Business Secrets from a Cambodian Tuk-Tuk


In Phnom Penh, Cambodia I met Mr. Rhet, who held up a copy of my book to greet me at the arrivals area. Mr. Rhet, also known as Rhett or just Ret, is a professional tuk-tuk driver.

The open-air taxis of Southeast Asia, tuk-tuks serve as an interesting introduction to life in the region, and I’ve had both good and bad experiences with them.

Two years ago in Bangladesh, I rode in a death-trap tuk-tuk with a driver determined to provide me with a Formula 1 experience on the road to the Dhaka airport at 11:00 at night. To no avail, I kept yelling “Please slow down!” every time we rounded a corner or ducked in front of a sea of motorcycles. Almost an hour later I arrived at my destination, covered in sweat and shaking with fear. I survived, but aged at least a year in that 50-minute ride.

But in Cambodia last weekend (and plenty of other places), all was well in tuk-tuk land, and I felt safe using them as my primary means of transport. In fact, I enjoyed my time with Mr. Rhet so much that I decided to learn more about the whole tuk-tuk industry.

The Experience

If tuk-tuks are not available to take you around to cafes in your part of the world for $1-2 a ride, these videos from the back of Rhet’s chariot will give you an idea of what you’re missing.

Tuk-Tuk Cha-Ching

Informal surveys of expats and other drivers confirmed that most tuk-tuk drivers earn around $2-5 a day. But Mr. Rhet earns up to $50 a day in Phnom Penh, a princely sum in the world of Cambodian transport. How is this possible?

It helps that Rhet speaks some English, although he learned on the job and didn’t have access to any formal training. To understand more, I talked with Rhet off and on for three days as he drove me around the city last weekend. These are the business secrets of maxing out your income as a Cambodian entrepreneur.

Work smarter AND harder. According to Mr. Rhet (and much firsthand observation), the average tuk-tuk driver is lazy. He spends his days sleeping, drinking tea, and playing cards. While it’s nice that the tuk-tuk lifestyle allows for so much leisure time, multiple naps throughout the day are not conducive to getting paid. Rhet works hard, always staying “busy busy” as he explained. He gave me his number and told me to call anytime. “I will come to you right away,” he said.

A good work ethic is critical, but Rhet also learned to focus on foreigners who live in Phnom Penh, not the backpackers and other short-term travelers who come and go. The difference is important, since it allows him to get paid for more trips, and also earn referrals to other expats as his client list grows.

Diversify your income. Mr. Rhet has a banner on the back of his tuk-tuk for a local coffee shop. He is paid $7 a month to display the banner, and a small commission for bringing foreign customers to the shop. (Interestingly, despite the commission he never tried to bring me to the shop. I took this as another good sign, since he wasn’t trying to push me on something I wasn’t interested in.) At the request of other clients, Rhet also arranges trustworthy taxi drivers to ferry passengers on longer distances—for which he also earns commissions.

Provide reassurance. No matter your business, you should think about the reasons why people will NOT hire you or buy what you sell—then be sure to preemptively respond to those concerns. The concerns about riding in a tuk-tuk are a) safety and b) trustworthiness. “I am a careful driver,” Mr. Rhet told me when I first met him, and unlike my death-wish driver in Dhaka, he really was.

Furthermore, some tuk-tuk drivers are dishonest, cheating foreigners who don’t know better and lying about market rates. As you’d expect, Mr. Rhet isn’t like that at all—he sometimes dropped me off without taking any payment at all, and other times told me to decide for myself what to pay. Being trustworthy and reliable goes a long way in Cambodia… just like everywhere else in the world.

Be reliable. If I had an appointment with Rhet, he would always be there—in fact, he was usually early. In almost every developing country in the world, people talk about “Cambodian time,” “African time,” or similar. But Rhet understood that Silk Air flights to Singapore and meetings in town operate on Western time, so I didn’t feel the need to tell him to come any earlier than I really needed. If I told him to come at 4:30, I could walk outside at 4:25 and see him turning the tuk-tuk around the corner to park.

Get to know people and show initiative. Mr. Rhet was very friendly from the beginning. He asked when my return flight was and if he could take me back to the airport. I’m normally hesitant to answer questions like that, but I had a good feeling about Rhet, so I didn’t mind telling him. This ensured he got paid twice for airport runs, a nice wage of $7 each time since the airport is a half-hour out from the city. When we said goodbye, he asked me to tell anyone I knew about his service. (I don’t think he expected me to tell 50,000 people, but perhaps that’s another lesson on where initiative can get you.)


