“These hands of mine, Father! They have defended our country against militants in southern Thailand who wanted to secede. They have overpowered Burmese workers who violated our laws. They have handcuffed and shot countless Cambodians who crossed the border to engage in illegal logging, poaching and smuggling. I was praised by my unit of Black Shirt Rangers and recommended for a promotion in the coming year, Father. I completely resent the migrants, especially the Cambodians, who continue to infiltrate our country. Not only do they enrich themselves at Thai expense by illegally chopping down trees in the forest, they insist that Thai territory is actually the land of their ancestors.”
No sooner had I finished speaking when tears began to trickle down my father’s cheeks and his face became as flush as the embers of a red-hot fire. He said to me, “Then, you have impressive achievements. Even though I am elderly, I still haven’t accomplished as much as you. When I read your letter of commendation signed by the King, I felt very, very proud. You are a model son. ” I smiled in response to my father’s compliments.
He continued by saying, “However, I have made one grave mistake with regard to you.” (At this point, he reached for a tissue from the box on top of the table in order to dry his tears; my mother rose from her chair, sat beside him, and began gently stroking his back.) My father continued, “Your mother and I taught you to love Thailand unconditionally, but I never enlightened you about the qualities of compassion, virtue and forgiveness—traditional Khmer beliefs which I hold dear. You know my story. I am your Cambodian father who has lived as a refugee in this beautiful land, assimilated Thai culture into my body until I mastered the Thai language better than my native Khmer, earned a doctorate degree in this country, and lived here for more years than I lived in my homeland. I have been more devoted to this country than the land of my birth. I have a wife, a child and a house. If I had left Thailand, I would have had none of those things. I respect the King and the country of Thailand with all my heart, so much so that I have forgotten that I am really Khmer. Your mother and I are proud to have such a brave son. No matter what, you will always be my son.”
My father’s gentle comments lingered in my thoughts. As I sat and reflected, I broke down and began crying. Tears were also streaming down my mother’s cheeks. My parents were clearly distressed. Sensing their pain caused my heart to ache and filled my face with uncontrollable emotion. When I was young, my father never scolded me at all and even now, he was placing blame on himself. His considerate words caused me heartache and embarrassment; he is still such a good person. The comments he just uttered altered my outlook, turning my pride into shame. I love my father as much as he loved me as a child, and his words jolted me into recalling the ordeal of his family’s past.
My grandfather had been a soldier in the army of Marshal Lon Nol, fighting against the Vietnamese at Taing Kouk and Chenla Two. Both of my father’s older brothers were policemen who fought against Viet Cong invasions and the Khmer Rouge insurgency. After the Khmer Rouge victory of 17 April 1975, millions of Cambodians were forced to perform hard labor and untold numbers were brutally executed. In early 1979, Vietnamese soldiers again invaded Cambodia, spurring hundreds of thousands of citizens to flee the country and seek refuge in Thailand.
Before he left Cambodia to study at university, my father had promised to marry a local girl upon his return. He had been writing letters to her while he was away, but after a while the letters began to be returned unopened because the situation in the country had deteriorated. Overwhelmed with concern for his relatives, my father would occasionally cross the border to inquire about their fate. He visited each refugee camp with the huona, the Thai camp strongman, in an attempt to meet anyone who might have information about them. He even had the courage to search piles of corpses of Cambodian refugees who were killed on the mountainside at Preah Vihear. My mother was very sympathetic to his plight. At times, my father was so distraught over his family’s welfare that he would talk in his sleep and rise up in the middle of the night, halfdazed, and call out their names.
In 1988 a distant relative of my father’s, who was living at Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, informed him that some of his family members had been evacuated by the Khmer Rouge from Takeo to Battambang in order to work at Trapeang Thmor. My father’s older cousin had been conscripted by the Vietnamese and ordered to clear trees in the forest of the Dangrek Mountains during the K5 Project. While there, he died of malaria. No one could provide any information about the fate of my father’s remaining relatives. Completely devastated, he vowed not to return to Cambodia under any circumstance because he was unwilling to face the loss of his loved ones…a loss which had etched a permanent scar on his heart. He stayed in Bangkok and, with the assistance of his political science professor, made a traditional proposal of marriage to my mother. She accepted and her entire family welcomed my father to live with them in Sisaket. Whenever I reflect upon Thailand, I think of the beautiful forests and pleasant lifestyle.
