What started as a tool to pay Chea Renou, 27, through school has grown into a fully-fledged female-led moto tour operation. Marissa Carruthers speaks to Renou and co-founders Chea Chanraksmey and Horm Sreynich, both 23, about how it got started. Photography by Enric Català.

How did MotogirlTour start?

CR: I worked at a financial business for nine months, then my dad got sick and I stopped to help my mum at the market. My parents sell groceries and deliver. My mum couldn’t do it alone so I was the delivery person. When my dad recovered, my parents still needed help so I thought what kind of job can I have where I’m flexible and can help sometimes? My aunt lives on the Thai border and said Thai girls were taking local people around on their motos to make some money for their studies. I thought, my cousin is a tour guide and only works when she has a tour, and I can speak English, like meeting new people and sharing my culture and experiences, so why not combine them all as a tour. In December 2015, we started MotogirlTour.

How did you develop the tours?

CC: We spent the first year after coming up with the idea doing a lot of research. A challenge was deciding on the best places for customers to experience. We want them to go away feeling they know what Cambodia is all about; what we like to eat, what we believe, our culture. So we try to give local experiences, like taking them to the temple to meet a fortune teller. We also wanted to give an option of city life and countryside. Tourism is growing a lot in Cambodia and this is one more experience for visitors to do in the capital.

Which are the most popular?

HS: Our adventure tour is popular because customers get to go out into the countryside and see buffalos, experience the bumpy roads and get some great views of the Mekong. The night tour is also popular. Many visitors say they don’t know what to do at night apart from eat and drink so we take them around the city and show them what local people do and eat.

How were the tours initially received?

CR: We had no finance to advertise the company at first so really pushed it through social media channels, such as Facebook and Instagram, and encouraged customers to write reviews on TripAdvisor, which really helped. At first, we got mostly men but now it’s about 50/50, with six female drivers, usually on Yamaha 125CC scooters. Although we can source more motorbikes and drivers for larger groups.

HS: Initially, the aim was to make a small business to provide us with our school fees and support our living, but now we are doing it full time. We work with some tour operators, deliver brochures to hotels and get a lot of bookings through our website.

What has been your main challenge?

CR: It’s unusual to see a Khmer woman driving a Western guy around Cambodia so some people think we are prostitutes. We would go to pick customers up from their hotel at the start of the tour and the security guards, or whoever, think we’re there for something else and would often make comments. That was upsetting because you try to work on your own and start a business to make a living, and then face this. It still happens sometimes but after we’ve been to a hotel a few times for a pick-up, they know who we are.

How do you cope with the increasing traffic?

HS: The traffic can make the tours very difficult, especially if we have a big group. But we all know what we’re doing and where we’re going so we drive slowly and stay together. Another challenge we face is the size of Phnom Penh. While we have many repeat customers – one has been five times – it can be difficult to find new, interesting places because the city is quite small. We’re always looking for new destinations and experiences to add. We also offer custom-made tours, where people can tell us what they want to see and we can make plans around that.

What have been some of your highlights?

CR: The best thing is being able to meet so many people and making some great memories. One time, we got locked inside the National Museum with a customer. I was thinking, “What kind of a tour company must he think we are?” But he was so excited and said it was a real adventure; like being in a movie. I joked with him that at least now he will never forget his trip to Cambodia. He booked another tour.

CC: Sometimes when we go on the countryside tour, customers will see a chicken or water buffalo crossing the road and they start screaming with excitement and it surprises us because this is normal to us. We don’t know what will excite customers or surprise them, so learning about that is always nice.

What are your future plans?

CC: We want to continue to grow the business and add more activities. Eventually, we want to expand to Siem Reap and run tours there.