Get Up, Stand Up: Our Friend Nang

By Stephen Ewashkiw | May 5, 2014

13,578 km so far.

Since this is our last full day in Cambodia, I wanted to share one last Cambodian story with you.

Nang, who you may remember from our visit to Siem Reap, is a truly inspiring person.

His story is a reminder that no matter how down we feel, how low we have sunk, or how inevitable our future seems, we have the power to control our destiny, to reshape our future, to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.

The Early Years

Nang was born into a loving and large family in Sihanoukville, in a country that was just finding its feet after a terrible period of oppression. His father owned a gas station in the city, and the family lived in a large house in the middle of town – they were fairly well off and comfortable.

Then, when Nang was still a toddler, his father died.

When he died the family lost almost everything. The business was gone and with it their income. The one tangible thing they managed to hang on to was the family home.

Life changed dramatically for Nang. Alongside his brothers and sisters, he started collecting empty drink bottles to raise money to pay for school and to help feed the family. There were other odd jobs along the way, too. Anything that could raise a little extra was fair game.

His mother began selling rice at the market, to try and put food on the table for her 8 children. Money was so tight that if there was ever left-over cooked rice at the end of the day, they would set it out in the sun to dry so that it could be saved and recooked later. We have seen cooked rice drying in the sun a lot, but hadn’t figured out what it was for until Nang told us this.

Stepping Stones

Nang was determined to get a good education, and did everything in his power to make this a reality. When he graduated from high school, his mother took the family on a trip to see Angkor Wat. Even though there was really no money for such a trip, she wanted to make sure that her children had seen something so important to Cambodia.

Not only did Nang see the monuments, but he also saw a world of possibilities in Siem Reap. There were English-speaking tourists everywhere, and lots of job opportunities.

He made a plan on the spot. After learning English in Siem Reap, he would get a job, make money, go to university, get married, have a child, or five, and live happily ever after.

He bravely told his mother that he wasn’t going to go back to Sihanoukville with the rest of the family. He was going to stay in Siem Reap and get to work making a better life. Incredibly wise, his mother saw the value in this, and told her son that he was a man now, and he was ready to make his own decisions.

Nowhere To Go But Up

When he first settled in Siem Reap he had nothing. It is possible to find shelter with the monks, so he lived and ate at the pagoda (Buddhist temple) for free. Through the monks, he managed to get his hands on an English text book. Every day he studied, learning one page at a time. Each morning he would take this new knowledge with him to Angkor Wat, hoping to find some tourists willing to sit and chat with him.

He told us that for at least a full week going to Angkor Wat, he was too scared to approach anybody. Finally, during the second week, he screwed up the courage.

Would you believe a history lesson from this guy? Nang at Beng Mealea.

Reaching for your dreams takes lots of strength.

It is hard to imagine how difficult this would have been. Tourists are so wary, having been warned by countless friends and guide books that everything is a scam. I can’t fathom how people would have reacted when this young Khmer man approached them asking if they would spend a few minutes speaking English with him.

He must have heard no a thousand times a day. But every so often, he heard yes.

Eventually, his English was good enough that he got a job driving a tuk tuk. He would talk to the tourists he drove around, using this as an opportunity to improve his English. However, he turned out to be a really bad tuk tuk driver. It’s a physically demanding job, and Nang was too small to manoeuvre the tuk tuk well.

Hearing Nang’s story made us look at tuk tuk drivers in a brand new light. Backpackers, and tourists in general, are famous for the negativity they direct at tuk tuk drivers.

After our conversation with Nang, we saw his face, his experiences, and his struggle in each one of the drivers who approached us. Instead of brushing them off as pests, we now speak to them as fellow human beings. In turn, this helps them see us as more than just a potential fare, and we have better experiences as a result.

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Since Nang’s English was, by this point, quite strong, he was able to get a job as a car and van driver for tourists. His boss could see he would be an asset, able to offer clients tips on things to see and do in town.

Nang took the job very seriously. He spent his free time looking up the histories of the Angkor Wat temples, as well as the less well known ones around the area. He particularly enjoyed learning about the spiritual stories carved into temple walls, and shared several of them with us as we looked around Beng Mealea. He eventually had so much knowledge to share, he became more an unofficial tour guide than a driver.

The College Years

This is where fate intervenes.