Thailand’s culture has been influenced by the West, providing Thais with advantages over their neighbors. The country has progressed by adapting to political circumstances and cooperating with the superpowers. Thai political leaders have effectively encouraged businesspeople from all over the world to invest millions of dollars of capital in the country. Investors admire the prosperous, civilized society, which they compare to Europe.
Circumstances are different in Cambodia, where citizens who try to protect their country’s natural resources and border integrity are considered criminals. The army arrests them and brings charges against them in court. Sometimes soldiers even shoot and kill them. It’s pitiful that any Khmer who tries to protect their border, for example, immediately becomes an enemy of the government. Some Khmer leaders are perfectly willing to relinquish their national interests to foreign countries.
As I was coming of age, there were times when I was confronted with the harsh realization of the disparate cultures of my parents. Whenever my friends and I were studying together and had an argument, we would accuse each other of being Khmer or Burmese by saying, “I hope you’re born over and over again as Khmer; that’s what I wish for you,” because in our minds, Cambodians were considered as low as animals. Those kinds of insults are directed at the lowest social classes and, as high school students, we felt like we were having fun. Later, when my mother heard about the comments, she forbade me from ever using such insulting language. She said, “Those words are very abusive. An educated person like you should never use those expressions.” My mother then shared with me a little more history about my ancestors. I remember what she told me, but I didn’t consider it important at all because Cambodians repulsed me.
At this moment, though, all I feel is humiliation…total humiliation! After listening to my father’s words, I realize that I haven’t lived up to his standards. It’s difficult for me to look my father in the eye because I don’t know where to hide my shame. I can still hear the voices of the victims I so cruelly shot and killed as a Black Shirt Ranger. They begged for mercy with their palms pressed together in front of my face. The souls of those dead victims haunt me with their pleas, marking this day as the most shameful of my life. My actions as a Ranger have brought much disgrace upon my parents and me. Why, when I have such a worthy father, did I feel the need to achieve honor by committing acts which have brought me nothing but misfortune?
At dawn, as rays of sunlight emerge from the east, each blade of grass becomes glazed with drops of dew. A glance in any direction reveals fields glistening with brilliant, twinkling crystals. Near the pagoda, the village roosters crow among themselves, answering the call from house to house. A hen leads her chicks into the fields in a quest for their morning meal. Watching the hen peck for food to feed to her chicks reminds me how my parents always provided me with food while I was growing up. Is there any mother who does not love her child? Any mother who is not pained to see her child completely famished? Such a mother would sacrifice food from her own mouth to feed her offspring. Blooming canna lilies impart a splash of color along the fence near the house – some red, some yellow. My eyes are also drawn to the beautiful oleander shrubs. The air is infused with the fragrance of magnolia blossoms lingering from last night, and I catch the sweet scent of their petals whenever the breeze wafts in my direction. In the morning, all of these flowers attract shiny, dark hummingbird hawkmoths which use their long, narrow beaks to sip sweet nectar from the blossoms. A pair of the moths flutters up and down, sipping a little nectar from flower to flower. Some of the petals have wilted and fallen to the ground, adorning the sidewalk in a panoply of colors.
My violent past as a Black Shirt Ranger defending the Thai border is no longer a source of personal pride and my heart is urging me to reconsider my future ambitions. I have spent a considerable amount of time reflecting upon my situation. In a conversation with my parents, my father advised me, “Son, you are a very good person and I have grown increasingly proud of you. My love for you is stronger than ever. I don’t wish to curb your ambition, but I want to assure you that a person does not have to commit terrible acts or kill others to achieve honor. Everyone can achieve honor. Gold and diamonds do not have to fight for their honor because it’s intrinsic to 4 their nature.” I lowered my face to acknowledge regret over my past actions. My mother was cloaked in silence and my father ended the discussion. All of us exhaled deeply and felt emotionally exhausted. I was unable to rid myself of my shameful feelings. I could not comprehend what had caused me to behave in such a cruel manner. I wanted my father to place blame on me so I could be reminded of my transgressions and earn his forgiveness.
