Ever since I was a kid, I was always fascinated to see people waiting outside the airport holding someone’s name. I wondered that someday, even I would step out and find a stranger with a board having my name on it! (Human desires I tell you, but who doesn’t like to feel a little special?)
“Riyaaankaaa, ohh yes!” – That’s how a smiling stranger greeted us at Siem Reap Airport. It felt like we were meeting a close cousin after years, who was as much excited to see us as we were, to find him amidst a crowd of unknown faces. Well, he was holding a placard with my name written on it.
“Me, Sunly. You are lucky, the rain just stopped… around 20 minutes to home… you must be tired,” he said, concerned enough. In a place where we knew none and nobody knew us, I felt secure as I hopped on his tuk-tuk. Sunly became a friend in no time!
As we drove past the countryside, Siem Reap seemed no different than how rural Bengal looks during monsoon – lush green with paddy fields, little huts and villagers cycling alongside.
“India is big. Many cars, big roads. Like Phnom Pehn. But Siem Reap, small place, only tourists” – that’s how Sunly introduced the place to us, in his broken English. In those 20 minutes, he chalked out our itinerary and what all we’ll be covering in the next couple of days, without even asking for the consent. All my Lonely Planet research failed, and I blindly trusted this person whom I had just met 20 minutes back!
The next day, at 3.30 in the morning, I somehow managed to drape a saree and stepped out while it was still pitch dark. Sunly was there, waiting for us, beaming with excitement to show us the Angkor.
It felt as if it was something he has created and wants us to witness his creation – his excitement knew no bounds! “Late, 15 minutes. Sun comes in some time”, he said, as he started his tuk-tuk.
Crossing the jungles on the way to one of the oldest temple complexes in the world, I could hear my own heartbeat. I had goosebumps as I was slowly moving towards the temple gates, thinking that I was finally going to see something that has always been there on my checklist.
On the way, Sunly stopped his tuk-tuk, next to a dimly lit shack amidst the wilderness. My heartbeat increased even more, for a moment I became suspicious of his actions. Mistrust is another human habit – we generally tend to think that someone will cause harm to us, especially if we don’t know that person. It’s the fear that takes over us – it’s the fear we need to get rid of. I realized this all over again, as Sunly brought a crate of water bottles, handed one over to me, saying “It will be hot when the sun comes. Keep drinking. This is my service for you.”
For a moment, my brain froze, as I tried to think why this person was being so good to me… or why was he so good to everyone!
It wasn’t for that day, but Sunly ensured that we eat and drink well throughout the journey, since the weather was extremely hot and exploring the Angkor involved a lot of walking (and sweating)!
Another day, when we went to see this waterfall at Kbal Spean, we missed having breakfast in the morning and by the time we reached, I was starving. Figured out that we have no cash with us and the local restaurants around the place had no card swiping machines. As we went and sat inside one of the shacks, the waitresses (who looked more like school girls who had bunked school to work) giggled amongst themselves understanding the fact that we had no money!
Of course, Sunly was a God for us then! He saw from a distance that something was happening, and came in to find out what was wrong. The girls exchanged some words with him in Khmer, which was beyond our comprehension – but the next minute, Sunly handed over 5 USD and said, “Eat, we have a long way to go!”
Once again, I was out of words! I was thinking how Uber drivers in my city never agree to return even 1 rupee and here was this man, a complete stranger, a new friend, a tuk-tuk driver, lending us money for breakfast! It felt as if he was our guardian in the city, ensuring that everything is fine for us. With his little gestures, he made me indebted to him, for life.
While crossing the Bayon temples on the last day, Sunly suddenly said – “Bye bye, Bayon. Come to see me in Delhi”. I was surprised again, thinking “Can Sunly read my mind as well?” It seemed like he could also feel the sadness that I was feeling while leaving.
“Show my photo to family and friends. They come to Siem Reap, I take them to Angkor. They tell me they are a friend of Riyanka. I know them,” Sunly said, as we were heading to board our bus for Phnom Pehn. In those couple of days, Sunly became the family in Siem Reap where I can always go back to. I asked him if Phnom Pehn had similar tuk-tuks or not, and he said, “Phnom Pehn – big city, big tuk-tuks! You like it.” There was a mix of sarcasm, humor, and sadness in his words.
From seeing me topple in a saree while getting on his tuk-tuk, to stopping at odd places whenever I wanted to pee, and buying us food to hunting a laundry guy around Siem Reap who took our clothes – Sunly did it all. For the first time in life, I saw someone who would even hesitate to ask for money for giving a ride.
“I take 3 dollars. Is it okay for you?” – Sunly’s broken English keeps echoing in my ears as I’m writing this. It feels like he’ll just come again at my doors to say, “Want to see Bayon, one last time?”
And then, again, the question comes – “How can a stranger be so good to me?”