Return to a Khmer Village


Remember us." On a spring day in 1960, this phrase was repeated to me time and again as I said goodbye to friends and neighbors in West Sobay, a hamlet that I had lived in for almost a year while doing fieldwork on Cambodian peasant culture. I felt particularly forlorn when I stopped at the house of Iing and Dom, an elderly couple of exceptional gentility and kindness who had become my fictive grandparents. Because they were already old, I looked long and hard at their faces, wondering if I would ever see them again. It was also hard to take leave of Pii and Saot, a spirited couple who had effectively been in loco parents, instructing and protecting me. Their daughter, Son, and her cousin, Au, had helped me keep house and had become close companions in the process, since my peer group was that of single young women.

When the car that was to take me to Phnom Penh arrived, Saot, Son, Au, and I wept and embraced. It was not appropriate for me to hug Pii because he was male, but I looked at him intently, hoping he realized how much appreciation and affection I felt toward him for having been my guardian since my first day in Sobay. I heard final cries of "Remember us!" as I left the village that had become, in effect, a second hometown with its own set of "family" and friends.

I never forgot them for a minute, though due to political and personal circumstances it turned out to be 29 years before I saw the village again. In the intervening time, as I wrote about diverse aspects of Khmer culture and peasant life, West Sobay and its 150-odd inhabitants remained fresh in my memory. Located some 30 km southwest of Phnom Penh, it was one of three hamlets of a larger village. The setting was, to my mind, beautiful: the wood and thatch houses raised on piles in the Khmer style were set amidst a verdant growth of palms, shrubs, and fruit trees, and the expanse of rice paddies stretching to the north and south were a stunning sight in the rainy season.

Almost all the households were wet-rice cultivators, the great majority growing rice mainly for subsistence rather than the market because of small landholdings. Apart from a few families (such as Iing and Dom's) that were considered relatively well off because they had more than the village average of one hectare of paddy fields per household, most villagers were relatively poor but not destitute. Various part-time, money-earning pursuits, such as making lontar palm sugar, kept families afloat. Life was by no means easy, but - without in any way trying to obscure the arduous work and worries of peasant existence - daily life was also filled with a great deal of playful joking, laughter, music, and periodic festive celebrations such as Buddhist temple rituals or village weddings.

Two Decades of Turmoil

After I left Sobay, attempts to correspond with the villagers were unsuccessful (the postal system didn't seem to quite work in the countryside), and I got only occasional news of the village from friends in Phnom Penh who visited Sobay for me. I would guess that village life continued more or less as I had known it until the late 1960s, when the country as a whole began to stagger under the weight of mounting problems such as a deteriorating economy, endemic corruption, dissatisfaction with the Sihanouk government that culminated in the coup by Lon Nol in 1970, the increasing growth and militancy of the communist Khmer Rouge movement, and repercussions from the raging war in neighboring Vietnam.

Much of the countryside experienced severe disruption and devastation in the fighting between Lon Nol government troops and the Khmer Rouge insurgents, as well as from the Nixon-Kissinger policy of "strategic bombing" that dropped more tonnage on Cambodia than had been used on Japan during all of World War II (see pp. 20-22). Although presumably the bombs were directed at communist strongholds, clearly they hit a great many ordinary folk as well.

Sobay did not escape this turmoil. In the summer of 1973, New York Times articles reported heavy fighting, mortar and rocket attacks, and bombing around a certain market town that was being hotly contested by government and rebel troops. My heart stopped when I first saw the name of the town because I knew it well: it was just two kilometers from Sobay. At one point this area was bombed every day for an entire week, and knowing that bombs and rockets never land exactly on target, I anguished that Sobay and its inhabitants had been literally blown apart. But news reports also spoke of hordes of villagers from the region jamming the roads to Phnom Penh. I prayed that people from Sobay were among them because I knew that once before, during a period of civil unrest in the early 1950s, many had fled to the safety of the city. This time, though, that safety turned out to be illusory as Phnom Penh itself came under attack and eventually, in April 1975, was invaded by the Khmer Rouge.