Ultimately, I vowed to atone for my sins by serving as a monk at a pagoda in Cambodia, the land of my father’s birth. When I informed my parents of my decision, my father had no reply, but my mother, who always tries to raise my spirits, said, “If that’s what you want to do, that’s fine. I do not object. If you become a Buddhist monk, you will earn merit for every future life. We’re happy to support you completely.”
For the first time as a family, my parents and I traveled into Cambodian territory, en route to the pagoda where I hoped to serve as a monk. As we crossed the border at Choam Sarngam headed in the direction of Angkor Wat, my father walked with a forceful stride, his face beaming with happiness. In front of Angkor Wat, my father raised his hands in a sompeah to pay his respects before ascending the steps to the temple. He lightly caressed sculptures here and there as he passed and said to me, “Son, this is the work of Khmer artisans. If the Khmer were just ordinary people, they would never have been able to build such a grand, immense temple such as this…not at this place, not at Ayutthaya, or even at Preah Vihear. It is a masterpiece without comparison. You are descended from the people who constructed this. You have an obligation to appreciate and care for it.”
Nothing in the world compares to the beauty of Angkor. Early Khmer heroes built such majestic masterpieces. Now I clearly realize why the Thai, even educated young people, never relinquish the ambition of claiming this area as their own, distorting history in an attempt to convince the next generation that Angkor is Thai land which was confiscated by the Khmer. They even claim that King Jayavarman VII was actually a Thai king. For the first time in my life, the fact that I have Khmer blood evokes a certain amount of pride in me.
Beautiful images of Apsaras line the temple walls. Sculptures of Buddha and various Hindu gods portray the peaceful and happy nature of life under the Angkor kings. Large groups of nagas are engaged in a tug-of-war, churning the ocean of milk to make amrita, the elixir of immortality, which has the power to rescue mankind. Statues of giants and powerful lions flank the door frames everywhere, guarding the city with the aid of eagles, which also use their magical powers to protect the glorious kingdom. Overhead, the sky is shrouded in fog. It appears as if the towers of Angkor are trying to elude the cloud cover so as to reveal their beauty to the world. Tourists snap photos of the stunning landscape, according to the view they prefer best. Reflected in the water is a clear image of the temple surrounded by exquisite water lily blooms. The scene presents a peaceful and beautiful image from which I cannot remove my eyes.
My ordination ceremony has taken place and I am now a novice Buddhist monk at Wat Angkor Thom. I devote my time to diligent study of the Dharma as well as Khmer language and culture. The Khmer language isn’t very difficult for me because the alphabet is similar to Thai. As for the 5 Buddhist chants, the sounds differ from Thai only slightly. Being surrounded by tranquility and nature in the beautiful land of Angkor motivates me to study hard and I don’t find it difficult at all to focus on the work. Committing the prayers to memory brings Cambodia into my heart and I find myself falling so deeply in love with the country that I sometimes forget my Thai roots.
As I study in Cambodia, I occasionally miss my parents in Sisaket, especially at mealtime when I crave sweet and sour soup with banana shoots. Occasionally I become hungry for this or that food, but I never dare reveal my cravings to the nun or the cook. I eat what I am served because that is the duty of a monk—to practice tranquility and avoid being burdensome. At dusk, after I pray to Buddha, the temple master engages the monks in conversation about various topics. Sometimes he asks about the political chaos in Thailand, and I share with him my limited knowledge of the matter. Afterward, he expounds on current events by saying, “All Cambodian monks should help the country, not merely become a monk to eat the rice provided by the congregation or to avoid responsibility in society. Today, society resembles an animal without a head, lacking a path to freedom. Together we must forge a new path. This is not the sole responsibility of the leaders or the opposition party, but requires effort on the part of each Khmer person, especially monks like us who are role models for the population-at-large.”
