stories by Cambodian students

•April 26, 2009 • Leave a Comment

[The assignment was to describe a person or a place.]


My Mother


Since my father passed away, my mother has played an important role in my family.  She is the most generous person in my life, and she is an admirable person for her kindness.  She works very hard to support my family.  She sent me to school from grade one until now, grade eleven.  She has taken care of my siblings and me  since we were born until when my brothers and sisters have jobs.  I think that I am very lucky to be one of my mother’s children.  Most importantly, my mother does not support only my family, she also helps her siblings with their careers. She can do both a man’s work and a woman’s. She has struggled and put forth a lot of effort for ten years.

LUN Menghong

National Museum                                                                                          


Generally, when somebody asks me which place I like to go the most, my answer is the National Museum.  Every time I go there I feel that it is like my home. Even though I go there everyday I still like it.   I still remember one time after we had our first semester exam. It was in February, 2009. My friends and I went to the museum. We took some food from homes and we ate it under Chumpu tree near the garden. We had rice with fried pork and boiling eggs. In fact, one of my friends cooked the food by himself. We took a lot of photos as a group. Every time I ride my bike through the National museum; I always remember what we did there.                                       

Choeng , Houv,Chariya                                              


My Grandmother


I have a grandmother who is on my father’s side. She is about seventy years old. Although she is old, she still has the energy to grow vegetable around her house. I like and respect her very much because she always teaches me and gives me good advice.   She tells stories of times from the past, such as during Pol Pot’s regime. Even though my grandma is old, she likes studious people and always tells me to take them as my models.

Tep Vannak


500 riel


Face with sadness and full of wrinkles, an elderly lady with black ragged clothes saluted to ask money from me while I was sitting on a bench in front of Botum pagoda. 

“Please give me a hundred riel grandson,” she said. 

There were only 500 riel (20 cents) in my pocket. I took all that money slowly and gave it to her. The elderly lady, tremblingly, accepted my money and said, “Thank you so much and I wish you have happiness.”

After said these words, she went away. She didn’t know that she and I both were getting cold. I gave the money to her because I felt compassion toward her; I pitied her because I didn’t want to have compassion toward her anymore.

I watched her as she walked away and thought, only miserable people could understand this sorrowful feeling. Though five hundred riel is not much, it could make her happy. Moreover, it gave me a memory that I will have never forgot. 


Written by

Sou Khemerin





On returning to the U.S.

•April 14, 2009 • 2 Comments

I have never considered New York City to be particularly clean or quiet, but in the last few days, this is exactly how it has felt. Over Easter weekend, Brooklyn seemed nearly empty; there was almost no car noise.  There is an absence of trash or strong smells in the roads. There’s no dust. It’s cold!

I have stood in aisles of health food stores for way too long looking at the different kinds of moisturizers. I’ve gotten very excited about washing vegetables with tap water.  I’ve made a pot of soup, with root vegetables. 

I miss: the bread man walking through the streets, announcing the different kinds of breads; fresh coconuts; the early morning blaring of wedding music; mangoes;  Wat Langka; bougainvillea; walking to my yoga studio; taking tuk-tuks (this also one of the things I don’t miss, oddly enough); my friends in Cambodia.

How to Catch a Crocodile

•April 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

If you ever find yourself needing to catch a critically endangered Siamese crocodile (for instance to transport it to a different location so it won’t be wiped out by a dam being built in the Cardamom Mountains),here is what you do:

1. First, you’re in luck, because crocodiles naturally open their jaws when they’re on the defense, and you’ll need it’s jaws to be open. Take your nifty bamboo stick with the rope loop at the end and lasso it around the croc’s upper jaw.

2. Pull the croc onto land.

3. Ask your friend (nicely) to grab the croc’s tail and lengthen its body to limit its movements. 

4. Throw a wet towel over its eyes to subdue it. 

5. Stop! This step is very important!! Jump on the croc’s head and shut its jaw closed.  If this is not done properly it may snap around and bite off your leg. 

6. Tape the croc’s jaw shut with masking tape.  

7. Put cotton balls over its eyes. Tape those on too.

8. Transport it to its new home.

To Survive Khmer Rouge, He Painted, my article on Boston

•March 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment


Vann Nath, 63, one of only seven survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng torture prison, with scenes of the prison that he has painted from memory.

