For the past two days, Mr. Soksan has shared stories of his life with me.
He is 72 years old and lives in Pousat. His wife passed away recently and now he lives with his son-in-law and his younger sister.
When one has the privilege to meet someone like Mr. Soksan in Cambodia, one has to feel honored. You have a window to history sitting with you.
And so it was with Mr. Soksan. He told me of his youth in Phenom Penh as a student monk when he went to the pagoda at age 13.
He progressed to being a monk and lived mostly in Siem Reap province, close to the Angkor Wat temples.
There were very few visitors to the temples back then (unlike the millions who visit Angkor Wat every year now), but he did tell me that many journalists came to see the temples during the problems of 1943.
He reminisced with me about his bus trip to Vietnam in 1987.
“There are a lot of bicycles in Ho Chi Minh city,” he told me.
We had our chats in his restaurant in Pousat, where most of the work is done now by family members but he is still the boss and all the money goes through him. “We are going to be closed the next five days,” he remarked to me, “because of Chinese New Year. My son-in-law’s mother is Chinese, so every time this year we go to Kampot or Sihanoukville or Bokor Mountain. I think this year we are going to Kampot.”
He had come to Pousat province when he was in his thirties. He met his wife. They married and had three childen. “I had only women,” he jokingly told me. “No sons.”
But the love for his daughters is obvious. As is their respect for him. During our talks, the eldest daughter would come sit and listen to his stories with the same interest as I. She and I both appreciated this opportunity to hear about Cambodia’s past.
I asked about roads in the past.
“Life was very difficult. It was very difficult to go anywhere. Now, Cambodia has roads. But back then, there were no roads. We could not go to Phenom Penh and back in a day. Life was hard then. Now, life is easy. I like living in Pousat now. It is very easy to live here,” he said with a smile.
He and his wife built their house. And during the years that passed, they would see many things. The war and turmoil. The arrival of the peacekeepers, and then the arrival of tourists like me.
He and I had our pictures taken and then he remarked, “My grandsons! Take photos of my grandsons.”
And so I did.
We looked at the photos on the camera and laughed.
Then it was time for me to leave. Lunch business was over. The family would now rest until evening when it would be serving the dinner customers.
I shook his hand and said goodbye. (Later, I would remember I should have parted by saying “Jemriablia” with the Cambodian customary two hands folded beneath the chin and a slight bowing at the fingertips.)
Outside, while getting on my bike, I looked up at the sign above the restaurant. “The restaurant’s name means ‘happiness’,” he had told me.
Inside, everyone had gone off to nap. A couple of family members were picking up some plates.
I looked back at the road and thought about a nap myself. There was not much traffic right now. I left and biked off into the sun and heat of the midday.