“Some monks who have participated in demonstrations to defend the rights of workers or the rights of villagers to protect their land along the border have been suppressed by Cambodian police and soldiers. I do not understand this, especially at the Vietnamese border, where our army prevents citizens from demonstrating to express their views on the issue. The police and army stand by while the Vietnamese beat Cambodian citizens who dare to physically confront the Vietnamese who are encroaching on their land. I don’t know what all of you think about that, but for me, as a native Cambodian, it is very painful to see my country violated by foreigners who take repeated advantage of the Khmer by confiscating their islands and territory on the mainland. Cambodian leaders remain silent as if they are oblivious and instead turn the blame on their own citizens, arresting them rather than using their authority to defend the country’s territory from the Vietnamese who violate the border every day. Don’t forget the teachings of the Dharma or the integrity of your nation’s borders because if we think only of ourselves, before long our country will surely be destroyed and abandoned like the ancient kingdom of Champa.”
That night I slept restlessly, preoccupied with thoughts about what kind of person I truly am. Sometimes, when I listen to the temple master criticize Thailand and its citizens, I become so enraged that I want to protest in defense of my country. However, I keep my emotions in check because I’m reminded of all the wrongs I’ve committed. That realization leads me to further soul searching. If I am Cambodian, how could I ever have raised a gun to kill a fellow Cambodian? But if I am Thai, why am I here?
The temple master is traveling by motor-taxi (moto-dup) to a funeral ceremony and invited me to join him. This is the first time I have left the grounds of the pagoda. The funeral ceremony is being held in a small house on stilts, typical of the Cambodian countryside. Few people are in attendance. All the deceased’s children are seated in a circle, sobbing in grief for the loss of their father. The temple master falls into a state of melancholy as well… The modest house is 6 surrounded by deep green fields of paddy rice, some of which are in flower. Portions of the rice growing close to the house are fully mature. A picturesque, small pond is overflowing with red and white water lilies, some in full bloom and others still forming buds. I detect the continuous calls of toads and frogs—a steady lament which suggests that nature itself is grieving for the loss of the owner of this house. Is it possible for loved ones to part with a deceased family member without shedding tears? When we lose people we love and respect, the ache in our hearts and the flood of tears doesn’t lessen the grief at all. I am nearly on the verge of tears myself, out of pity for all the members of this household. I am filled with regret for the many Cambodians whom I mistreated. Their cries of agony still ring in my ears.
The windy season will soon be underway, and cool, fresh breezes are beginning to caress the land, causing the pond water to evaporate. The remaining shallow, clear water reveals small perch and Siamese fighting fish darting in all directions as they nibble at food on the base of the water lily stems. Heaps of snails hide quietly among the clumps of rice stalks, seemingly oblivious to the evaporating water supply. Beautiful blossoms of trakuon teuk (watergrass) are flourishing along the dikes between the rice fields. It’s rare to see such a radiant landscape as this, enhanced by the perfectly calm weather. The scene should provide contentment and happiness for the people who live nearby. Instead, all of them are grieving deeply in their hearts.
My presence at this funeral ceremony stirs feelings of sadness and restlessness, reviving my regret for the countless Burmese and Khmer migrants whom I shot and killed. My victims were sneaking across the border into Thailand in a desperate attempt to earn some money to support themselves and their families. My thoughts are tinged with strong feelings of remorse for my past actions. When I was an army guard in Thailand more than three years ago, I arrested many Cambodians. I know from having interrogated them that they do not understand the Thai language. They cross the border looking for work in Thailand without considering the consequences at all. They just do whatever the hiring agent advises them to do. Consumed by grief for the father she deeply loves and respects, the eldest child of the deceased, a young woman, continually wipes a flood of tears from her face. As she lights incense and candles, it seems as if she barely has the strength to carry on. Her complexion is an appealing light tan and her clear, gentle eyes sparkle with sincerity. She reminds me very much of a Thai movie star. A woman as beautiful as this should have had the good fortune to be born into a wealthy family, shielded from emotional and physical stress. Yet isn’t a flower blossoming in the countryside forced to endure more hardship than a rose tended in the garden? Although I have seen her for only a fleeting moment, I feel a strong connection and my heart swells with compassion. I feel myself falling in love, but as a recently-ordained Buddhist monk, I must respect my position and suppress my feelings of affection.
