Behind the wheel of the eye-catching lavender Jeep is Ley Sreyneang, a young woman who has overcome old-fashioned gender bias to run driving tours for visitors to Siem Reap.
The 24-year-old says she feels emancipated as she takes tourists on exciting trips, living up to the company’s motto of “Empowering Women One Adventure at a Time” while contributing to local women’s rights and supporting the education of the next generation.
“I was very happy when I first learned how to drive a car and speak English – and very proud. I’m really excited to be able to show my capabilities as a woman,” Sreyneang tells The Post.
“As a guide on this amazing tour, I like to explain to international tourists all about Cambodian culture, from marriage to farm work. If they see something interesting, they will ask questions and laugh when I explain with humour. As well as all the fun, my guests feel safe and trust my driving ability.”
Sreyneang says she loves her job as a female driver and guide with Lavender Jeep, which was founded in 2017 as part of the Bridge of Life School organisation.
Bridge of Life School was established in 2009 with a focus on providing English-language education to rural children to give them employment opportunities in tourism-driven Siem Reap province, Lavender Jeep director Roeun Sarin says.
As well as English lessons, the organisation uses income from the tours to provide computer and sewing classes for the children and women who attend their four schools.
Despite receiving donations from the US, Sarin says its expenses are still greater than its budget, which is why Bridge of Life School created the Lavender Jeep tours to help support their projects.
“The Jeep is a practical way to get around and provides tourists with an unforgettable experience on unpaved and muddy roads while enjoying Siem Reap’s amazing scenery.”
“By having women lead the tour, it is a way to empower them beyond doing just traditional housework as they can be independent with their own income. Also, 70 per cent of the proceeds from the tour go to the Bridge of Life School.”
Ninety per cent of the staff at Lavender Jeep are Cambodian. The tour employs three women as drivers and guides.
They attended driving school and hold full driving licences.
Sreyneang and her two colleagues speak good English and go out of their way to make their guests have fun.
“After we finish a drive, my guests will give me positive feedback like: ‘Your English is good’; ‘Your face is charming’; ‘You’re very friendly’; and so on. They never imagined booking a Lavender Jeep tour would be so much fun,” says the bubbly Sreyneang.
The Lavender Jeep takes tourists to see Angkor Wat ($90) and the Banteay Srei temples ($125), as well as floating villages and the countryside ($150).
Guests are introduced to the rural Cambodian lifestyle, Khmer food and traditional handicrafts such as those demonstrated at a village famous for making the incense sticks used in Buddhist ceremonies.
“Between October and January, the scenery is at its most beautiful. The weather is cooler than other months. The tourists like taking the Jeep in the rain. It is a lot of fun. We drive on red dirt roads avoiding water-filled potholes.
“It gets a bit bumpy and splashy! It is quite an exceptional experience set among astonishing scenery,” Sreyneang says.
Sreyneang says she was patronised for wanting to work outdoors, and admits she found it hard at first to imagine herself as a tour guide, driver and translator. Jobs in the sun and rain were only meant for men, Sreyneang was told, something she refused to accept.
“Every woman should have their own professional skills in addition to unpaid housework. We women can do everything men can. We must do what we love; we must be active and fearless,” she says.Sarin echoes Sreyneang.
“Gender issues have been widely publicised, but some women still think that they cannot work like men. We must make them realise that they can do anything. Men can drive and be tour guides, so women can too,” Sarin says.
He believes the tours empower women as they have the opportunity to meet people from around the world as well as become financially independent.
“Our drivers receive a decent monthly salary with an additional 30 per cent of the profits from the tour.”
The colour of the vehicle also reflects the mission of the project.
“We thought a lavender Jeep would be unique because nobody had done it. Some people might find the colour funny, but it is a soft but solid colour that reflects the quality of women. Woman are gentle but not weak – they are strong,” the 29-year-old said of their decision to paint the vintage Jeep the striking colour.
“The fact that the jeep itself has an interesting history also helps attract the attention of tourists. It is an M151 A2 US-manufactured Jeep that was abandoned in Cambodia. It was totally broken down and we had to fix its engine and gearbox, but the main machine and its body remain the original one from the factory.”
The history of the vehicle can be found on the Lavender Jeep website. It says they are confident it was manufactured in 1975. The Americans most likely used it during the end of the Vietnam War before abandoning it when the Viet Cong took power. It likely ended up in Cambodia after 1979 following the toppling of the Khmer Rouge.
Despite the interesting history of Lavander Jeep and its worthy mission, the tour still faces a shortage of bookings. But Sarin says he is committed to carry on.
“Even when we sometimes get only a few tourists, we carry on providing our service for a good cause. We’re still new in the industry and we hope that we’ll be more successful in the future. We need time and more partners.”
“In the future, we plan to increase the number of Jeeps and the number of female drivers to help rural Cambodian women, so they will have a decent job and a better standard of living.”
“We are also hoping to expand our mission beyond women. We will add projects to help children too,” he says.
Lavender Jeep is located along the Siem Reap River. It is around 10 minutes from Pub Street to the north.