When Channa Uy was little, she had just one dream. This dream was to own a house for her family. Growing up in Siem Reap, she lived in one room with her mother and two sisters. “There was water leaking all the time,” she tells me on Skype. “After 20 minutes of rain we’d get so soaked we couldn’t sleep. It flooded every year.”
Her father, absent most of her childhood, passed away when she was 12. It was at this point that she made a vow: “I made a promise to myself to look after my family. My mum never had a house for herself and I always wanted her to have one, it really was my biggest dream.”
Channa’s mother was an orphan and was not educated. She sold fruit and vegetables at a local market to provide for her three daughters. “She worked so hard to send us to school,” recounts Channa, “It was tough for her”.
Growing up, my mum always told us that “education is not heavy”. When I was little I always asked, “What does this mean?” When I wasn’t at school I would help her sell fruit. We’d transport the fruit in a basket on our bicycles. It was super heavy, especially the watermelons! Then I understood what she meant. She couldn’t explain any better, but she knew that if we were educated we wouldn’t have to carry such heavy fruit. Well, I think that’s what she meant..!
Backtracking for just a moment, the first thing Channa says to me is an apology. A pre-emptive apology, in case I don’t understand her accent and close-to-perfect English. She’s sweet, softly spoken and has a ready laugh. She’s fun, too. Though animated when talking about her passions – her country’s history and cuisine – it’s her determination to look after her family which stands out most.
After high school, Channa was offered a scholarship to study in Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. She had no relatives there to help with living costs, so had to turn it down (“It was hard,” she says – a likely understatement). But with that dream of a house for her mother still in the back of her mind, she got a job as a waitress in a restaurant instead. “I started to give money to my mum for my sisters to go to school. They were very clever but we just didn’t have the money. The tipping money I had left, I saved to go to university.”
Indeed, she did make it to university, where she studied banking and finance. But her family’s finances themselves remained problematic. She desperately needed more money. Money to ensure one sister could study as a midwife, money to ensure her other sister could become a teacher, and, of course, for her mum, for the house of her dreams.
Soon after, she encountered Intrepid, interviewed successfully, and became one of the company’s only female tour guides in Cambodia. The year was 2012, and she had stumbled upon a career she loved. One that would, eventually, change her life.
In this career she’s been able to focus on Cambodia’s history and food, her two loves. “I feel so proud of Cambodian history,” she gushes. She loves explaining to visitors that there is so much more to it than the Khmer Rouge; most don’t realise that Cambodia was once a great empire in Southeast Asia. In order to fully show this off she loves leading 14-day trips that allows tourists to see the best of Cambodia.
She also loves leading the Cambodian trip that’s dedicated to Cambodian cuisine (“I LOVE that trip, because I love eating!”). That’s no exaggeration – she then takes me through her favourite dish, prohok ktis, in painstaking detail – listing all the ingredients and, later, Skype messaging me more delicious dishes to check out.
She’s happy that her job lets her show travellers her country in an authentic way. “I love taking people to homestays. It reminds me of when I was little because you can see the stars.” She tries to help fellow Cambodians through her actions. Whenever she can, she recommends visitors go to restaurants that support locals NGOs (‘Friend’ in Phnom Penh, ‘Marum’ in Siem Reap, in case you’re interested).
But perhaps the best consequence of Channa’s job at Intrepid? Well, you can probably guess. Yes, she was able to save up for that dream house. “The money I saved from working at Intrepid, plus the money my sisters saved from work meant we could afford to build a new house,” she says proudly. I see glimpses of it as we video chat. It’s modern, it’s clean, and importantly, it doesn’t leak when it rains. “It was just finished a few months ago,” Channa tells me. “It is amazing, I had dreamed of it for so long.”
It only stands to reason that when I ask Channa for memorable moments of being a tour guide that her house is involved:
I was leading a tour when my housewarming was happening. Housewarming is very important in Cambodia – it’s a big ceremony and you invite a monk to come and pray. You invite your family, your friends, your neighbors. It’s very important you do it right, so you meet with a fortune teller and they tell you what time to do the ceremony. I went into the office in Cambodia to ask for a guide to replace me for the day of the housewarming. Instead, they gave me permission to take my tour to my home for it. All the group loved it so much. It was a real cultural thing for them to see and it was an honour for me and my mum and my sisters. It was great. It was such an honour.
Anecdotes aside, it’d be unfair to say that being a female tour leader in Cambodia is without its challenges. Channa is now one of five female guides for Intrepid (there are 35 altogether). And out of all the tour guides in Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat means big business, just 15 per cent are female.
(She was also just one of three Cambodian female guides selected by UNESCO to spend a week in Macau on a teaching trip. She passed the exams from that, and her National Tour Guide license exams with flying colours. Of course.)
Why so few woman? Traditional gender roles remain rigid in Cambodia. “In Cambodian culture, women are not supposed to talk loudly. They work in an office or stay at home.” Channa’s job is very different and has affected her ability to find a husband. “Men think I’m a threat because I talk to foreigners and earn money,” she says. “Getting married is very important here so some people think I’m a very bad person because I’m not. I just have to find a person who can accept me for who I am.”
She does want to have a family and children in the future, but also wants to be a tour leader as long as possible because she loves the job. “The people that come with Intrepid don’t come for big hotels, they come to see the country,” she reports happily.
“I hope the world starts to know more about Cambodia – just hearing about Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge is not quite enough. You have to come and see how people live, to try out the food, to meet the people.”
But her hopes and dreams are bigger than this. Before we say goodbye on Skype she says to me, “I hope some Cambodians will read what you write. I hope that Cambodian women will go out to work and won’t let their culture hold them down. I want Cambodian women to know that they can do more than the housework. I want Cambodian women to stand up for themselves.”
I do too. So should you, and so does Intrepid. The company is committed to gender-balancing its entire tour guide force.
Support them in this commitment by taking a trip to Cambodia. What will you get out of it? For starters, the knowledge that you’ll be supporting women like Channa work towards goals like getting a house. The knowledge that you’re supporting a wider initiative towards gender equality in the tourism industry. Oh, and the most experience-rich, memorable trip you could possibly hope for. But we think that goes without saying…
Want to join Channa on one of her incredible Intrepid tours? Check out our range of small group adventures in Cambodia.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Gabe Taviano, Channa Uy, Gabe Taviano, Channa Uy, Gabe Taviano, Channa Uy)