The achar produces a worn piece of paper on which the temple master has written a brief history of the deceased and his family to be shared with the guests. As he recites the words, I break down in tears, unable to maintain the meditative composure taught to me by the temple master. I cannot achieve a calm state of mind at all. The temple master’s note reads: Life is not certain and death is inevitable. At any time, we may suddenly lose our loved ones. Today, smile and face the future with hope. Life is unfair but we must each accept our fate. Whether we are born rich or 7 poor, short or tall, each of us will fall down if we’re pushed hard enough, will get discouraged when things aren’t going well, and will depart the human realm according to our own destiny. Whether we are rich or poor, old or young, we earn merit in life according to our karma. The children of the deceased survive him and will continue to carry out the intentions of their parents in the daily struggle to make a living. The deceased pass to heaven; the survivors summon all of their energy to find a way to support themselves. The temple master closed his eyes in deep meditation and began chanting Buddhist prayers. I followed his lead. His years of experience enabled him to maintain his composure in a situation like this, but my heart refused to rest. My emotions were swirling in pity for the children of the deceased, especially the eldest child, a young woman named Nhornhim. She garnered even more sympathy from the mourners due to the threadbare condition of her long skirt and embroidered shirt. Her bloodshot eyes betrayed her profound grief and distress over the tragic loss of her father.
During all the years I lived in Thailand, I never attended a funeral. I didn’t realize that parting with a loved one could evoke so much emotional suffering. Why is life bestowed upon us if we are destined to lose it? This is a funeral for a Cambodian whom I previously considered an enemy of my country. However, I am now feeling a great deal of pity for what is Cambodian. It’s as if my soul is being drawn into a vortex and a magic spell has caused me to become totally enchanted with the country. Even the natural beauty of the rice fields, the water lilies in the ponds and the croaking of the frogs and toads on this land attracts me and conjures more and more love for life. At the same time, I am forced to contemplate the value of all the humans I slaughtered as savagely as if they were animals.
When I returned to the pagoda after the funeral, I asked the Achar, “I’m not sure I heard correctly because I’m not very fluent in Khmer, but did you say that the deceased man died in Thailand?” “Yes, Brother Nheuk went there to cut timber and sell it to earn some money. He was shot and killed by the Black Shirt Rangers. Many others from different areas were also killed—some from Kampong Thom, some from Prey Veng.” I inquired further, “Was he related to the temple master?” “Yes…his nephew. That’s why the master made an effort to view his nephew’s face for the last time.” The Achar continued, “I pity those children who have no one to take care of them. A couple of years ago, their mother died when she fell from a building in Bangkok, where she was earning money as a construction worker. Now their father has also died while working in Thailand. The temple master repeatedly warned all the family members not to allow the hiring agent to convince them to work in Thailand or Malaysia; ultimately both of their parents met their unfortunate deaths in just that way.”
Etched in my mind is an image of Nhornhim’s face the first time I glimpsed her. She preoccupies my thoughts constantly—beyond what is reasonable. It’s not proper for someone who wears the robes of a monk. I have pity for her and her hopeless situation. Ultimately, I became a monk to practice contemplation and atone for my sins, but my rationale was misguided. One should become a monk in order to assist other people, not themselves. Instead, I want to redeem myself by helping people through various personal means. If people are poor, I want to ensure that they at least have food to eat. Many villages have a large pagoda, but the congregation is still poor. The monks do not always hold peace in their hearts and that leads to sinful behavior within the 8 walls of the pagoda. I think about life more and more—about people who lack the necessary household items, which is very pitiful. Cambodians have endured a lot of injustice. Nhornhim’s family is an example. They merely want to live their lives, but they have encountered a great deal of difficulty trying to achieve peace and freedom as human beings.
As I glance at the stars twinkling in the serene, night sky, my mind fixates on the young lady I encountered at the funeral ceremony. Is she feeling distressed? Maybe her grief has sapped her strength, rendering her weak and sorrowful, like a beautiful flower which loses its fragrance and wilts. At a melancholy time such as this, I should be drawn to my family and village at Sisaket, but I’m not thinking about them at all. My mind is centered on the lives of the Cambodian people, who become increasingly poor every day. I’m learning to write poetry, even though I’m not very skilled at it. It doesn’t rhyme properly like classical Khmer poetry, but it’s my nascent attempt to express my obsessive feelings for this young woman with whom I’ve become preoccupied.
