As a 4-year-old, Sonita Vong remembers rolling cigarettes to help her grandmother's small business in a village in Kampong Cham, Cambodia. While her grandmother would cook for her family, Ms Vong would staff the stall selling petrol, cigarettes and lollies.

The world she grew up in was different from her new Kiwi home.

The Cambodian has been living in Tauranga for the last 18 months after moving here with her partner, Bevan Rakoia.

Ms Vong met her Kiwi Cook Islands partner at a hotel they both worked at in 2005, in Siem Reap.


Born in Kampong Cham, she attended school until the age of 14 when she entered into the work force because her family could not afford further education.

"I went to Phnom Penh to find work, at a factory.

"I got paid quite well but the work was really hard," she said.

For the next four years Ms Vong worked at a number of clothing factories where she sewed jeans, often working 24-hour shifts. She would earn between US$35 and US$90 a month, depending on the factory.

The garment manufacturing industry earns Cambodia more than US$5 billion a year in revenue and employs some 600,000 people, many of them breadwinners for impoverished families in the countryside.

Ms Vong said she often had to hide in the bathrooms of the factories, when police would come and check identity cards of workers. The employment age in Cambodia is 18.

"But I never got caught," she said with a cheeky grin.

When she was about 19 years old one of her brothers suggested she move to Siem Reap so she could learn English, which would help her to find a better job.


This is when she met Mr Rakoia, while working at the Amansara Resort, where the pair fell in love quickly.

The pair tried to get married in 2007 but the Cambodian laws at the time prevented them from doing so.

"The Prime Minister had banned foreigners from marrying Cambodians because there was a lot of trafficking from foreigners. People were smuggling girls through the borders so there was a ban for quite a long time," Mr Rakoia said.

"So we did a ceremony for the family in Cambodia. There were Buddhist monks and a priest who came to do a blessing but there was no proper dressing up in uniform. It was quite casual."

The pair, who said they would get married one day in the future, now have two children, Emma and Annalise.

Mr Rakoia said he decided to move his family home to Tauranga when the children were continuously getting sick with different tummy bugs.

However, the pair both missed the carefree but exciting lifestyle Cambodia had to offer.

Ms Vong said the main things she longed for from her country was fresh exotic fruits, vegetables and fresh water fish found in the marketplaces.

Mr Rakoia agreed.

"Just going around the market there, everything is cheap and exciting.

"I really miss that, and getting on the motorbikes with your children. There is a lot of freedom. The laws are not as strict as they are in the West. Everything is quite accessible."