Seeing Pich Oun riding a large motorcycle pulling a tuk tuk and chatting confidently in English with foreign tourists about the rich Khmer culture of her home province Siem Reap, you might assume that she is the product of an expensive international school. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A deeper look into her life reveals a series of struggles. Despite many hardships, her sunny disposition and outstanding work ethic mean she remains determined to succeed. Along the way, she has picked up some very famous fans, including a leading European diplomat.

Oun, now 47, has a long and storied career. It features a wide variety of hard-scrabble employment, from collecting firewood in the forest and selling it in the market, to the dust and din of large construction sites, to serving food and cleaning guesthouses, she has done it all.

While she left school before becoming literate in her native Khmer, she speaks just enough English to communicate with her guests.

Oun was born in Romchek commune’s Rovieng Ta Tum village, in Siem Reap’s Banteay Srei district. She moved to Siem Reap town with her parents in 1991, in search of a better life. 

She still resides there today, along with her mother, now in her eighties, and her four children. The eldest is 17, and her youngest is just 7.

Oun is particularly proud of one of her children, who has joined a traditional Khmer musical group to earn extra income, while contributing to the survival of the Kingdom’s culture.

She lived with her husband for over a decade, until a rift developed in the family, leading to a 2018 divorce.

Following their separation, she found it increasingly difficult to earn enough money to support her four children and elderly mother, and was forced to take a job on a large construction site.

Later in 2018, she had saved some money from her construction job.

Driving towards independence

She decided to take the positive step of working for herself by renting a tuk-tuk for $35 a month to provide transportation services to local people and foreign visitors.

After many months, she decided to invest in herself, taking out a loan from a microfinance institute and buying her rented tuk-tuk outright.

Her relief at being her own boss lasted for only a short time.

The arrival of the global Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 virtually decimated the tourism industry. 

Following cases of community transmission, several areas in Siem Reap, including Oun’s own neighbourhood, were designated “red zones”. This meant she was prohibited from taking her tuk-tuk out to find customers and earn money. 

Pich Oun poses for a photograph with some international tourists outside their hotel in Siem Reap town. Supplied

“It was a difficult time for me. When Covid-19 arrived we had no visitors coming to Siem Reap. Some areas were red zones,” she says. 

“I had to get up at around 3am to search for scrap metal or other junk that could be sold to recyclers. I even asked the police to let me explore red zones looking for old metal! I was lucky to find some items I could sell for scrap on the streets and at a few pagodas. After two days, I was able to sell them and earn enough to buy 50 duck eggs to feed my family and pay for my children’s school fees,” she explained

During the onset of the pandemic, Oun received some support from a Siem Reap-based community organisation, which included 40kg of rice, dried fish and some vegetables. This assistance lasted for only a few months.

As her mother holds an ID Poor card, her family also received cash as part of the government’s cash transfer programme. The payments were less than $100 per month.

At one point her situation was so desperate that some wealthy people offered to adopt her children. Not wanting to see her family separated, she refused.

Even after the pandemic was over and the Kingdom’s borders were once again open, its side effects lingered on, continuing to cast a long shadow over the tourism industry, particularly in Siem Reap. 

With no guests to transport, she made the decision to take on jobs hauling cargo. Where once Oun’s tuk-tuk was filled with the gasps of amazement of tourists marvelling at the world-famous Angkor Archaeological Park, it now echoed with the squeak and rattle of junk and construction materials.

A slow recovery

Foreign guests have gradually begun to return to the city of temples, and Oun has cleaned the dust from her tuk-tuk and resumed offering passenger services. With the recovery still slow, she worries that her current income cannot meet her monthly debt repayments.

“For two days now, I have not had any guests. It is very quiet at the moment,” she tells The Post.

“At present, I still owe $3,000 to a microfinance institution and another $1,500 to a bank,” she adds.

She generally waits near hotels, in the hope of snaring customers, but has also joined a number of ride hailing apps.

She is also a member of an association of women tuk-tuk drivers.

Her mother still receives cash support from the state via her ID Poor card, but Oun was surprised to see that the amount has dropped this month, from just over 300,000 riel (around $75) a month to about 20 per cent of that total.

When asked about her future dreams, Oun said she wanted nothing more than to pay off her debts and for her children to finish their education and find good jobs. She also appealed to anyone needing a tuk-tuk service in Siem Reap to get in touch with her. One of her regular customers is a surprisingly well-connected international guest of the Kingdom.

Earlier this month, Oun transported a prominent figure, Dominic​ Williams, UK ambassador to Cambodia. She admitted that she had no idea who he was, or of how important a job he holds.

A famous fan

“The man who posted the picture of me online always uses my tuk-tuk when he is in Siem Reap. Recently, his friends visited and he called me to make sure I would drive them around. Whenever his wife is in town, he arranges for me to transport her, too,” she says.

Dominic Williams took to social media on May 4, saying he always called Oun when he needs a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap because she knows her way around the town very well.

Dominic Williams, UK ambassador to Cambodia, is photographed with Pich Oun. He first met her in 2022, and has made a point of using her services whenever he is in Siem Reap ever since. Williams described how he and his wife 'love to support hard-working Cambodian women'. Dominic Williams via Facebook

He explained that he is pleased to support her whenever he can.

Williams told The Post that back in 2022, when he was learning the Khmer language at the Centre for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap, he often visited the Angkor Park via tuk-tuk. 

One day by chance, he booked Oun as his driver.

“It was the first time I had met a female tuk-tuk driver so I was very interested to chat with her. It also helped me to practise my Khmer. I was really impressed when she told me her story, and about how hard she worked to support her family,” he explains.

“I was also really impressed with her driving, her knowledge of the area and the excellent service she gives to customers – for example, she always had chilled bottles of water stored in a cool box for her guests. I often called her to drive me places during the rest of my stay in Siem Reap,” says Williams.

“When I left Siem Reap to return to the UK, I took Oun’s details and kept in touch when my family and I moved to Phnom Penh. Now, whenever we go to Siem Reap for a personal trip, we get in contact with her to arrange transport to visit the temples. My wife and I love to support hard-working Cambodian women,” he adds.

When asked why he liked the tuk-tuk service provided by women, Williams explains that the UK government launched its Women and Girls Strategy in 2023, which was designed to put women and girls at the heart of everything they do and to stand up for women’s rights. 

“This makes sense to me personally as I’m a big believer in gender equality, and in men supporting women’s rights,” he adds. 

He believes that women must rightly start demanding their full place in society, and women entrepreneurs have often been at the forefront of that. Women entrepreneurs have shown that women can do the same, and often better, than men. 

“They have brought fresh thinking and approaches to business, and often put more of their income back into supporting their families and communities,” he says, adding that his embassy really wants to see more women in leadership positions in business and across all sectors in Cambodia.