When first we chanced to meet,
Love enveloped my heart
With a sense of compassion.
Deep into the night I lay
Dreaming of your sweet face,
Hoping our paths might cross again.
Just a glance, yet your image lingers;
I want to care for you in every way
To rid your life of worries, dearest one.
At dawn, the fields are nourished by dew,
But my heart is parched with despair,
As I continue to suffer in silence, my love.
My dream is to marry this young Khmer woman and start a small business in Cambodia. After that, I dream of opening a technical school. First, however, I must make arrangements to leave the monkhood. When I appealed to the temple master to leave the pagoda before fulfilling my commitment, he asked me many questions before consenting. He told me the decision was my responsibility and no blame should be placed upon him for my early departure. He had noticed that I was struggling to concentrate and in such a state, it would have been pointless to continue serving as a monk. At first, the temple master thought I was homesick, but eventually he suspected that I had become infatuated with a Cambodian girl.
Is this love? The object of my affection isn’t even aware of my feelings, but I am obsessed with her. I long to see her face, watch her move and listen to her voice, even though I can’t understand Khmer very well. How did I allow this to happen to me? My love grew out of feelings of pity for this humble girl whom I could clearly see was in a deep state of grief. I am determined to help her face the challenges which lie ahead in her life.
As the cool, windy season advances, water has evaporated along some of the rice fields and the rice grains nearly snap off their stems as they sway in the breeze. Some of the fields have turned yellow, while others are still blanketed in green. In the center of some of the fields, farmers have 9 placed scarecrows to frighten away the birds so they don’t eat the rice. I follow the path of the rice dikes as I approach Nhornhim’s small house, which I visited during my time as a monk. The dikes are lined with aromatic grass bursting with purple flowers, some bindweed, and especially golden beard grass, which sends out runners filled with burs which stick all over the legs of my pants. That doesn’t bother me at all.
Stalks of black sugarcane are growing by the side of the house; nearby is a clump of budding banana trees. I notice a patch of herbs filled with lemongrass, galangal, and turmeric. Luffa gourds and fragrant squash are growing feverishly, as if in competition with one another. Some are budding already, but there is no proper trellis to support the stems. Although the garden is not well-maintained, the plants are still thriving and flowering according to the laws of nature.
“Is anybody home?” I shout from outside the house.
A boy appears, holding a bowl of rice in his hands, and replies, “What do you want?” “Is your sister home?”
“Nhim has gone to work in Thailand, Brother.”
As soon as I heard that Nhornhim had left for Thailand, my heart succumbed to fear and my mind went blank.
I inquired further of her younger brother, “Has she been gone a long time, Brother?”
“She left for Thailand a few days after the funeral ceremony.”
“When will she return?” “She’ll be back for the harvest, for sure.”
“Do you know how I can contact her?” “I don’t know, Brother,” the teenager answered, as he continued to eat his rice.
Nhornhim left for Thailand despite the fact that both of her parents met their deaths in that country. Even those tragedies could not dissuade her from crossing the border to find work. I have pitied this family ever since I first visited their house. I no longer consider myself Thai. I plan to ask my parents if I may become engaged to Nhornhim, and I hope that they will agree. I also pray that Nhornhim will not refuse my offer of love. On the other hand, will she refuse because I am Thai? I certainly hope that doesn’t happen. Is there anything more painful than the suffering lovers endure when separated by a great distance?
