Portrait of a Cambodian family

Posted on 29 May 2012 by


The intoxicating aroma of steamed meats and vegetables fills the air as Sarane Thean eats stir-fry beef with his family. Seven cinnamon brown-and-white puppies run around as the eight relatives sit in a circle on a raised wooden platform beside their house in Koh Kong, Cambodia. Smoke blows through the light breeze while they enjoy the freshly cooked meal using their chopsticks, with the stir-fry in the center making distinct pops of boiling water. The only other sounds that can be heard are the chirping birds in the trees and the revving engines of the motorcycles passing by on the dirt road behind them.

Sarane has what is considered a good life in Cambodia. The 23-year-old makes a decent living as a waiter at a French/American restaurant called Café Laurent. As Cambodia is experiencing a tourist boom, his work at the restaurant appears to be steady enough to take care of his family. His family embodies the struggle of Cambodia after the genocidal regime over 35 years ago: a country torn apart trying to pick up the pieces after one of the most horrific periods in recent history.

Sarane’s father, Leak Thean, died when Sarane was 13 years old from a traumatic brain injury after a car accident. After Leak died, it was up to Sarane to help support his mother and his four siblings. He stopped studying right after his father died to find work. His mother, Sovannary Moun Thean, survived the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970’s. As a teenager, she was separated from her family and taken away to the Battambang killing caves.

“I was made to wear all black and work all day everyday,” said Sovannary. “If we didn’t work, they would kill us. If anyone tried to run away, they killed us.”

Sovannary, with her hair neatly pulled back wearing a pink long sleeve blouse and long green pants with Hawaiian style flowers reading “Aloha,” said she did not remember much else about her time spent in the killing caves since it was a long time ago. Whether she has blocked it out or truly cannot recall the horrors of her experiences, spoken recollections of the Khmer Rouge regime continues to be a difficult task for Cambodians.

Over 2 million Cambodians were killed or died as a result of the Khmer Rouge regime, led by dictator Pol Pot. Many Cambodians were kidnapped and worked or starved to death in what was called the “killing fields.” Others were routinely executed. The killing caves were much of the same terror, but its location in the rural north east of Cambodia led to a much more isolated existence. Usually at night and after days or weeks of torture, Khmer Rouge soldiers led their victims, blindfolded and bound, to a small pagoda at the edge of a cave, which has a sheer drop onto the boulders below.

Those who lived in the camps were often tortured and given little food to eat.

“The Pol Pot people worked my mom, and others like her, so hard. But they only give them little bit of rice at mealtime,” Sarane said.

His mother escaped the killing caves in 1979. She ran away and traveled by foot through the mountains, risking her life as she narrowly dodged landmines. She found food only in the nearby forests as she made her way to the Koh Kong province, nearly 200 miles away, after three months. She met Leak a few years after she arrived in Koh Kong; when the Khmer Rouge completely lost its power. Sovannary was working at a market when Leak came back to Cambodia from school in Vietnam.

Leak and Sovannary had five children. Sarane’s now 18-year-old brother Sarun Thean goes to school. His brother 20-year-old Sary Thean works and lives in the Koh Kong City Hotel, next to Café Laurent. His sisters, 20-year-old Lyna and 24-year-old Lanee, are both married.

Sarane has been married to 23-year-old Tavary for a year and a half. They have a three-month year old son, Kery Thean. The surname Thean means “strong man.”

Through Sarane’s avid reading and studying of multiple languages on his own time, he has been able to work the type of jobs that make him capable of supporting his family.

Sarane can speak three languages: Khmer (pronounced Ka-mai, the Cambodian language), Thai and English. He learned English on his own by reading books, most notably the book adaptation of the film Titanic when he was younger. In his precocious youth, he was able to find work as a motorcycle taxi driver, tourist guide and a teacher before Mr. Laurent offered him the job at the café.

“If I only spoke Khmer, I would get only 40 dollars a month,” Sarane said. “Since I speak three languages, I started at 60 dollars a month.”

Sarane now makes about $140 a month in his third year of being a waiter. He said if he was making the money just for himself, he would be well off, but it wouldn’t be enough for his family. Since his family pools their money together, they are able to afford the basics.

“Before this, we had nothing,” he said. “When my father died, we had no money for food.”

Photo by Jennifer Grosso

The family makes about $15 a day at the shop in front of their home. Sarane said at one time, they lived only on rice, mangoes and small portions of fish. Now they can afford what they need because of his work, the shop, and by renting out the house his father left him to his sister Lanee and his brother-in-law.

What would be considered poverty in the United States is relatively decent in Cambodia. The average monthly salary in the capital Phnom Penh is $100 per month. Workers with the lowest incomes in Cambodia earn about $900 per year.

With the new opportunities arising out of tourism in Koh Kong, especially the local resorts of Sihanoukville, nearby residents are finding work in the coastal lowland region but struggle tirelessly to make ends meet. Many in the area still lack the resources such as access to basic healthcare.

Sarane’s shift at the café is from 3pm to midnight, six days a week. He takes orders from mostly tourists at the waterfront café. Since he is soft-spoken with a beaming smile and speaks decent English, he is a memorable favorite at the restaurant. On the listing for the café on Trip Advisor, a tourist wrote, “Ask for Sarane.”

Sarane spends most of his free time taking care of his family. Sarane, his wife, brother and young son sleep on the floor in a small room behind his mother’s shop. His mother has her own bed on the far side of the room.

At 7 in the morning, he goes to market to buy food. He cooks for his mom and washes his work clothes and his son’s clothes. Before his brother Sarun goes to school, Sarane makes sure his brother has enough money to attend.

In Cambodia, students at all grade levels have to pay for their own school. For Sarun, it costs 10,000 riel or $2.50 a day to go to school. Sarun studies English and the sciences at school.

“I want to be a doctor,” Sarun said. “I want to be good at chemistry. It is my purpose, for my father. He told me before he died, he told me ‘Son, if you want to be a doctor you have to be good at chemistry.’ So I want to follow [what he told me].”

Sarun should be eligible in two years to attend university. However, the closest universities are over six hours away in the capital of Phnom Penh. He may not have the money or means to continue his education as it can cost over $1,000 a year for college.

He diligently studies with his textbooks piled on a desk in a small space behind their room, which also serves as kitchen and a changing room. Sarun said his teachers are nice but strict. They slap on students’ wrists if they do not know answers or will make them sing in class if they do not do all of their homework.

“Right now, I don’t want him to work, I want him to study only,” Sarane said about his brother.

Sarane’s son Kery (photo by Jennifer Grosso)

Sarane hopes for the same for his young son, Kery.

Since Sarane is able to provide for his young son, he wants his son to be able to have the opportunities that he did not have.

He also hopes he can be a good role model for his child.

Every night before he puts Kery to sleep, he tells him “I want you to study everything like me and you must do something that is good.”

He often sings to him in different languages to awaken Kery’s intellectual senses during his infancy.

“I want him to be a chef,” said Sarane. “If I have enough money, I will give it to him to study.”

After the Thean family is finished with their meal, Tavary tenderly holds Kery’s hands as Sarane softly sings to his son, like he does every morning when he wakes. Sarane smiles at him, making Kery twist and turn with giggles.

Wrapped in a heart-patterned blanket wearing red jersey and a diaper, Kery lays in a hammock tied to tree branches as Tavary gently rocks him back and forth. A red bracelet adorns his tiny left wrist, as a traveling monk blessed him the day before.

His mother and father look down in admiration, hoping he will grow up to be the “strong man” his name entails.

View the mini documentary by Jennifer Grosso about Sarane on Vimeo

Posted in: Reporting