One day Nang was driving a group of Americans around the temples. One of them – we’ll call him MM – is a friend of mine. MM was talk-talk-talking with Nang, which I am sure made Nang very happy, and I know made MM happy. He LOVES to talk.

They hit it off and kept in touch by email after MM went home.

The next step in Nang’s plan was to go to university. This was a difficult hurdle for him. On his van driver salary he would never be able to afford it. He was hoping for a promotion to tour guide, but his boss kept him hanging on, promising to promote him, but never following through.

Then, one day, MM asked Nang to do some research, and find the best university in Siem Reap. Nang told MM about Build Bright University.

MM told him to enrol, that he would pay Nang’s fees.

It was Nang’s turn to be skeptical. Is this a scam, he wondered. What’s the catch?

Incredibly, there was no catch, just an amazingly generous offer. That was a few years ago. Now, he is on the cusp of graduating.

When we were setting up our plans to meet Nang, MM sent us a pre-graduation gift for him. It came with a brief but heartfelt message: Don’t fuck up.

We really don’t think this is a problem. Nang is so driven and so passionate, it is awe-inspiring.

The Next Generation

Another part of Nang’s plan recently came together. Not too long ago, he married a woman he has known since childhood. They used to study together as kids, and now, they make a life together.

They recently celebrated the birth of their son, Simon. Simon is learning English and Chinese (his mother speaks it fluently), and Nang is preparing to give him the best education he can afford.

We asked Nang how all of this was possible – to start with nothing and end up achieving so many dreams.

He told us how it all came one step at a time, that you have to have a plan, and work on each piece without letting the big picture overwhelm you.

Sounds a lot like something I would say, doesn’t it?

Recently I asked Nang if we could share his story with you. His reply sums up his spirit perfectly.

I am happy to share all of my hard life story. I hope all the hopeless people will try their best to stand up.

Nang is now working towards his next goal of buying a house for his family. While studying, he also runs a real-estate office in Siem Reap. If you need a sweet deal on some property near Angkor Wat, let us know and we’ll hook you up.  


  1. Comment by Jane

    Jane December 21, 2015 at 9:22 pm

    I love that story! It is awful to see travellers being mean to people trying to earn a living, like the Tuk Tuk drivers.I love riding in tuk tuk’s. They are cheap and fun. Why do some folk get so mean, we all need to share the money around a bit. Buying small trinkets from sellers and kids, it all helps. Great site guys. I love reading your stories. Add your site to – send a few details and an image, do not need to pay anything (there is a $10 fee) but just ignore that part!) Hooroo!

  2. Comment by Theary Kem

    Theary Kem June 11, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Inspiring story for sharing this and for others who have struggled to live under this corrupt and brutal dictatorship. Hopefully for the younger generation to stand up and fight for their rights and freedom.

    I left Cambodia over thirty years ago as I had to stow away from Sihanoukville port and came to the US. I am retired now and traveling to Cambodia every year to volunteer.


    • Comment by Stephen

      Stephen June 11, 2014 at 6:29 pm

      Hi Theary,
      So glad this post found you, and thank you for reading and writing. I too hope the young generation will stand up and throw off the corruption and single-party rule they still live under. I feel that with the improvements in the standard of living that seem to now be occurring this is inevitable. The government also seem to be aware of this, considering their recent announcements allowing a small shift in the system. Please keep going home and volunteering as much as you can.

  3. Comment by David B.

    David B. May 10, 2014 at 10:33 am

    It must be much more satisfying to give this kind of help without using the big charity organisation, and now you’ve got a friend for life, Micha..Mr MM! ;-)

    Nice story, thanks for sharing it!

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane May 11, 2014 at 5:42 pm

      Yes, I would expect it be gratifying to help someone so directly, especially someone who is so deserving of all the opportunities he can get.

  4. Comment by Geoff

    Geoff May 10, 2014 at 3:21 am

    Thank you, Stephen, and Nang, for sharing this story. Inspiring, and in the face of all the opportunities we have at our fingertips, humbling.

    • Comment by Jane

      Jane May 11, 2014 at 5:48 pm

      I really wish we could somehow instil this desire to learn in kids in the west. The divide between all those kids who hate school, and all the kids we met here who want nothing more than to go to school, is crazy.

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