Growing up as one of four siblings, Eric’s family never placed much emphasis on big birthday gifts or extravagant parties. Instead, the one treat he could look forward to every year was his birthday dinner when his Mom would prepare whatever meal he requested. Failing to realize the vast power at his disposal as menu dictator, Eric asked for spaghetti or sloppy joes every single year. Nevertheless, the meal and the company around the dinner table is what made each birthday special.
In 2012, on Eric’s 26th birthday, we found ourselves in Siem Reap, Cambodia. As an only child, Ting had a much different experience with birthdays and was determined to make Eric’s special. After a day of exploring temple ruins and lounging by the pool, we headed to dinner at Touich Restaurant. We made our way up a steep dirt road, ravaged by heavy rainfall earlier that afternoon. Mr. Sam (pronounced Som), the tuk tuk driver who had led us around the area the previous few days, clung to his motorcycle like a bull rider, dodging deep potholes and mud puddles that threw the vehicle from side to side. When we finally reached the restaurant, he was clearly exhausted from the ride. Usually using our mealtimes to take naps in his tuk tuk, Ting offered to buy Mr. Sam dinner, telling him to ask the waitstaff for anything he’d like off the menu.
We made our way to our table which had been decorated for a special birthday dinner for two. As we flipped through the menu, to our surprise, Mr. Sam pulled up a chair. Though unexpected, we both instantly liked the idea. With some input from Mr. Sam we ordered a banana flower salad, kampong som squid with green pepper sauce, grilled red snapper, a Khmer rib-eye beef filet with kampot pepper, and Khmer-style soup with chicken. Mr. Sam was skeptical of the banana salad and was completely unfamiliar with squid, but embraced every other dish as authentic Khmer cuisine. The men enjoyed pints of Angkor Beer while Ting sampled a Khmer mojito made with rice wine, mint, sugar, lime, and ginger. But the delicious fare was mostly an afterthought. The real star of our meal was the conversation with our unexpected dinner guest.
Also 26 years old, Mr. Sam is one of nine children all of whom still share a home with his parents. His family raises chickens and sells eggs at the local market. At times, when money is particularly tight, they are forced to eat the chickens upon which their business depends, jeopardizing future earnings in favor of a warm meal. They hadn’t been able to afford school when he was younger, so Mr. Sam studied English for free at a nearby Buddhist monastery. Now he drives his tuk tuk every day, ushering tourists around the ancient Angkor temples in the area. He uses his earnings to help fund his youngest sister’s schooling. She has a chance to become the fist of all eleven family members to finish high school, a feat that makes Mr. Sam noticeably proud.
What stands out from our interaction is Mr. Sam’s positivity and curiosity. He doesn’t dwell on the challenges facing his family or the troubled events from Cambodia’s past that have no doubt had a tremendous impact on his upbringing. Instead, he’s eager to show off the bits of Chinese, Japanese, and French he’s picked up from travelers he’s driven and is full of questions about our lives in America and China. He approaches everything with a smile on his face and an infectious kind sincerity. We weren’t the first customers to appreciate Mr. Sam’s company. He proudly directs our attention to his shiny new phone, a gift from a customer he drove a few weeks earlier.
Our meal ended with a birthday cake. We sent Mr. Sam home with the leftovers. He sent us home with an entirely new appreciation of the value of birthday dinners. More importantly, he taught us the importance of active traveling – not simply observing new places as an outsider, but engaging with the locals by sharing food, conversations, and ideas.
If you’re ever in Siem Reap, Cambodia, look for Mr. Sam outside the Frangipani Hotel, located at #0603 Street Wat Bo.