There were times, during the 1973 bombings and later when the horrors of the Pol Pot regime became incontrovertible, that I could not bear to write about or look at pictures of Sobay, despairing that the village no longer existed and everyone had died. Yet I clung to a hope that some might have survived. Whenever I met Cambodian refugees, I asked if they knew anyone from Sobay; whenever I saw documentaries or news photos of Khmers, I would anxiously scan them for familiar faces. After 1979, when the new People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) allowed some foreigners into the country, I heard that villages were being rebuilt in the region where Sobay had been located.

But I had no definite news of the village until 1988 when July Ledgerwood traveled to Cambodia to negotiate a library exchange project for Cornell University and was able actually to visit West Sobay (for more information on the project, see pp. 53-55). It was overwhelming to learn from her that it had been reconstituted in some form, that my close friend Son was still alive and in Phnom Penh, and to see photographs of several villagers. One man was immediately recognizable, but it took some time to figure out that a gaunt, white-haired woman was Mak, whom I had known as a plump matron with three young children. When Judy left the village, Mak had run after her crying out a message for me: "Tell her I had ten children, and only two are left."

"Nieng, You've Come Back!"

In May 1989. I finally returned to Cambodia as part of a delegation from the Social Science Research Council's Indochina Scholarly Exchange Program to explore possible projects with the Cambodian government. Ly Sorsane, the Foreign Ministry official in charge of our group, decided that we could briefly stop in Sobay en route to visiting a famous ruin south of Phnom Penh, so my first return to Sobay was in the company of seven others.

As we neared the village my heart was pounding, and I felt, simultaneously, incredible excitement, elation, and nervousness. West Sobay is separated from the road by paddies, and while the rest of the group ventured along a path, Charles Keyes and I cut across a dry field and clambered up an embankment. I came out under a tree and was astonished to hear a tiny voice coming from the tree saying. "Oh, nieng, you've come back!" Startled, I looked up to see not a tree spirit but a little old lady perched in the branches (what she was doing there, I have no idea). But, indeed, I had finally returned to Sobay after almost three decades.

My recollection of that first visit is very hazy. I was stunned to be back in Sobay and astounded as various people appeared. I immediately recognized the men whom I had known as "uncles," but I had difficulty with the women I had called "aunts." In my memory they had remained young or middle-aged; now they are gray-haired "grandmothers" whose faces and bodies have been altered by not simply age but the extraordinary trials they had endured. And there were new faces: people I had known as children who were now adults with spouses and offspring, and others who had been born after I left. Compounding my daze was the fact that my facility in the Khmer language had become decidedly rusty after several decades of disuse, so that words as well as faces became a blur. When we left after 45 minutes or so, I felt in a state of shock and exhausted relief at finally seeing Sobay again.

The second visit to Sobay was somewhat calmer, made in the company of only Ly Sorsane. This time we approached the village by another road, the one I had traveled by bus many times going to and from Phnom Penh; and as the van bounced and swayed over potholes and cracks, I was surprised by the deteriorated condition of what had once been a smooth highway. We stopped for noodles at the market town that was fought over in 1973 and, I had heard, been reduced to rubble. It is a depressing shell of its former self. Once there had been a lively marketplace and a street of open-front shops selling everything from hardware to jewelry. Now there is a muddy field with a few shabby stalls and some weatherbeaten buildings scattered here and there.

Continuing on to Sobay, what had once been a nicely paved, two-lane road had become little more than a rutted path along which the van lurched slowly. I was heartened to see that there is a great deal of settlement where there had once been a neighboring village, as well as to hear that a well-known Buddhist temple in the vicinity still exists, although I could not see it from the road.

When I again entered West Sobay I immediately encountered a group of "aunts," including some I had not seen previously. I was reminded of the affectionate warmth of the villagers as one aunt held me clutched in a bear hug, regaling Sorsane with an account of my earlier stay in the village. Suddenly a woman ran up and tearfully embraced me; I did not immediately realize that it was Au, one of the young women who had helped keep house for me. I was astonished because, not having heard her name mentioned earlier, I had assumed that she was dead. Au's wedding had been a major event just before my departure from the village; her husband and children had died, but she survived. Resuming her former role as someone who took care of me, she grasped me firmly by the arm and marched me down a path to a table and chairs that had been set up for a healing ceremony for an ailing old woman (the one who had greeted me from the tree).

