When Sok Sin died November 7, of AIDS-related complications in Calmette
Hospital, he left a legacy of hard work and achievement in face of staggering
odds. He also left a tangled personal history and a lifetime of both struggle
and accomplishment that few of the Western journalists he worked for ever knew
Sok Sin , July 5, 1949 - November 7, 2001.
My first encounter with Sok Sin, the infamous driver, fixer,
translator, hustler, was on a trip to Tonle Bati with some journalist friends in
August 2000. We were in Sok Sin's Isuzu Trooper. The roads were bad. He hit a
cow. Everyone laughed a nervous kind of laugh because Sok Sin wasn't about to
stop. I was torn with worry between the cow and Sok Sin. I could see he was
anxious to please us, his clients, but knew that stopping to check on the status
of the cow, while it may have been the right thing to do, would put us in a
By his own admission, Sok Sin was an "excellent
survivor". His first business, as a boy in Kampong Cham Province, was hanging
around riverbanks scavenging bits of charcoal that fell off passing barges. He
was the number one student in his class until the death of his father, a
Buddhist scholar who had no savings, forced him to quit school and become the
family breadwinner. When he was drafted by the Lon Nol army, his mother pawned
her gold jewelry and bought him back from the military. When she got him home,
she padlocked him inside a room of their house. "I let her lock me," he claimed,
"she said, 'Son, I love you too much, I must lock you' ."
He must have
been a good son.
He survived the Khmer Rouge, I suspect, by gaining favor
with leaders in power and working harder than anyone else. He claims his name
was "on the list many times" but he managed to avoid being killed. They couldn't
kill their best worker. In later years, he bragged to journalists, "I am a
miracle person, nobody gets hurt with me".
In the 1980's he rose up from
poverty and decades of war by growing mushrooms. He saved some money, left his
first wife across the river and came to Phnom Penh, where he bought a cyclo,
acquired a few more wives and built a lucrative business for himself as a driver
and guide. He was a self-taught linguist, fluent in French, Vietnamese, Chinese
and English. Rumor has it he was the only cyclo-driver to have his own printed
business cards. He told me his cyclo days had been good."I get bonus 10 out of
10 times," he said.
A hit with journalists and the UNTAC crowd, he
eventually traded in his cyclo for a succession of motorized vehicles - a couple
of motorbikes, a Camry, an Isuzu Trooper, and a Toyota Land
Someone told me the story of a guard in front of the Pailin
Hotel who used to beat Sok Sin with a chain for being too aggressive as a cyclo
driver. Years later Sok Sin took great pleasure in driving by that same guard,
in his lowly position in front of the hotel, waving and smiling from behind the
wheel of his Land Cruiser.
Sok Sin was an entrepreneur, he knew how to
work it. He had charm. He could suss people out.
"God help the fat and
lazy around Sok Sin," US historian Peter Maguire said.
He had a knack
for finding the zeitgeist of the times and used it to his own advantage, not an
easy feat considering Cambodia's last 30 years. He survived war, famine,
malaria, prison, poverty and God knows what else. His rise from poverty to
wealth was a noble flight, which makes his recent battle with AIDS a Khmer
tragedy of epic proportion, a modern-day myth of a reluctant hero who's own
pride coupled with disastrous forces plaguing his country, are the cause of his
He survived the Lon Nol period, the Khmer Rouge time, the years
of civil war. He would not survive AIDS.
Sok Sin's business with
journalists was good because he himself was a great journalist. Photographer Nic
Dunlop remembers "his humble demeanor when talking to people regardless of their
status, whether they were farmers, prostitutes or generals. They seemed to trust
Chris Decherd of the Associated Press accredited Sok
Sin's success to his intense curiosity -"a very rare quality for a Cambodian".
He wanted to know what happened in his country. Working on his own time, he
followed up leads and located former Khmer Rouge, including two guards from Tuol
Sleng. He wanted to know the truth.
It's true that Sok Sin did well for
himself as a driver, translator and fixer during the early '90s. From the money
he made from this business, he and his third wife, Sarin, started another one.
He built a guest house in the Boeng Kak district behind the French Embassy.
Business was good. He got more property and built a bigger guest house nearby.
Rooms were rented by the hour (with a complimentary condom), and business
"I know he is a good man, but I heard he is also very brutal,"
said a driver who knew Sok Sin for many years, "I heard he got rich and had many
I spent some time with Sok Sin in September 2000. At that
time he told me he was sick; a problem with his stomach. He also told me he
would never be a happy man, that it was too late for him. He said he had
"remorse" when he saw young couples in love.
"But you've had many wives.
Didn't you love any?" I asked.
"Yes, but not the same," he
He explained that his youth was gone after the Khmer Rouge years
and after that he was too busy working just to survive. There had been no time
What do moneyed men in Cambodia do when they are in the
mood for love?
Somehow, somewhere, Sok Sin contracted HIV. The signs were
all there, and a few journalists brought him to Bangkok and offered to sponsor
his medical treatment at a hospital there. He declined. Instead he went back to
Cambodia, depressed at seeing Bangkok, knowing he would never live to see the
day Phnom Penh became so modern.
"I offered him everything on a silver
platter, my home, treatment and plane tickets back to Cambodia," recalled Jason
Bleibtreu. "All he had to do was open his heart and let somebody help
Sok Sin told Sarin about the kind offer from the journalists, but
it would be "too much trouble", and he wanted to stay home. He did seek the help
of a Khmer friend, also HIV positive, and began a treatment of traditional Khmer
medicine. Other people tried to help, Peter Maguire came and brought drugs from
the US. He spent several weeks with Sok Sin, recording his life history as part
of a book project. Surely this was good therapy for Sok Sin.
18, I went to see Sok Sin. His niece told me he was sleeping. A Calmette
Hospital ambulance was parked by the stairs. I said I would wait. Eventually, I
was brought up to a room where monks were chanting and what seemed like a
hundred relatives were wailing and crying. Sok Sin was skeletal. He did not seem
to know what was happening. We took him to Calmette where the diagnosis was
two-fold: cerebral meningitis and another disease that the doctor was not at
liberty to tell me about. It was a private matter.
Sok Sin was in
Calmette hospital for 21 days. I came to know him in death more than I knew him
in life. I watched two of his wives nurse him, feed him, change his soiled bed
clothes. I watched his small children sing to him and massage his arms and legs.
I listened to his sorrows and wiped his tears. I grew sick and weak. I saw him
in my dreams at night, struggling, fighting and I would tell him it was okay to
When he finally did let go, more ceremonies came. For one week,
monks chanted Pali sutras for his soul three or four times a day. Four wives,
six children and countless relatives and friends came to light incense, burn
paper money and gaze at his $1, 000 hand-carved wooden coffin covered in
Seth Mydans noticed Sok Sin's niece Srey Mao. "When I saw her
last she was at his bedside massaging him and now she's spraying the flowers
around him to keep them fresh."
Sok Sin was clearly the powerful
patriarch of a large extended family. Now they seemed lost. His eldest son did
not find out about his father's death until after his cremation at Wat Koh. When
I met him he said, "I know I have been a bad son, but my father was very brutal.
He wanted me to be a driver like him, but no one can be a driver like him. He
was the best driver in the whole world."
"Sok Sin was an extraordinary
and complex man," wrote Seth Mydans."Driven, anxious, compassionate, resentful,
sensitive, perhaps a man suffering from the fact that for all his vigor and
aggressiveness, he was burdened with a tender heart."
Maybe one had to
became brutal in order to survive the atrocities of Cambodia's recent past. A
survivor does what he has to do.