(Edited with permission by Kathryn McLean)
My name is Son Sorm and I come from a small farming community about 40 km outside of Siem Reap. For generations my family has depended on farming for survival. My entire life has been about just that – survival. This is my story.
I was born in 1977 during the Khmer Rouge regime. During this time, my family, like many others, suffered incredibly and we lost many friends and family members during this dark time. We were nearly always on the brink of starvation and had to do whatever it took to make it through each day. Even after the Vietnamese forces entered Cambodia, my family’s situation was bleak and continued to deteriorate.
In 1980, soldiers invaded our village and opened fire killing everyone in sight and burning the village to the ground. I managed to escape but not without being hit by shrapnel in the head and arm – scars from which I carry to this day. Shortly after our village had been ravaged, most of the remaining villagers retreated to the nearby forests to resettle. People were afraid to live there in case the soldiers returned, and the place became like a ghost town.
In that same year, my father was killed leaving our family with three remaining members: me, my mother and younger sister. This devastating loss drove us deeper into despair and my sister and I had no choice but to work for our neighbors in exchange for food. As we lived each day on the brink of starvation, my sister and I foraged in the forest and combed the fields looking for anything to eat. Sometimes we found crabs, frogs, or berries but we were never certain where our next meal would come from. We were so hungry that we ate anything we could find.
One day I saw a bunch of mushrooms growing in a pile of cow manure. My body was so overwrought with hunger that it didn’t cross my young mind that they were possibly unsafe to eat. Within five minutes of consuming them I became violently ill and began vomiting uncontrollably. I began to vomit blood and continued this way until my mother found me and took me home. As we didn’t have access to modern medicine, she boiled some herbs in water for me to drink and luckily I slowly began to recover.
Illness was just one of the troubles we faced on a daily basis. The other main dangers being a village littered with landmines, the constant threat of attacks from soldiers, and of course the ever-present threat of starvation. The strain became too much for my mother and one day she told my sister and I that she was going out to find some food. We waited for her to come back. I was about 4 or 5 years old at the time, and my sister was just a toddler. She kept crying and calling for our mother. I tried to comfort her and was able to arrange a place for us to sleep under a neighbor’s house. This situation was not ideal however as they treated us no better than they would treat farm animals.
Every day we walked the short distance back to our house to wait for my mother. One day turned into three. And then a week passed. I began to wonder if she would ever come back. Feelings of guilt and anxiety arose within me. Why did she leave? Would she ever come back? After more than a week, my mother finally returned. My sister and I were delighted that she came back and I felt it was the greatest gift ever. I was certain that from now on things would improve. Little did I know however, that our reunion was only to be temporary. Within a few days, my hopes were crushed as my mother made what was probably the most difficult decision of her life. Leaving my sister at home, she took me to a village about 30 km away to live with another family. During her absence, she had made arrangements for me to live with another family to ease the burden of another mouth to feed and to increase everyone’s chances of survival. At the time I didn’t understand why she did this, but I realize now that she did it out of love.
I worked very hard for my new ‘family’ tending the cows and water buffalos but I was treated very poorly and had no free time whatsoever. When I got sick, no one helped me, but instead they looked down on me, cursed me and complained about everything I did. I was still very young and I depended on them for my basic needs of food, water and shelter, so I had no choice but to follow their rules.
After about two years, I decided to live with another family in the same village. I hoped and prayed that things would be different this time. In the beginning they were kind and gave me extra food, and I began to feel cared for. But this quickly changed and within a few short months they were forcing me to work longer and harder than everyone else in the family. I became no more than a slave to the wants of each member of the family. They ordered me around and worked me to the bone.
One day, a man from the village approached me and offered to help me. He promised to take care of me, to replace my now thread-bare clothes, and even give me my own water buffalo. I believed him and went to live with him and his wife. In the beginning, both he and his wife encouraged me and after I received my new clothes and a pair of shoes I felt certain that this time my luck had changed. But unfortunately my dreams were once again shattered as the promise of a new life was broken. I fell into the now familiar routine of being a slave.
Having all my dreams repeatedly crushed for years on end left me feeling depressed and empty. I mourned the loss of my family members and as loneliness overcame me I began to lose all hope at any chance of happiness. For years, I struggled to make it through each day, wondering when I would wake up from the nightmare that my life had become. Finally one day, after returning home late from the field and being berated for my actions, I had had enough. The next day, without informing anyone, I woke early and walked 5 km to the nearest temple and asked the monks for permission to stay.
At the tender age of 11, I became a monk and in doing so, changed the course of my life forever. I found peace within the walls of the pagoda and was finally able to heal and put some of the horrors of my past behind me. While there, I studied Pali language and the teachings of the Buddha and was able to obtain my high school diploma. I even went on to attend university and completed a Bachelor of English Literature. In 2003, the Ministry of Tourism announced a need for official tour guides at Angkor Wat. Upon hearing this, I left the monkhood and began studying. I passed the entrance examination and began working immediately.
My work as a tour guide has been very rewarding and it has provided me with the opportunity to meet a vast number of individuals from all over the world.
There have been many people that have helped me get to where I am today. I was fortunate enough to become acquainted with several individuals whose kindness and generosity gave me the drive to keep learning and improving myself. I have never forgotten those who helped me. To mention a few:
- The community members who purchased my robes for me so that I could become a monk
- The Scottish man who helped me create my email address and contributed towards my education (he was the first person to show me American dollars)
- The couple from Germany who generously contributed towards my university education
- Tineke Crossland, from America who bought me my first computer and provided me with Internet access each day
- Bryan, from the United States who made me a website for my tour guiding business and for listing me on Trip Advisor.
There are countless others who have assisted me throughout my journey by generously contributing their time, energy and funds. The creation and maintenance of COSD could not be possible without the support of outside help and I thank each and every one of you for your help.
After 15 years apart, I was reunited with my mother and sister in 2001. Although they live about 60 km away, as the three surviving members of our family, we try to maintain regular contact with one another. In 2007, I met my wife and our daughter was born in 2008. We lead a simple life in the rural area of Prey Thmei Village, about 10 km outside of Siem Reap town. My sole purpose these days is giving back, specifically to the youth living in rural Cambodia. I feel so fortunate to have been given a chance that I feel it is only right to return the favor. By providing these youngsters with the opportunity to be educated, they can contribute to the rebuilding of Cambodia and once again make it ‘kingdom of wonder’.