Elyse Lightman, a former resident of Concord, Mass., is a Trustee and Director of Special Projects for the Harpswell Foundation, which provides educational opportunities for disadvantaged young people in Cambodia. She has been traveling to and writing about Cambodia for the past five years. She spoke with Vann Nath in January and again in February.

By Elyse Lightman

March 30

PHNOM PENH — Today, three decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, marks the beginning of the first substantial hearing in the trial of a senior Khmer Rouge official before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. Kaing Guek Eav, or Duch, a former mathematics teacher, is accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes for his role as commander of the Tuol Sleng prison, where 14,000 men, women, and children were tortured and killed.

During the three years, eight months and twenty days that the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge were in power, as many as two million people died from execution, starvation, and illness. The international criminal tribunal — a hybrid of international judges and prosecutors who work alongside their Cambodian counterparts — has been plagued by seemingly endless delays.

There were only seven survivors of the Tuol Sleng torture prison. Vann Nath, a painter by trade and a former monk, was one. He escaped death by painting portraits of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, that were commissioned by Duch.

At the initial hearing on Feb. 17, Vann Nath sat in the front row of the courtroom, a former military theater. Duch sat feet away from him, behind a wall of glass. Vann Nath told me that day: “Today is the day I have been awaiting for 30 years.”

On the evening of Dec. 30, 1977, when Vann Nath was arrested at his home in Battambang, a province northwest of Phnom Penh, he was told only “it was an order from the district.”  He left his wife and two children and was forced into a truck filled with other frightened detainees. They drove from early morning until nighttime without water or food, and with little air to breathe. When they finally arrived in Phnom Penh, Vann Nath was taken to a detention center and locked in shackles along with many other men. “We were treated worse than cows or pigs,” he recalled in early January when we spoke at his gallery in Phnom Penh.

Once at Tuol Sleng, he was blindfolded and interrogated. Khmer Rouge soldiers as young as 12 shouted questions at the prisoners: “What’s your name? Where are you from? What district? What section? What region? What did you do during the Sihanouk regime? During the Lon Nol regime?” When it was Vann Nath’s turn, he said that in the past he had been a schoolboy, a painter, and a farmer. 

Hunger “like an animal”

The Khmer Rouge strung wire through metal collars around the prisoners’ necks, and dragged them down the road.  The soldiers were skilled at what they did, says Vann Nath, and didn’t show any pity.  They tried to get him to confess to betraying Angkar, the Khmer Rouge organization, giving him electric shocks until he fell unconscious. He was not given a single drop of water, and only three tablespoons of rice porridge twice a day. During his time in prison, he told me, he “lost all feeling — missing, loving, sensing.”  The one feeling he had was hunger, “like an animal.” 

A month and six days after Vann Nath’s arrival at Tuol Sleng, three guards unexpectedly called upon him in his room. He was so weak and starved that he felt he was unable to hear or see anything clearly. He was led downstairs to meet Duch. The prison commander showed him a black and white photograph of Pol Pot and told him he wanted him to paint a clear reproduction of the photograph. “I can hardly stand up,” Vann Nath replied.

Duch told him to rest for a few days. The guards fed him water and rice instead of the usual porridge, and laughed at him as he ravenously ate his food. He was finally able to take a bath, and found a shard of mirror. He saw his emaciated body, beard, and long hair. “I lost hope,” he told me. All he could do to survive was to try to paint a portrait of Pol Pot that pleased Duch.

Vann Nath spent the next twenty-five days working on the portrait on a piece of canvas about five-by-ten feet. This first painting was a test, and Duch came to check on his progress multiple times a day. If he liked it, Vann Nath would survive. If not, he would surely be killed. Incredibly, Duch liked Vann Nath’s first painting enough to ask him to paint another portrait of Pol Pot, this time in color, and then another, and another, totaling eight.

On Jan. 7, 1979, one year after Vann Nath entered Tuol Sleng, the Vietnamese-led People’s Republic of Kampuchea regime took over Cambodia, ousting the Khmer Rouge. Vann Nath and the six other survivors were released.