Motivational Tuk-Tuk Reading

Back to the Airport

As we passed the “King Pizza Burger Bubble Tea Restaurant” and the “Johnny Walker On the Rocks Nightclub” on the way back to the airport, I thought about the divide between people all over the world. Most people spend their time playing cards and drinking tea, while a smaller group of people like Rhet are hustling. Which group are you in?

Then as I left Cambodia, I thought about how I could apply Rhet’s lessons to my own business. I think I’m generally reliable… but how can I be even more reliable? Yes, I get paid from several different sources, but what else could I add? How can I show more initiative and creativity in the projects I’m building?

These “business secrets” may sound very simple—but the point is, most tuk-tuk drivers in Cambodia don’t implement them, so they make $2-5 a day while Rhet earns ten times as much. Not everything that refers to tuk-tuk drivers is universal, but I’m pretty sure that most of us could apply at least one lesson from Rhet to make real improvements in the work we produce.

What about you—how can you use these simple ideas to improve your own business or work?

Feel free to share a response for our community and any other tuk-tuk drivers who happen to be reading AONC.

Oh, and if you’re visiting Phnom Penh and need a reliable driver, you can hire Mr. Rhet yourself by calling +855 12 543 767. (Please don’t call him otherwise, so he can spend his time working and being with his family.)


Images and Inspiration: Stephanie

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  • Natalie says:

    The only comment I have is that he also EXPECTS the result. You get what you expect, not what you deserve!

  • Vic Neshyba says:

    Chris … Wonderful story and good commentary. I also appreciate that you occasionally give a boost to small business owners … I’m sure it’s appreciated. Many months ago you mentioned the Waffle Window (WW) in Portland OR. I made note of it knowing I would eventually visit relatives in the area. Five of us went out of our way recently to eat there based solely on your recommendation. What a wonderful treat. I’ve since returned home, but my kinfolk have made return visits to the WW. Thanks! -Vic (Austin TX)

  • Ginger says:

    Lovely and very refreshing input from the outside world!

    I find it always amazing what we can learn from other cultures. As western societies we tend to look down on other cultures. But someone who travels like you do, always finds something to learn from, particulary when you travel solo. A regular tourist (hotel with the same crowd) would never had paid attention to the tiny details of his/her surrounding like you did.

    Something I have learned from your great description is the necessity to keep more channel of income open when one is self employed. The busy, busy part is obvious, though sometimes one tends to deviate from the main goal.

    Very refreshing – please send more pictures. Hope you have a comfi night at the HKT airport 🙂
    Have a great and interesting trip. I whish I could join you.

  • Linda says:

    What a wonderful tribute to a hard-working and honorable man. When I watched the videos, I felt myself twisting and turning a bit. It reminded me of getting around Bangkok, although we rode in nice air-conditioned vans. Lucky us!

    I imagine Mr. Rhet is very pleased that you devoted a post to him and his formidable work ethic and entrepreneurial skills.

    Awesome, inspiring, and useful:).

    TY Mr. Rhet, and Chris.

  • John Carpenter says:

    As always, great post. This one in particular reminds me that those who are good always strive to be great, and that’s where we find people who are successful — in life, in love, in business, and in relationships.

  • Savita says:

    Chris, Seems to be something in the air in Cambodia. We, my husband and I, had much the same experience there. Wonderful people, very friendly. Our tuk-tuk driver was so honest that we could leave our shopping in the vehicle while we roamed around the market. Good article!

  • Claire Boyles says:

    Wow!! Rhett’s Tuk Tuk even has a rear view mirror!! Height of Luxury!

    I spent Winter 2009-2010 on a lovely island Koh Lanta in Thailand- the Tuk Tuk’s there certainly didn’t have any mirrors on! fun to ride in though!

    Thanks for sharing, great little piece on some fundamentals of business that I could go some way to improve, as could many.

  • Dan Waters says:

    Good to hear this kind of thing works and makes an impact on people. It’s particularly good since this philosophy is the whole thrust behind the brand of my business – ‘The World’s Most Helpful Photographer’. This quote sums it all up nicely: “Honesty is not only the best policy. It is rare enough nowadays to make you pleasantly conspicuous.” Charles H. Brower. He was chairman of the advertising agency BBD & O – Batten, Barten, Durstine and Osborn

  • Bryan says:

    It gives us some perspective too, how hard Mr. Rhet works for his $50 and how easily we can earn that same $50 in the US. Thanks for sharing, Chris.

