SIEM REAP: Ban Mon Thong is a tuk-tuk driver plying the streets of Siem Reap to support his wife and children. Sofia Goh is single and working in Singapore as a procurement executive.
Despite their cultural and language differences, their friendship is strong: They WhatsApp and send photos to each other regularly, and she has even visited his family.
When she visits Cambodia now, she is more than just a tourist – she is a welcome friend. And it all started with a “pleasant coincidence”.
“There are a lot of tuk-tuk drivers in Siem Reap. It just so happened that he was there at that time, at that place,” said Ms Goh, 25.
That time when they first crossed paths was 2015, when she was teaching in Cambodia on a volunteer trip. And the place was a cafe, where she had noticed Mr Ban parked outside in the rain, getting wet.
Almost on impulse, she invited him to join her and have a drink. “I guess a part of me wanted to connect even deeper with the people and the society that made up the country,” she said.
“Mr Ban was someone who definitely would’ve had a lot of stories.”
Thus did two strangers strike up a rather unique friendship, as featured on the programme Across Asean. (Watch the episode here.)
Ms Goh’s hotel was a short 100 metres away, but Mr Ban was not to know that until she hopped on his tuk-tuk later.
“I gave him US$10 (S$14) or US$20. He didn’t need the money from me, but I felt that I appreciated his time,” said Ms Goh.
“So he just told me, ‘Hey, thank you so much. You know I’m saving up for a camera phone. Can you give me your contact number? I’ll send you photos once I get my phone.’”
Some three months later, she received a text from him. “I was like, this guy really texted me!” she recounted. And the more they messaged each other, she added, “the more I felt level with him”.
BUILDING A RELATIONSHIP
For Mr Ban’s part, after their first contact, he thought that she would “forget everything” about him.
“But when she got my WhatsApp message, she replied, ‘How are you? How’s your family? I’ll visit Cambodia during such and such,” said the 30-year-old.
In Khmer, we say she’s a good person and open-minded. Sofia was a tourist, but she wanted to build relationships with Khmer people like me.
Born into a poor family with 10 siblings, he started working in village farms from young, as his parents were unable to finance his education.
When he moved to the city to drive a tuk-tuk, he started learning English. “There weren’t so many people who were literate in my area. Though I’m the son of a farmer, I felt I should study English,” he said.
“At that time, wherever English was taught for free (in the city), I’d go there to study.”
Still, he was always nervous to talk with foreigners. But then he met Ms Goh, and communicating with her gave him confidence.
Not only have they stayed in touch, they would also meet whenever she visits Cambodia every year.
“It’s nice to know a Cambodian,” she told him. “I don’t just see tour guides, I see you, and you’re working, you tell me about your family and you tell me about Cambodia. So that’s very nice.”
At the beginning, however, their relationship was “very business-driven”: She would recommend his tuk-tuk services to friends visiting Siem Reap.
Over time, they bonded through their mutual interest in photography as Mr Ban sent her pictures of Cambodia, his family and tourists.
“I like to take photos because I like to capture different places,” he said. “I send the photos to Sofia because I want to share with her the beautiful landscapes and continue our friendship.”
She called their photo correspondence a “picture diary kind of thing”, and added: "It’s really interesting seeing how things are through his perspective and what he chooses to capture.”
Mr Ban has also promised to show her the country whenever she visits. And Ms Goh has “always been curious” about Cambodia. “When I’m there with different people, I experience different things,” she said.
‘BIG STEP FORWARD’ IN FRIENDSHIP
In her latest visit, in April, she got to experience the country through Mr Ban this time.
He brought her to Phnom Krom, near Tonle Sap Lake, where lotus flowers were blossoming in the gardens. “In Siem Reap, this is the only place that has lotus flowers,” he told her.
To usher in the Khmer New Year, he invited her to his home to celebrate with his family and visit a temple to give offerings – much to her surprise.
The festival signifies the end of the harvest season. It is a time for reflection and thanksgiving as Cambodians pay respects to their ancestors and also take to the streets with water guns and pails of water to celebrate.
Said Ms Goh: “It was already a treat that he brought me to the lotus garden. Being able to go to Mr Ban’s house and share the New Year, I was really excited.”
He lives in a village not far from the city, with his wife Ty Navy, two young daughters and a third child on the way.
And before her visit, Ms Goh went shopping for them, buying a T-shirt for Mr Ban, toys and dresses for the children and a dress for his wife from a local market.
“To meet his family will be a very big step forward in our friendship,” she said. “Knowing Mr Ban is one thing, but being able to know his family is another.”
She was nervous of how they would react to a stranger from a different country, but their warm hospitality not only put her at ease, it also touched her.
They showed her around their home, and together they enjoyed a meal of rice, chicken and fish, which Mrs Ban had cooked. Ms Goh even did some colouring with the children.
Mr Ban said: “We’re just a simple family and don’t really know how to welcome Sofia, but I’m very happy to share and do things for her.”
She even met his grandmother, who was visiting them. “To be able to meet everybody brought me a lot of joy,” she said.
“The Mr Ban whom I first knew was a tuk-tuk driver. He’s now, in my eyes, a father, husband and homemaker. He’s not just a tuk-tuk driver any more.”
WATCH: Their unexpected friendship (Dur 3:36)
During the visit, Mrs Ban saw that there was good communication between her husband and Ms Goh. She said she does not, however, feel threatened. “My husband’s friendship is a good thing, and I welcome that friendship,” she said.
Other people would (be) jealous, but for me, it’s not like that … I feel proud that he’s brought a guest to our house.
At the temple, Ms Goh made offerings with the family, and Mr Ban even taught her how to chew a betel nut.
“Being able to share that moment with Mr Ban and his family at the temple felt very, very intimate, and it’s probably an experience that I’ll never ever forget,” she said, citing how he shared stories about their sacred traditions.
When they returned to his house for a party, however, Ms Goh got nervous as she took a while to warm up to his relatives. But they also made her feel welcome, and together they danced and ate some more.
“We couldn’t communicate by words but … it wasn’t about the words any more. It was really just (about) doing this together and having fun,” she said.
“Meeting his family, and being able to spend time with them and share a moment during their new year was really, really overwhelming and something I’ll never take for granted.”
Cambodia, to her, feels like home, and she appreciates the personal connections she has made with its people, who are “very nice” and “heartfelt”.
She knows that many others may not understand how she and Mr Ban can have a genuine friendship, but at the same time, she thinks it is not difficult to see “how great this friendship is”.
“I learned a lighter insight into life from Mr Ban – that you can have fun while you’re working hard,” she said.
“It kind of makes me want to be more like him. He’s very inspirational because he has a lot of stories to tell, and he’s very willing to tell. The conversation has got a lot deeper.”
The series Across Asean follows five relationships spanning all 10 countries in the region. Watch this episode here.