People like Chai are the key to the future of Cambodia. Chai runs his own business, is an advisor to a tiny Swiss NGO that runs a free English school. He started a program to teach sports to poor Cambodian children on his own initiative, and has sworn off lying completely (something he says comes as second nature to Cambodian men). It almost cost him his Swiss girlfriend a few years ago.
I should back up. When I first met Chai, I thought he was just a dirt bike driver. I was looking for a way to reach the remote Prasat Preah Vihear temple on Cambodia’s northern border with Thailand. The options I had found at the time were either too expensive (The very pricy Hidden Cambodia company wanted to take three dirt bikes to transport me to the temple), or unsafe (Some backpackers make the 600+ kilometer journey on dirt roads ravaged by the rainy season with local moped drivers who may speak little English and don’t have the tools to fix the bike, or their passengers in case of emergency).
With prospects for getting to Preah Vihear looking grim, I was lucky to see a sticker for “Chai Off-Road Trip” on a Siam Reap telephone pole. The fact that Chai had stickers, a website, even large color advertisements on the back of ten of Siam Reap’s 3000+ tuk-tuks, was impressive. I later learned that Chai is president, administrator, graphic designer and webmaster for “Chai Off-Road Trip". He taught himself FrontPage, Photoshop, even Flash (something I have yet to master), to create his website.
One broken cell phone call and one brief meeting later, I found myself sitting on the back of a 250cc Baja XR dirt bike at nine in the morning, speeding northwards out of Siam Reap, wondering if heading into the Cambodian countryside with a local guy I just met was a good idea. Fortunately, though, after four days and three nights of exploring remote temples and experiencing true local culture, I found that Chai had become my new best friend.
Sitting behind Chai and clinging to the luggage rack of the dirtbike, I quickly came to appreciate his safety-minded driving. He has a helmet for himself and his passenger, slows down for children, farm animals and rocks, carries a first aid kit, even turns on his lights when a passing truck kicks up enough dust to make us invisible to oncoming traffic. While these may seem like common sense safety precautions, the rarity of safe drivers in Cambodia is something that has to be seen to be believed.
The best thing about Chai, though, is that he’s really in this business to help Cambodians and to make friends. After each bumpy day, Chai and I would sit and drink many cans of cheap Crown beer and discuss everything from the Khmer Rouge to relationship troubles. From these conversations, I learned that Chai took his first trip through the region with his girlfriend a few years ago.
The same trip that now takes five days took them two weeks, because each time the bike broke down, Chai and his girlfriend spent a few days in tiny villages waiting for spare parts to arrive. It was during these long waits that Chai met the families we eat and sleep with on our trip. As a result, Chai has a strong commitment to only take tourists to Cambodian-run businesses, who he knows will really benefit from the income. I should note that the bike only broke down once on the trip, Chai was able to fix the problem within minutes, using the tools he carries. Chai now has a contract with a local bike shop that guarantees they will bring a new bike by truck anywhere Chai has a problem that he can’t fix on the road.
Chai also gives three percent of his income from the tours he leads to the Salarin Kampuchea, Schools in Cambodia, organization he works for, which is laudable in a country where most people either just want to get rich off the tourist boom, or are too poor to think about others. It is through working with this free English school where Chai got the idea to start a sports and fitness program for the kids. Once a week he runs, cycles, or plays basketball with the children, as time and equipment availability allows.
Every week, Chai tells the kids to show up at a certain time, and every week they arrive half an hour early begging him to start even earlier. Often, children of poor Cambodian families seem so starved for something to do, that when we would pull up on the dirt bike, we would find an ever growing group of children who wanted to see what the crazy foreigner on the big bike was going to do next (granted, we probably looked like astronauts with the motorcycle helmets, but still…).
I realize I haven’t provided many details of the trip itself, which was nothing sort of perfect. Chai showed me broad vistas at Anlung Veng and the spectacular Prasat Preah Vihear – an ancient Angkor temple at the top of a 600-meter cliff overlooking the Cambodian plains with an access road so steep and fractured, we had to ride customized motor bikes to the top. He took me to a variety of monuments designed by the architects of the Khmer Rouge government in the 70s – Pol Pot’s grave, Pol Pot’s house, Ta Mok’s grave, Ta Mok’s house and so on. We sang karaoke songs in Khmer, in villages where I have no doubt I was the only westerner for miles. Chai and I spent several long lunches sitting with Cambodian families in their small shack houses at the side of dirt roads eating delicious simple Khmer food and talking Cambodian politics as the chickens and cows meandered idly by.
The real story here was Chai. He was the best part of my month in Cambodia, and I consider myself lucky to count him as a friend. As I said, people like Chai are the future of Cambodia. I just hope there are enough of them to go around.
You can plan your Cambodian dirt bike adventure with Chai at