wedding.
After my friend Johnny Karr died I talked Judy into a trip to Asia to see my world. Together with Aida and another friend, Shanna Campbell, we traveled from the Philippines to Thailand and eventually we visited the temples of Angkor with Seth and two of his friends as our drivers.
We had a great trip and Seth helped make it special. On our last day we all went to see Sethís family. He lived in a small one room house with a dirt floor. He had a small shed nearby where he was building a new tuk-tuk. It was pretty dusty and Iím sure it had been under construction for 1 year or two.
Before we traveled around Asia I had warned Judy about giving tips to beggars and people we used as drivers in the different countries. But, after we left Cambodia she said "JC, don't be mad, but I gave Seth some money." Furthermore, she said she decided to ďadoptĒ Sethís family and she asked if I could help her send him some money from time to time. I had to admit that I always gave him more than double what the standard drivers got and then tipped him on top of that. Of course I'd help.
Sadly, not long after that trip Judy was diagnosed with terminal cancer and she left us within a year.
In April 2013 I decided to return for one more visit to Siem Reap. Unfortunately, the phone number that I had for Seth no longer worked. I tried my old trick and printed a few photos and went to visit the drivers near the old market. After a few drivers I found two drivers that said they thought they knew him, but he wasnít a tuk-tuk driver! He was a rich guy! WTF? One of the drivers said he knew where Sethís factory was and he offered to take me there (for a fee of course).
When I got there I was sure this was where his house used to be. The place was a tuk-tuk factory and a gas station. There were ten tuk-tuk trailers in various forms of production, but no Seth. One of the workers pointed at a number spray painted on the shop wall. Our new driver made a quick call and within a few minutes Seth pulled up in a Toyota van. (I later found out that he rents the property to the gas station for a nice monthly income).
I let my first driver go for the day and Seth and two of his daughters took us out to the main gate of Angkor to get our passes for the next three days. Next, we climbed the highest hill in Angkor to watch the sunset. On the way down the hill I was surprised to see Seth hand R1000 to his daughters to give to a young beggar on the side of the hill. On several other occasions I saw him reach in his pocket and give money to kids on the street. This was no longer the guy that lived in the shack with the dirt floor.
In the first photo above Seth proudly stands in front of his 2 story factory/home. In the second photos he poses next to one of SIX tuk-tuk trailers he finished in the three days we were there. In the last photo he poses with his youngest daughter. That night the 2 oldest daughters had hopped on their motorcycle and gone off for pizza. Then he gave his son $20 before he went off on his motorcycle to see his girlfriend (The son is attending a private American run high school). That night Seth's wife cooked us a special meal of Khmer chicken, fish, and mango salad. All washed down with plenty of beer. Several young soldiers stopped in and joined us for dinner before heading back to the Thai border where they is a military stand-off over the disputed Preah Vihear Temple.
Although Seth was very busy at the factory (trying to get tuk-tuks delivered before new years) and with military duties, we spent every evening with him and his family. The first night I took him and two of his daughters to a great Khmer dinner (though the girls wanted hamburgers). The second night we stopped at a party at his friends house for "5 minutes" and stayed for many, many hours. And the last night his wife cooked us a special dinner.
I think I have about seen all the temples that I want to see. Every trip there are more tourists in the temples and more roped off areas that you cannot visit. But, I believe I will return again in the future to see Seth and his family again. And Siem Reap has grown into a very nice town with lots to do after dark.
In retrospect, I truly believe that Judy Karr's "adoption cash" turned the corner in the life of Seth's family. It enabled him to follow his dream and with that cash and hard work he has made a great life for his family. But, Seth is one in a million in Asia. Most individuals that got a significant sum of cash from a benefactor would spend it on a few luxury items or a party and continue to live in a shack with a dirt floor. Seth's children are getting the best education available in Siem Reap and I hope to see where they and the family are in another 10 years.
I could feel Judy smiling down on us as I said goodbye to Seth at the airport. And yeah, I did slip him a little green for his new years celebration and some hamburgers for his girls!
On a side note: When I first met Seth many years ago he told me he used to drive a tank. But, since the war was over, that was in his past. However, in recent years he has reportedly spent many hours sitting in his tank at the Preah Vihear Temple on the Thai-Cambodian border (about 6 hours drive). Despite the approaching New Years in both countries, there were several minor incidents that caused Seth to wear his uniform for meeting in Siem Reap, two of the three days we were there, about possible needs to deploy to the border.