As I sat, even more villagers appeared, one after another suddenly materializing and asking if I recognized them. Many were persons I had thought were dead because I hadn't seen them during the earlier visit, and I was especially moved and grateful to be reunited with people I had been particularly fond of in the past. For those people who Judy had reported were still alive, I had brought old photographs of their families and relatives. These pictures circulated from hand to hand, some evoking smiles and jokes, while others, of people now gone, were gazed at an silence.

I had intended this to be a social visit to become reacquainted with former neighbors, not a research trip. Nonetheless, I had brought along a household census of West Sobay in 1960, and I wanted to know what had happened to various people. As I sat at the table with a crowd of villagers around me, I went through the census, family by family. As I said each name, the group responded in unison, calling out either "Alive!" or "Dead."

I had expected that some of the elderly people I had known would have died of natural causes before the turmoil of the 1970s. I had hoped that this was the case with Iing and Dom, my adoptive grandparents, a couple with extraordinary reserves of merit who deserved peaceful deaths. It was heartbreaking to learn that they had managed to live until 1976 and then died of starvation. I had also hoped against hope that my "guardian," Pii, might have survived because of the enormous strength underlying his gentle demeanor. But during the Pol Pot years he succumbed to a massive infection from a wound in his foot. His wife, Saot, died shortly afterward of illness and, I suspect, despair at losing her husband.

It was also painful to hear the response "Dead" after the names of lively children and spirited teenagers I had known, who by all rights should have been still alive. Although parts of my hasty census became confused and incomplete, it would seem that almost two-thirds of the villagers I knew had perished. It was beyond my emotional strength to ask when and how most deaths occurred, but it is clear that they could have come at different times and places.

Reconstructing Torn Lives

Because time was limited and my fluency in Khmer inadequate. I can provide only a broad outline of what befell the villagers in the 1970s. The raging civil war of 1973 is attested to by some crumbling, bullet-scarred remains of a former teacher-training center near Sobay, as well as the ruins of the village temple. Many people had indeed fled to Phnom Penh. But Phnom Penh turned out to be a harsh haven: it was jammed to bursting with refugees from the countryside, jobs were scarce, inflation was rampant, food shortages created near starvation conditions, and, toward the end, it was barraged by constant artillery and rocket attacks.

When the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, the villagers were, rather ironically, expelled back into the countryside. Most returned to Sobay, but their lives were drastically altered under the Democratic Kampuchean (DK) regime that sought to create a revolutionary new social order. Property was collectivized; people were reorganized into communes and work teams; labor requirements and discipline were severe; family and kinship ties were ruptured; Buddhism was abolished; malnutrition and illness were rampant; deaths, including executions, were commonplace. Moreover, Sobay was located in the so-called Southwest Zone, whose cadre is said to have been very strict in comparison to some other regions. There are still some material remains of DK in the landscape: what used to be a crazy quilt of irregularly shaped rice paddies had been turned into huge, rectangular plots as part of the DK attempts to rationalize rice cultivation; and just east of Sobay is a row of small, neat wooden houses on piles, said to have been the homes of Khmer Rouge cadres.

At some point, many Sobay residents were moved to Battambang Province in northwestern Cambodia, where the DK regime wanted to clear new lands and intensify rice production. Life was even worse here in terms of living conditions, back-breaking labor, lack of food, and endemic malaria. This was where Pii and Saot died, as well as, I suspect, many others from Sobay.

When the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer Rouge and instituted the new PRK government in 1979, people returned yet again to Sobay to reconstruct their community and their lives. Some 10 years later, West Sobay is indeed there, with survivors of its original population, but it looks significantly smaller and poorer than what I had known. Except for one sizable house on stilts in traditional Khmer style, people now live in small thatch dwellings built directly on the bare ground, as was common during the Pol Pot years. As Iing's son, Bun, said when he showed me his tiny, threadbare home that was a startling contrast to the comfortable wooden house that he had once lived in with his father, "Things are not what they were."

