This was on my Cambodian dirt bike adventure after dinner and my guide La had headed to bed. I was sitting writing my report of the day and just as I finished the owner of the homestay came over to hang out. His name was Pek, and this is his story.
Pek was born in 1973 in Siem Reap. He was a child during the years of the Khmer Rouge and remembers clearly the prevalence of violence during that time. He said nights without gunfire were a rarity, and shacks full of bullet holes where common place sights. Luckily his family survived the Khmer Rouge and his father became a mechanic in the military. Pek lived a basic Cambodian child’s life and like all other kids of his age he was told Cambodia was the whole world. There were no neighboring countries, as a matter of fact he didn’t know what a country was. He was made to believed Cambodia was all there was. One day in 1983 he was walking through town when he saw a giant, like the ones his elders had told him stories about who would snatch children if they went into the jungle alone. This was a story told to keep kids away from the many land mines, which were what really claimed lost children in the jungle. But this giant was special. He had blonde hair and hairy arms and a huge vest with many pockets. He was carrying a big black machine on his shoulder, which Pek knew must be used for killing children. But he was not an evil giant, he was a reporter from the US trying to learn what life was like for the children of the Khmer Rouge. Pek sat down with an elder who translated back and forth and immediately Pek had to know how the man was communicating with the giant. “Who is he and how are you talking to him?”
“He’s a reporter from the US and speaks English”
“It’s another country”
“THERE ARE OTHER COUNTRIES!?”
“Yes but answer his questions.”
“But what is English”
“Not now just answer his questions”
“But where is the US”
“Look just remember English, and learn it someday and you will know all about the US and other countries”
From that point on the seed was sown. It’s important to note that during this time the Khmer Rouge was technically still in power and Siem Reap was very close to the province of Pol Pots home, thus learning nor speaking English was an offense punishable by jail time. 1 offense could land you 3 years in a political prison.
Fast forward to 1985. At this time Siem Reap was still a small town. Only the political elite and very wealth could travel to Cambodia, and when they came to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat they were escorted by military the whole way and there were only two guides in the whole town. One day Pek decided to wait at the one hotel and after the guide dropped off his guests for the day, Pek followed him home. He confronted him and said he wanted to learn English. The guide yelled at him, saying he didn’t know English and the boy should go home and he was stupid for even asking. But Pek came back the next day, and the next. And finally after a week of pleading and being told to leave the guide alone, the man broke down and could see the desire in the young boys heart. So he agreed to give him and his 3 friends secret English lessons from 10-11pm every other night. For 6 months Pek studied with him, until one day the cops followed him to his lessons and they were all arrested. By this point Pek’s father had worked his way up in the military and was one of the main commanders in Siem Reap. After hearing his son had been arrested he took his troop over to the police station and demanded his sons release. After much back and forth, Pek was allowed free. With much punishment from his parents who had no idea about his sneaking out and learning English. But Pek couldn’t be stopped. 6 months later he started taking English lessons again. 9 months and 14 days later at 10:15pm he heard a loud speaker outside the class room.
“This is the police. We know you are learning English inside. We have the place surrounded. If you try to flee you will be shot.”
With no option Pek and his classmates filed out of the building and into the police trucks, which took them straight to jail. Again Pek’s father tried to get him out of it, but the commander of the police wouldn’t budge. So Pek’s father took 300 army troops with trucks and guns and mortars and surrounded the prison. For three days they commanders argued back and forth. Shooting in the air escalated to the military mortaring the roof of the prison.
The prison being only 1km out of town, this whole scene was very public. Eventually it made it all the way to Phnom Pen where higher ups in the government looked into the issue to see who these kids learning English were. The main fear was that they were in some way spies or talking to other governments but after doing deep research on them and realizing Pek and his friends where farmers and sons of military officers they sent word to the police that they were to be set free.
Pek got home where he was beaten within an inch of his life and had to beg his parents to stop. That he would never try to learn English again. He said “I remember my father grabbed an AK-47 and shot a whole magazine around my feet, but guns didn’t scare me. To me gunfire was the same as music.” He was 14 at the time.
Eventually forgiven Pek still had a desire to learn about the outside world. So when the king returned in 1989 and boarders were opened again and English was no longer illegal, Pek took a job as a driver. He mostly drove reporters and politicians who wanted to talk with him as much as he wanted to learn from them. So he used them as his “dictionary”, learning new, more complex words and everything he could soak up about the outside world. For years he loved and worked in Siem Reap, first as a driver, then later working with NGOs trying to bring development to local communities. He met an Australian woman and fell in love. They moved to Australia for a short period of time but after things didn’t work out he returned to Cambodia to keep working with the NGOs.
But by this time Siem Reap had grown. There were now more than 2 hotels in town, and western restaurants had started inundating the small town. Before he knew it the small township he grew up in was a tourist central. So he moved away. Out to where it was quiet in a small village atop Kulen mountain. He got a job with ADF, an archeological company who were exploring and cataloging the ruins in the national park on the mountain. For 12 years Pek has worked with ADF uncovering the oldest Khmer temples ever found, dating back to 802AD, some 300 years before Angkor Wat. They found massive highway systems running north south and east west, at the crossroads of which was a royal palace. The biggest and oldest ever found. In his work with ADF Pek has played a major part in cleaning up land mines, which are still scattered all over the country. They go out and do preliminary searches for ruins then have bomb teams sweep and clear the area, then locals build roads out, and excavation of the sight begins. He’s the primary contact for the three bomb disposal units who work in the national park, and is the intermediary between locals who discover UXOs and the people who go out to clear them. Pek loves his quiet life living up in the jungle where the food is fresh, and I was confirmed the chicken I ate for dinner did indeed come from the hen house behind the building. He loves to share his stories and now 46 years old he still loves to practice his English.