In this world, secrets never last forever; everything eventually becomes known. When I was a monk, my former temple master surely knew that I was secretly in love with Nhornhim because he always asked me about her family. He said, “It’s difficult for me to travel there to see Nhik’s children. Now that they are orphans, I don’t how they are coping with the situation. It would be helpful to the children if you visited them. It’s a pity that they have no mother or father to take care of them and the siblings are scattered in different places. Oh, I feel so much pity for them.” I didn’t reply to his comments at all, but I promised myself that I would make a sincere effort to help them. 10 After the rice harvest, I returned to visit Nhornhim’s house. The area surrounding the hut had become very dry and withered and the rice fields were carpeted only with straw stubble remaining from the harvest. The pond, which was previously teeming with water lilies, had wasted away and dried up completely. Some of the banana trees had collapsed from the weight of the heavy fruit. The ripe fruit of the sugar palm trees had fallen to the ground and its scent was wafting toward me in the breeze. My heart was drenched with apprehension. If I see Nhornhim, what should I say? Will she be friendly toward me? Should I tell her that I love her? What should I talk about with her? Feelings for Nhornhim, and Nhornhim alone, consumed my heart. I approached the house in trepidation because I didn’t know how to express my feelings to my sweetheart.
Instead of a door, the entrance to the house was covered with empty rice sacks and a piece of cloth. I was able to peer inside a little and once I entered, I encountered the younger brother of Nhornhim, as before. He gratefully accepted the package I offered, which contained some dried chicken sausage, a small can of condensed milk, bread, orange soda and noodles.
Then he told me, “Sister Nhim wasn’t able to come home for the harvest. She sent some money so I could hire a few people to help; but when the harvest was finished, the moneylender took all of the rice in payment for our debt.” Another brother added, “Sister Nhim sent a message to me that if I drop out of school, she’ll arrange for me to work with her in Thailand.” “What do you think of that idea?” “I’m not sure yet, Brother, but I haven’t been able to focus on my studies. There’s no point in staying in school. I might as well get a job to earn some money and help sister Nhim.” It seems that the children are willing to do their part to cope with their family’s burdens. Even though I am apprehensive about the prospect of them working in another country, I am proud that they want to help support their family. I asked, “When do you intend to leave for Thailand?”
“I don’t know, Brother; I have to wait for the hiring agent to come and pick me up.” Nearly two years have passed without a trace of news about Nhornhim. I continue to ask the villagers if they have any information about her. I also inquire of her younger siblings, who are now studying at Krousar Thmey, if they have heard from her. I have opened a restaurant serving Khmer and Thai food on the bank of the Siem Reap River. Outside, I mounted a sign with the name, “Nhornhim Restaurant,” as a tribute to the young woman who captivated my heart. Today is the grand opening and I’ve invited the temple master from Angkor Thom to perform a blessing ceremony to assure an auspicious future for the business. The temple master glanced at the restaurant sign and commented, “You are certainly very clever; this restaurant will no doubt attract a lot of customers.” Those words of the temple master were prophetic, because Nhornhim Restaurant has received more and more customers ever since that day.
Even though managing my restaurant consumes all of my energy, I still make time to inquire whether there is any news of Nhornhim. I continue to hope that I will see her again one day. In front of the popular shrine of the guardian statues of Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm, I always say a prayer for eternal blessings for her. I do the same at the famous statue of 11 Buddha, called Preah Ang Thom, at the summit of Phnom Kulen. In these sacred places, wishes are known to come true. That thought fills me with hope and encourages me to await news about the young woman I love.
Nhornhim! Your life has been whipped by the winds and the surge of storms, causing you, such a beautiful flower, to be washed away from a peaceful garden. You had to endure life as a servant across the border. Did that hardship diminish your friendly smile and modest demeanor?
I received a call from the temple master, asking me to meet him at the pagoda. I haven’t seen the master for many months, so I’ve instructed my chef to prepare a lunch for me to take to him. When I arrive, the grounds of Wat Angkor Thom are very quiet. The solitude is broken only by children tending cows and buffalo, people selling souvenirs, and two or three photographers who occasionally pass back and forth between the temple and the pagoda. As for the congregation, they have left the area one by one—some had to move away; some left to find a job in other provinces; and some went to work in Thailand. When a pagoda doesn’t have a congregation to attend ceremonies, the standard of living of the monks suffers as well.
The temple master sighed deeply and said, “Nothing is certain—birth, old age, sickness, death— all follow the laws of nature. Some members of the congregation have sold their land in order to buy a car, a moto or a new telephone to flaunt, while their children cannot afford to go to school. This upsets me very much. Other members of the congregation have to contend with the Apsara Authority, defending themselves against being evicted from their land. Some have been victims of land grabbing and have been forced to relocate. Ordinary Cambodians are suffering more and more. As a monk, when I raise these issues with the authorities, they ignore me or even accuse me of being a member of the opposition. All we can do, as citizens, is bear the burden together.