At the outset of the PRK, there were attempts to maintain a semicollective system of production and distribution because of serious shortages of men for labor and draft animals. Private property was reinstituted in 1989, but it was not yet clear how lands were to be reallocated. I did not attempt to inquire about the current economic situation of the villagers, thinking that this might be a sensitive issue. However, although everything and everyone seemed distinctly shabbier than in the past, I was glad to see that, at the least, people had a set of dressy clothing that they hastily donned for photographs. It was also encouraging to hear that the village Buddhist temple is being rebuilt, and that there is a school nearby, where one of the Bun's daughters is a teacher.

There were still more reunions in Phnom Penh, the most important being a tearful but happy meeting with Son, the daughter of Pii and Saot. She had been one of the most beautiful and sought-after young women in the village, and after my departure had married a policeman. Traces of her former beauty remain, but she is thin and frail, with a persistent cough that is worrisome. Like so many Cambodian women, she is now a widow, although two sons are alive. She ekes out a meager living as a cook in a textile factory, where she also resides. By contrast, her brother, once a spindly teenager, had grown into a tall, imposing man who appears powerful in both physique and social position. He is a police chief in Phnom Penh and, judging from the affluent appearance of his large house and family, quite prosperous.

As I sat chatting with Son and her brother's family, a pretty, pert young woman came into the courtyard. She turned out to be Heyat, whom I had known as an irresistible one-year-old doted on by the entire village. Urging me to come visit her home, she guided me a few blocks to the rear of a small cement house. Opening off a fetid back alley was a dank, dark room; Heyat and her husband, a "cyclo" (pedicab) driver, rent a portion of this room from an elderly lady. This glimpse of the life of the urban poor was very depressing, and I marveled that Heyat had kept her perky cheerfulness in the midst of such impoverished circumstances.

But, upon reflection, I realized that I shouldn't have been surprised at all. The villagers had always lived with hardships of many kinds and endured them with great strength, resourcefulness, and fortitude, leavened with an indelible capacity for good humor. I saw the same spirit in Phnom Penh when we visited universities where teachers are struggling to rebuild education under conditions that would reduce me to hopeless despair.

I have seen it, too, among Khmer refugees in the Bronx who have had to reconstruct their lives in an alien setting. A few summers ago, I went to a party given by refugees to celebrate scholarships and honors that some of them had won. The hostess took me into a bedroom to show me her little boy, sound asleep amidst the hubbub, and broke into tears as she spoke of the deaths of two older children. Later, when the party spilled out of the cramped apartment onto the roof of an adjoining building, I watched her and others joyously dancing the lamton under a full moon, with Khmer music floating through the warm night air. I felt momentarily transported back to Cambodia, and I was struck then, as I am now, by the resilience of the Khmers: it is not that one forgets the griefs of the past, but one picks up one's life and gets on with it.


1. Sobay is a pseudonym for the village I studied in 1959-1960 under a Ford Foundation Foreign Area Training Fellowship.

2. Other members of the group were Toby Volkman, Karl Hutterer, Charles Keyes, and Sam-ang and Chan Moly Sam, all from SSRC-ISEP, and David Winder from the Ford Foundation/Jakarta.

3. Older people commonly call me nieng, a term that means "Miss" (or, in this case, perhaps something akin to our "Missy"), or m'nieng, which is a term of address for young women.

4. Villagers often addressed one another using kin terms based on relative age. Thus, I as (then) a young woman addressed those older than I as "aunt," "uncle," "grandmother," or "grandfather," depending on their generation.

5. For more detailed discussion of local level changes during the Pol Pot regime, see my "Revolution and Reformulation in Kampuchean Village Culture" in D. Ablin and M. Hood, eds., The Cambodian Agony (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1987).

6. There is presently a demographic imbalance in Cambodia, with women constituting some 60 percent (or even more) of the adult population in some regions because of high male mortality during the Pol Pot period, when men were more susceptible to death by starvation, execution, or military combat.

7. The lamton (or ramvong) is a popular social dance at events such as weddings and parties. People dance in a circle with graceful hand and arm movements to measured steps.

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