In Cambodia – different paths in life.


Savong and Sopin, November 2013 – breakfast at the Blue Pumpkin, Siem Reap.

The Blue Pumpkin is a French owned western style cafe in Siem Reap and on my last morning before flying out I met here with Savong and an old friend of his Sopin: everyone calls him Pin. The two guys don’t see each other all that often these days but for me the stories of the two are indelibly linked. It was Pin who urged me in 2004 to visit a small house not far from Siem Reap’s Killing Fields Monastery (Wat Thmey) where Savong’s first classroom was set up: under his dad’s house.

Pin and Savong and I became good friends over three short days back then, and last week we reminisced about that time – I’d taken them nightclubbing (I think their first time: the club “Martini” was 50% traditional Khmer music and 50% western. Big signs inside back then said: Hip Hop! Tango!) and we talked about how things had changed. Pin had vivid, detailed memories of those times.

Those few days 9 years ago culminated with a trip out to West Baray lake (photo below) and that was the day that Savong raised with me his dream of building a school in the countryside.


Savong and Pin in October 2004 – two young guys who became friends at the Wat They monastery. Since then their lives have diverged, but it was great to see the two sharing a laugh together, nine years later.

Since then the lives of the two young guys have gone separate ways. Where once they schooled together and lived together at the Monastery, they had a falling out in 2005 and while Savong went on to build his own school, Pin drifted somewhat. I’ve met him a few times over the years and he really is a lost soul – an orphan in the true sense – without the bedrock of family to define him or sustain him. Pin is impossibly handsome, and certainly intelligent, yet he is wracked by self doubt and a lack of confidence.

For some years he struggled as a tuk tuk driver, his meagre income mopped up by the huge levies of several hundred dollars for the right to serve airport traffic: in reality a levy for the right to wait, and wait, for scant business.

In 2011 Pin trained as a medical assistant within the Cambodian army, an assignment that took him to the Thai border and the heart of the Cambodian/Thai military dispute over the sovereignty of Preah Vihear temple: a dispute that galvanised Cambodia. (The UN ruling on which nation is rightfully the sovereign of the disputed border territory is being announced as I write: November 11th 2013.)

Pin still serves as a part time medical assistant, and this requires training and military service for a couple of months each year. In some ways I think the structure of this is a good thing for him. But these days he has a new vocation as an artisan and vendor of artworks to tourists at Angkor. He’s hand-carving figures out of sandstone, and helping other artists sell their paintings both to tourists at the ancient temple, and to visitors of the night markets in Siem Reap. He’s discovered a skill and found his direction.

When we met, Savong and Pin were both conscious of the gap that has opened up between them: one young man in charge of an expanding organisation, the other working hard to make ends meet: one driving a Nissan Tundra and the other saving to buy a motor scooter.  Two hours later I was on the 45 minute flight to Bangkok and I thought about how these two lives exemplify the random and not quite fair allocation of luck and resources as Cambodians claw back, within a generation or two, the lifestyles that were lost between 1975 and 1995. There are those who are succeeding and others who are struggling.

Savong had told me earlier that people must be responsible for their own success in life. “They must work hard and act responsibly,” he declared. I gently reminded him that luck is part of all our lives. “Brother,” I said. “It was Pin who led me to you and your classroom back in 2004. Without Pin where would we be?”