“However, the reason I summoned you here is to tell you that I have news regarding my niece, Nhornhim, who went to work in Thailand. She lost her life when the Thai guards were chasing a van in which she was riding along with other illegal workers and their hiring agent. They were all returning home to Cambodia when the van overturned, killing about ten of them. As for her younger brother who followed her to Thailand to find work, he was sold into the fishing industry by the hiring agent. He was shot and killed by the captain of his boat when he tried to escape while out at sea. That’s all I know about his fate. Please help console this family, whom I pity very much. The extended family all grew up here in Cambodia, but they were so impoverished that they were compelled to find work across the border.”
When I first heard there was word of Nhornhim, I was bursting with anticipation because I have held her in my heart all these years. However, upon learning that she was gone, my heart suddenly skipped a beat and I became submerged in grief. All I can think of is Nhornhim, the beautiful young woman who is the light of my life. Though we never exchanged a single word, my heart is eternally and unconditionally devoted to her. I remember when I was serving as a monk and prayed at the funeral ceremony for her father. The affection I felt for her was so intense that I was unable to concentrate on the Buddhist chants. Stealing a glance here and there, I followed her every move as if watching the moon and fearing that it would be obscured behind 12 drifting clouds. I prayed for those clouds to quickly dissipate to reveal the beauty of the moonlight. That is the moment when I fell in love with her.
When Nhornhim served a tray of food to me, I caught a clear glimpse of her face. Her eyes were as dark as sapphires and her lips as red as a rose. Her long, shiny, black hair framed her oval face, falling nearly to her waist… She resembled the female images carved by sculptors on the walls of the many ancient temples, as beautiful as a rumduol (jasmine) flower petal, a twinkling star in the night sky, or dew reflecting sunlight and sparkling on blades of grass. This attraction transformed me from a calm novice monk into a love struck young man—so much so that I forgot I was a monk!
By the clear waters of Baray Teuk Thla, I shared this story with my mother. She felt sorry for me and understood what was in my heart. In an effort to comfort me, she said “Son, because of your grief for the loss of Nhornhim, you’ve been wasting away.
You are so skinny! You’re an adult now and you must find your own path forward. Originally, you asked us to have you ordained as a monk so that you could atone for the wrongs you felt you had committed. By becoming a monk, perhaps you would be able to ease the burden on your heart. But now I’ve come to visit and you tell me the sad story of having lost the girl with whom you’ve fallen in love. I can only encourage you to persevere in finding the spiritual strength to move on from this tragedy. Look at the waves—they don’t occur of their own volition but are assisted by the wind. Open your heart wide so the wind can easily caress your soul. In this way, the waves will surely wash over your soul throughout your life. Everyone encounters problems in life, but each of us must find our own solutions. We cannot allow sadness to take hold and cause us to worry all the time, Son.”
My mother’s advice is wise, but I’m not yet able to stop grieving for Nhornhim. Freeing my heart from its devotion to her will be very difficult, even though she has passed on at such a young age. The more I think of her, the more I miss her.
Nhornhim! All I wanted was to share my life with you. The day our paths crossed, I desperately wanted to get to know you better, but as a monk, I was forbidden to speak with you. We met only once, but you have remained in my thoughts ever since that day. I didn’t even have a photo of you, but I recall your face very clearly. My heart became devoted to you, not in a frivolous way or to be unfaithful in the future. It grieves me a great deal that I was never able to share my feelings with you, marry you and grow old with you. Being separated from the one you love is unbearable. Nhornhim, the first time I saw you, I fell deeply in love with you—but you never knew! Then I lost you! To lose the love of my life is devastating—I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to recover. I have never stopped thinking about you, Nhornhim. I even named my restaurant after you to honor my devotion to you. During the celebrations of Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben, I always pray for you and send you merit. Nhornhim, may you rest in peace and may all your future lives be prosperous and free from suffering, not like this life that you’ve had to endure. If you were alive and still on this earth, I would wait for you forever.
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