The first thing that stands out about Sok are his eyes. A dark sea in the space of two almonds, making waves from within and showing splinters of his enigmatic personality. There is a depth in his silence and a moving kindness in the way he speaks, the one of an old spirit that crossed a bridge over troubled waters and didn’t tell a soul.
Sok is Cambodian of Chinese descent, he’s 43 years old and lives in the same neighbourhood as when he was a kid. He’s very skinny, with thick black hair kept really short, and a few tattoos here and there, including one Buddha on his left calf.
We met Sok the day we arrived in Siem Reap and it didn’t take long for us to become intrigued by his prismatic personality, his kindness and his quiet spirit.
The temple of the past
We were lucky enough to be hosted by him, his wife and kids in a small property not far from the centre of Siem Reap. One day, we asked him to go for a walk and we spent some time perusing the Pagoda nearby, while I asked him a few questions about his life.
This is the story of someone who was born in Battambang, a year before the end of Pol Pot’s regime, which lasted “3 years, 8 months, 22 days”. It strikes me painfully that, besides having no memories of that time, he knows exactly how long the Cambodian dictator had been violating his country and its people.
While he speaks, a certain untold sadness sit on him like a thin blanket, it must be woven with all the things that made him; it feels very special to get to see this side of him unravel before me.
His parents were in 2 different labour camps, as it was common practice to split husbands, wives and children, so when he was born he was separated from his mother and brought to live in yet another camp, with his older sister. As I listen to this story, a fist of horror pierces my throat, and it’s made even more bitter by the reminder of the randomness that is the lottery of life: it’s a coin toss, to be born in a place ravaged by war or in a safe country, in a den of abusers or in a loving family.
Sitting quietly on a bench in front of a temple, a group of monks pass us by, and with them, there is a child. Sok gestures toward him while explaining that he was about his age when he moved into this very same pagoda. From age 8 to 13 he lived nearly daily with the monks, his tasks on most days was to bring the water from the well, so the monks could bless it. He spent those years between the pagoda and the house of his parents who, at the time, lived just across the river. His family had sent him there so he could receive a good education, good food and learn the sacred skill of helping others.
Before we leave the Pagoda and head back home, I ask about his memories in the pagoda and he has no doubt, they are all about helping and comforting people: “Every day, someone would come and see the monks, seek their knowledge, their blessings and their comforting words. But blessings don’t mean anything if you don’t do your part, the hardest part of the job of living”.
In the late 2000s, after finding a job as a taxi driver, studying and working as a tourist guide, Sok became a tour leader, wandering throughout Asia with groups of traveller in tow.
Those years proved to be extremely formative, his historical, political and cultural understanding of South East Asia deepened and flourished, nurtured by a lively passion for knowledge.
A few weeks earlier, on a gloomy, unusually rainy day, we rode on a tuk tuk with him and went to Angkor Wat, the biggest temple complex of all Asia, a notorious UNESCO World Heritage site. Once there, Sok started to explain how Angkor came to be, and the origin of many of the tales that are engraved in the walls. His knowledge is impressive, he told us stories that are at the border between history, mythology and archaeology, connecting dots that I could not possibly link, even if I studied them for years.
And he seems to love it.
What’s intriguing is that, behind the vast wealth of facts, there is a further layer of wisdom, made up of symbolism and representation, and he doesn’t force anyone to see it, but if your curiosity is vivacious enough, he can lift the veil and let you in.
On a chill evening, while sharing a drink with some of the other guests, he was trying to express how deep his love for Angkor runs and, with the most naturally enthusiastic voice he said: “I didn’t build Angkor but my soul did”. His eyes were twinkling in the dark, filled with joy, pride and beauty, and I could feel how profoundly ingrained his Cambodian roots are.
It’s as if he could leap between worlds, have profound conversations about the why of things, or just sit blissfully in contemplation, without speaking, and it’s at the intersection of this simplicity that I find people to be the most fascinatingly complicated.
Back at the Pagoda I asked him one more question, I wanted to know what he would change in his life, if he could choose one thing, only one thing. He laughed at how hard it was to answer, thought about it and then said, in a gentle voice “Peace. I would like peace for everybody. That’s what’s important for me.”, and he wasn’t being rhetoric or corny.
In our time together, both Jyl and I have grown fond of Sok, of his quiet ways balanced by an unexpectedly cheerful streak, ready to come out at the right opportunity.
Something profoundly moving, spiritual, inhabits him, you can sense it in the way Sok faces life and accepts gracefully the things of human existence, and this inner beauty shines through the layers of the person he is today, in a timeless portrait of someone who moves through the dance of life with a sense of chaos, purpose and gratitude.