Scenes from memory

At 63, Vann Nath has silver hair, dark grey eyebrows that turn into white wisps towards the edges, and big, melancholy eyes. He has spent much of his life since the Khmer Rouge regime painting scenes of Tuol Sleng from memory. “That time was so severe,” he says, “it’s like everything is still in front of my eyes.”

Vann Nath depicts himself in his paintings, from the time of his capture to torture. One picture shows him with long scraggly hair and ribs protruding from his abdomen like sticks floating on water. Another shows him handcuffed, lying face down on the ground, surrounded by black-clothed soldiers whipping him.

He says he doesn’t have hopes yet for the upcoming trial; he will wait to see the results. “The detainees are held in a room with air conditioning and are given a menu of food to order from,” he remarked. Of Duch he says, “he used to be strong, cruel, and tough, but now he’s just like another old man.”

The trauma of Vann Nath’s past has taken a heavy toll on him. He has traveled to the United States and to Canada, and he has been given many honors, including two from Human Rights Watch. He is an honorary citizen of Lowell, Mass.

Nothing moves him much, though. He says his emotions are flat — he is happy when he has enough food to eat. However, when asked to describe the day he was reunited with his wife five months after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, his face lit up. He told me that neither of them imagined the other could be alive, especially after their two children had died. When they found each other, he said, “the feeling was … beyond words.”

Lun Menghong’s story

•March 27, 2009 • Leave a Comment

When I was young I used to walk across a mango farm.  It had a pond and in that pond there were many lotus blossoms. And the water was blue.  When I saw it I didn’t want to walk away.  On both sides of the pond there were many trees, both small and big.  Some were fruit trees and some just decorative.  There were many birds playing together.  I will never forget that view.

 As I continued my trip to the mountain, there were a lot of birds, lizards and fruit.  And the trees were big.  If we looked down from the mountain we would see a very beautiful view.  We saw people busy farming.

Lun Menghong, 16 years old, on his parents’ homeland in Kandal province.

“My Wonderful Childhood,” by Mr. Korng Reangsey

•March 27, 2009 • Leave a Comment

My wonderful childhood, by Korng Reangsey, age 27

When I was young I was jealous of girls. What my sister had I wanted also.  

One day when I was playing with the children in my village my mother took my sisters to the hairdresser.  At lunchtime I came back home, and when I saw my sisters’ curly hair I was very jealous of them.  I cried and was angry with my mom that she didn’t take me to the hairdresser.  I cried until my eyes became swollen.  My mother could not comfort me, so she finally decided to take me to get my hair done too.  At that time everyone at the hairdresser laughed at me because I was a boy but I wanted to get my hair-dressed like a girl.  I didn’t care; I wanted only for my hair to become like my sisters.  

After I got my hair-dressed I looked in the mirror and thought I was the most beautiful boy.  I came back home and everyone in the house laughed at me because my hair looked so funny.  Some called me “chicken-basket hair,” and some called me “wood-shaving hair.” But I was glad that I had hair that looked like my sisters.

About my studies: I was not a good student and lazy in class. For the exercises that the teacher assigned I could only get 5 points out of 10.

In my village, Uncle Sok was a rich man who was the first to get a television.  Everyone in the village came to his house to watch movies. I remember that he rented an” ancient” Chinese movie.  It had the title,’Magic Sword And Evil Knife.’’   I liked it so much.  I liked the sword in that movie. I drempt about it in my sleep. Because I loved it so much, I asked my mom to buy a red magic sword for me- I asked her five times in one day. But my mom didn’t know what to do because there were no swords in the market. My mother told me that if I wanted that sword I had to study hard and try to become a good boy and work hard because that sword was not sold in Cambodia; it was sold in China.  And if I wanted it I had to take a plane to get it from China.  It meant that I had to have money.  And in order to get the money I had to have knowledge. If I studied hard, after I finished school, I would get a job and then have money, buy the air ticket and fly to get that sword.  Since that day, because I wanted that sword so much, I changed myself: I stopped being jealous of my sisters and studied hard to get knowledge.  I work to save money to buy the air ticket and fly to get that sword.

Preparing for Mawlud ceremony, Tramung Chrum village

•March 15, 2009 • Leave a Comment