  • Evelyne says:

    I love it! Rhet is my new business Guru. Chris, this is a great way to relate the ideas and beautifully written.
    Thank you for this, it made me smile and I adore the picture of Mr Rhet reading your book. How cool is that!! Evelyne

  • Daniel Mick says:

    Would he be willing to move to India and make even more money teaching auto-rickshaw drivers ANY of his tips…?

    Good story and good insight. And good for Rhet for providing awesome service to everyone all the time; it will pay dividends when some of those 50,000 visit Phnom Penh.

  • Munro Murdock says:

    This is a great article. It illustrates the fact that we are surrounded by amazing examples of inspiring entrepreneurs, both big and small.

    The take away for me from Mr. Rhet’s example is to identify and take the few key but critical steps required to stand out from the crowd, to differentiate yourself as the “preferred” product or service. Sometimes the added effort required to do so is minimal!

    By providing world-class service in his niche business he is able to outperform the “average” tuk-tuk driver. He demonstrates the long-term perspective and recognizes the lifetime value of a customer. He delivers true value and the dollars naturally follow.

  • Matthew Bailey says:

    Great post Chris. One more reason I can’t wait to travel again. I love stories like this. I think its great that he targeted a particular market and is very honest with his customers. I think many people turn away from “fun rides” like this because they feel they will be ripped off in some way or another. If people knew they were honest like in this case, even more customers would be lined up for rides. It’s a great business practice to hold on to but I hope he takes breaks sometimes 🙂

  • Momekh says:

    In my recent project – of dairy farming in Pakistan – I observed the same rules that Mr Rhet applies; working harder AND smarter, and being just good ol-fashioned reliable. This is universal, these ‘honesty, integrity, reliability’ values.
    But they are so easy to avoid. Mr Rhett does this because he has found a way to ‘enjoy his work’ … the other tuk-tukk’ers (!!) probably find ‘fun’ in lazying around, but Mr Rhet’s types convince themselves and readjust their perspective on work. And fun. Hence the unconventionality of it all.
    Super. Come to Pakistan some time, man. I owe you dinner.

  • Aarthi says:

    I just got back from cambodia Chris. Enjoyed the tuk-tuk success allegory. Have been reading your newsletter for a long time now. And every one of your posts is equally inspiring, insightful and good! Am amazed at your consistency 🙂

  • Deborah A. says:

    Just the ‘kick in the pants’ I needed. I recently had a similar experience with a driver named ‘Jimmy’ in Jamaica. As a small business owner, I manufacture products that span several markets. It’s so easy to take my freedom for granted and not get back to the inquiries that could bring in more revenue and help me to employ more people. ( I ‘m currently working on a project to employ young adults with disabilities and when I’m ‘lazy’ that project suffers the most.) Thanks for the wake-up call!

  • Steven W. Siler says:

    It stands to reason that Mr. Rhet would be successful in any business that he applied himself to…something a lot of us don’t admit.

    There are two commonalities throughout the world: Business and People. Business is providing goods and services people are willing and able to pay for, and People have the same needs, desires and fears from here in Bellingham, Washington to Phnom Penh.

    It took 20 years in “business” for me to internalize this, and now it is almost easy if it weren’t so much fun (I am doing travel cookbooks). Chris, continue to share this message in the simplest of terms for all of us.

  • Matt Huton says:

    Refreshing profile, Chris — hope you continue to find folks like Rhet and tell us about them. Also makes me want to go to Cambodia 😉

  • sayhien says:

    loved it 🙂

  • Erica Gott says:

    Great post, Chris. Your message is loud and clear, and I just loved reading about Rhet and his business. Great vids, too.

  • Lisa says:

    You are a fabulous storyteller and very insightful person. I love this and thank you for sharing it. I recently lost my job and have decided to start writing and I appreciate Natalie’s comment – I haven’t “expected” to make it as a writer. But I will learn from your article and stop going about it so leisurely. Gotta go, time to get busy!

  • Daryl C says:

    What a great comparison Chris. Two different parts of the world, two very different lines of work, yet you found commonalities between the two.

  • Shawna R. B. Atteberry says:

    “I don’t think he expected me to tell 50,000 people, but perhaps that’s another lesson on where initiative can get you.”

    Not to mention those of us who never even thought about going to Cambodia, who now want to go just to meet Mr. Rhet.

    And Lisa is right: you are a fabulous storyteller, and I love that you share so much of your travels with us.

  • Teri says:

    I loved the story. Being a self employed business owner myself, I am grateful to you on Mr. Rhet’s behalf for giving such a wonderful testimonial and for respecting him as a professional businessman being top drawer in his craft. That goes a long way when word of mouth is your main source of referral.

