February 2, 2015

Humans of Cambodia

By Noemi Gamel

Cambodia has carved a special place in my heart. Its raw nature, resilience, and warmth remind me of Bolivia. We have been fortunate enough to get to know some of the people during our time in Cambodia, and we want to share their unique stories with you.

Mao was our tuk tuk driver for four days while we were in Siem Reap. We met him when he drove us from the bus station to our homestay and offered to be our driver for the rest of our stay. He was a soft-spoken young man who was kind, helpful, and patient with us. He joined us for lunch one day and shared his story. Mao is the youngest of seven children. He is 32 years old and has been a tuk tuk driver for 15 years. He left school at age 16 years because his family was very poor and he needed to work to help them survive. He spoke English well, and he said he learned it from working with the tourists. He never had any formal English lessons.

Sinath was our guide at the War Museum Cambodia in Siem Reap. Like many stories in Cambodia, Sinath’s is both heartbreaking and uplifting. Sinath went out to find food for his starving family one day when he was 9 years old. When he returned to his village, his entire family (both parents, 2 brothers, and 1 sister) had all been killed by the Khmer Rouge. He lived on the streets on his own for four years until he finally joined the Khmer Rouge with other child soldiers.

Sinath said he joined Pol Pot’s regime in exchange for food and clothing because he was starving on the streets. He says the Khmer Rouge recruited children as soldiers because they were easier to brainwash. In 1979, Sinath joined the Cambodian Army to fight the Khmer Rouge. He fought to liberate Cambodia from the regime responsible for the horrific genocide until 1988, when he lost his right leg to a landmine. Sinath was wounded 10 separate times but miraculously survived. He has been working as a guide at the War Museum to preserve the memory of all his friends and family who have died because of the war. Listening to Sinath tell his story brought tears to my eyes.

Rithy was our landlord in Phnom Phen. He is a multi-lingual engineer with a highly entrepreneurial spirit. He designed the beautiful apartment we rented from him as well as the restaurant he owns and runs with his chef wife. We loved talking to him and his kids, who lived in the apartment below us. They were friendly and proud of how far Cambodia has come in such a short time.

Cambodia has endured some extreme hardships over the past few decades. Despite these hardships, it is a country full of amazing, warm people.  We were happy to meet some of them and to learn the details of their stories.