  • Debbie Beardsley says:

    This was a very informative story. I loved learning about tut-tut’s but the lessons learned were equally impressive. It strikes me that no matter how long we look for the answers to improve our businesses the answers are right in front of us and remain the same in all languages.

  • Joel says:

    I love hearing entrepreneurial stories like this in developing countries. Really cool to see guys like Rhet succeeding in the face of what’s expected. Good stuff Chris.

  • Wifey of a Roadie says:

    Nice story on hard work and owning your own business!!

  • Joy says:

    During our trip to Cambodia and Laos in December 2008, we too encountered many of the tuk-tuk drivers of Phnom Penh and elsewhere. I totally agree with what you have written about industriousness vs. laziness, although I observed very little of the latter. I even looked out of our hotel window late one night to see a tuk-tuk driver sleeping in his tuk-tuk across the street! Talk about being available on a moment’s notice! The one thing I really hated were the TOO industrious drivers, the one’s who drove along side of us when we were out walking and wouldn’t leave up alone with their endless haranguing about how we needed to use their services. The streets of Phnom Penh are already fraught with enough beggers getting right in your face. We certainly didn’t enjoy agressive tuk-tuk drivers getting into the act.

  • janewilk says:

    This is great. Thanks for sharing it!
    I have an unrelated question after watching the videos posted above: Why is it that so many of the people on the street in Cambodia wear white shirts and black pants/skirts? I’m asking this honestly. It just struck me visually in the videos!

  • Jordan Bowman says:

    Funny how little things make all the difference.

  • Nicky Spur says:

    Cool post — I’m just imagining this guy wondering how so many travel savvy people suddenly want him to drive them somewhere when they arrive in Cambodia.

    Smart business practices apply at all levels it seems…

  • Claire Winters says:

    Love it. It’s a wonderful feeling to enter into a business relationship with a vendor who knows that his or her trustworthiness is their biggest capital. I’ll follow that businessperson into whatever endeavor they take on because I know they have a lot at stake; they’re not just trying to ‘get by.’ The story encourages me to look at the things on my plate where I might be guilty of ‘getting by’ and to move them off so that I can focus better on working hard and smart at the services I can be exceptional at providing.

  • Jeremy Long says:

    Great story! The slogan “Get off your A**” translates the same in every language.

    Thanks for sharing Chris

  • Trixie says:

    I had almost the exact same experience with Mr Kheang in Siem Reap! Its great to see them parlay one ride (back from a restaurant for instance) into an entire day’s worth of work or more.

  • Leonie says:

    Inspirational and beautifully written. I’d be happy to read an entire book about Mr Rhet.

    It just goes to show that whatever you do, if you do it well, take the time to understand what your clients want, and provide good old fashioned customer service, your business will grow.

  • Ashley says:

    I have nothing profound to say. I just had to stop and tell you — I love it! I was laughing aloud when you said he asked you to tell others about his services, and that telling 50,000 people probably wasn’t what he expected. Great story! Thank you.

  • Sheila Carroll says:

    Chris…having visited Lagos, New Delhi, and a few other places where tuk-tuk (or something like it) is the only way, I appreciate your insights. I have seen the dramatic differences between those who do and those who don’t. It doesn’t matter what hemisphere you live in; it matters what you do in that hemisphere. Rhet is intentional in his work and (I bet) his life. Knowing Indonesia, I suspect he has a large extended family he is supporting.

  • Joseph Doughty, DC says:

    Quality service always trumps marketing “tactics”, “gimmicks” and “tricks”.

    Hard work is rewarded, even if it doesn’t appear so in the beginning.

    Even with Tuk-Tuk drivers.
    Thanks for sharing this post.

  • Nate says:

    “Sovan” is the name of *my* Tuk Tuk driver in Cambodia. I met him in Siem Reap several years ago. The most honest, hard working, reliable, and gentle man you could ever meet. He has given me more perspective on the world than any education or life experience I have ever had. I don’t say this lightly – I am well travelled (I visited twenty countries last year), well educated, and dare I say it, street-wise. I have since sent much business to Sovan, and now the multiplier effect means that people from all around the world are contacting Sovan for the tour of a lifetime – at $12 a day!

    Cambodia should be top of the list for all travellers. It is the bargain destination of the world, in my opinion.

    My message to everyone is – there is more to life than the 9-5, if you can grab it, grab it with both hands and chew like hell.

  • GutsyWriter says:

    I’d like to know which page Mr. Rhet was reading in your book as he looks pretty intense, and his lips look like he’s reading out loud to you. Was he?

  • Bill Liebler says:

    We had a similar experience up the road in Siem Reap when went to visit Angkor Wat over Chinese New Year this year. Sarith (wish I had his number to give out) – happened to be the tuk-tuk driver in the hotel parking lot when we ventured on the first day. He charged $15 USD for the day, but because he was safe, reliable, spoke great English, and offered suggestions on which temples to see when and where to have lunch, I paid him more – $20 for the day. I believe he also worked other gigs to generate more. The next day he met promptly and was ready to go. We stayed in town the last day and I could tell he was very disappointed, but I walked away from Siem Reap thinking what a wonderful place and what wonderful people and Sarith was a big reason for that.

    Great application to how we all should be – friendly, prompt, dependable, focused, and knowledgeable. Now time for me to figure out to drive different sources of income into my life.

  • Elissa says:

    I love every post but I loved this post even more! It makes such a difference to hear someone’s story. Makes us remember that we’re all human!

    I can’t wait to take a trip in Rhet’s Tuk Tuk someday. He sounds swell.

  • Joe Le Merou says:

    Great story !
    He sure doesnt look like your average tuk-tuk driver 🙂

  • glen evans says:

    I love to hear stories of focused people. I admire Mr. Rhett and his outlook. Thank you for looking for ways to improve your business and sharing the universal principles of success.

  • Darlene says:

    We had a bad tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok. He took us to an overpriced restaurant and the food wasn’t that great either. We had better on the street actually. Then he dragged us to two jewelry stores and after the first one we insisted not going to another one but he went anyway. So we took off and he followed us, demanded money and gave us the finger and some Thai cursing!

    It’s good to see there are good ones to make up for the nasty ones.

  • anna says:

    Nice experience.

    That´s mainly true about Tuk-tuk drivers in Cambodia comparing to Thailand: As it doesn´t exist any taxi or bus in Phnom Penh, everybody use tuk-tuk or motodop (foreign AND locals). So the probability to find someone reliable is high, even 99% cases because if not (bad tuk-tuk driver) the market shoot him. It is not an activity dedicated for tourists, they don´t try to provide “quick, bad, without future, expensive” experience.

    Anyway, just 2 things to add to this article:

    – The tuk-tuk activity is managed by cartels and “gang-business” influence circles as an economy sector. (try to do tuk-tuk yourself and you will get in big troubles)

    – Most of them are under 30, they are young students with university degree (license or master) in economics or engineering. Tuk-tuk driver is a fairly easy way to get money without having responsability. They can´t find a fair job.It is a break for the development of economy, it avoid the creation of enterprises…

  • Meang Suon says:

    Hi everyone,

    + I am sorry if my words above sounded ‘promotional’. It’s not… The fact is that I tried to connect with Chris’ points regarding traits of Mr. Rhet: hard working, initiative and punctual man…. and how Chris got to see other lazy, heavy-headed drivers..

    + I really like Joseph Daughty’s comment on QUALITY. Yes, that’s very correct. That’s why I always remind our tuk tuk driver to keep their tuk tuks, motorbike in good condition as some temples require about 1h to 2hrs each way.
    And then spend quality time with family is important. We’re poor so we encourage & remind each other to be WISE with our little money, be a good provider for the family, not beer’s leading consumers.
    Many thanks for Reading…

  • Larry Hill says:

    I was in a taxi once in Wellington, New Zealand and asked the driver how was business – re responed “just fantastic”. I commented that this was the first time I had heard that as most drivers complain about it being slow and difficult since the governement deregulated the industry and now there were far too many taxi’s on the road. The driver responded “Ah yes – but how many of them were from Cambodia like me”

    Its all in the perspective – he came from a tough environment where he had to work hard – bring that same work ethic to NZ presneted a great opportunity – just like Mr Rhet

  • Agnes says:

    would appreciate if you could send me the tuktuk driver’s contact? I frequent cambodia, and am sick of being overcharged by grumpy tuktuk drivers

  • flavio says:

    I have just finished your book, I read this wonderful stories and both are great. I am sure it will hustle me and my friend in the pursue of our freedom too. I loved Cambodia and never though that such a few simple but important skills could transform the life of a very honest and industrious tuk-tuk driver.

  • James Schipper says:

    I’ve been saving this article for two and a half years. I hope Mr. Rhet is still in Phnom Penh, because I’ll be there next week, and would love to give him our business.

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