BORN the son of a poor fisherman, Him Nophea toiled hard in his life until he became a song composer and then was honorarily adopted by none other than Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Him Nophea, now 34, left his village of Kok Trobek deep in the seasonally-flooded forests that surround the Tonle Sap lake in Kampong Thom province to seek an education on drier land by living with his grandmother and Buddhist monks because in his community there was no school, pagoda or hospital at that time.
“My village is six months dry and six months flooded. In the dry season, our village is a long way from others. But in the rainy season, it’s like being in the middle of an ocean. It was hard to live. All people are fishermen. If any woman delivered a baby, she faced a high likelihood of dying because there was no health care centre over there yet,” he says.
Him Nophea stayed with his grandmother for a while and then moved to live at Wat Sovanthalaram in Baray district, Kampong Thom province. It was then he had a chance to go to school.
After finishing primary and secondary school, Him Nophea continued his studies at a high school in Kampong Thom town. At the new place, he had to struggle harder than ever before because he was so far away from his relatives. All through his studies he had to find work to support himself.
“There was only one high school in Kampong Thom at the time. Every Saturday, most students who came from the countryside to stay there went back home. They brought food back from their home for their stay in town. Most of the time, I didn’t visit home like them because there was nothing at my house that I could take back. I spent the weekends earning money instead. I borrowed a bike from my friend to carry wood to sell at the market or I took care of vegetables for people, so I could earn some money,” he said.
Him Nophea finished high school in 1995. But his ambitions went beyond finishing secondary education, so he asked his parents to let him to go to university. At the time, students had to come to Phnom Penh to attend a university. His parents allowed him to go on to a higher education, but with little financial support.
“The eaglet that does not catch prey on its own and waits for its parents to feed it will not become a strong eagle. I determined myself that I would be a strong eaglet, so I had to try my best to improve myself,” he said.
It is quite hard for countryside dwellers to come to Phnom Penh for the first time, especially a person who didn’t have any relatives there. On his first day in Phnom Penh, a motodop cheated Him Nophea out of 5000 riel (US$1.25) on a short trip to Wat Neakawan. He knew a monk there, so he expected to get free accommodation there.
This Buddhist pagoda was known as the place that the young Prime Minister Hun Sen stayed when he studied in Phnom Penh. But Him Nophea was not allowed to stay there as they didn’t have any free space left for him. So he had to walk back to the Cambodian-Japanese Friendship Bridge and slept under there for a few days.
“One day I walked to Wat Phnom. I saw two pagodas located close to each other. I asked at a pagoda to the north for free accommodation, but I was denied. But the other pagoda to the south, Wat Preah Puth Khosacha, gave me free accommodation. I think that I was allowed to because the person who decided was from the same district as me,” he says.
Him Nophea tried for three years to apply for the government scholarship for two different majors, law and forestry, but he was not successful. So he just kept staying at the pagoda and joined an English class instead.
“Most students staying at the pagoda were not poor like me, they were rich and some even had relatives in the capital, but they didn’t want to stay with their relatives. Most of the time, they didn’t see me going to any university, so they looked down at me,” Him Nophea says.
One day, he was hired as a tutor to teach English to the children of a family. Him Nophea began to make connections with middle- and high-class people then. Some people suggested he apply for a job as a composer of lyrics as he was skillful with Khmer poems.
“In 2004, I talked to Hang Meas, the most popular music production company, but they didn’t take me because I didn’t have my own songs to prove I was good. They recommended me to go to another music production called Sunday instead. Sunday tested me by asking me to write two songs for them. That evening, they agreed to take me on as a song composer,” Him Nophea said.
Sunday at the time dubbed Chinese movies into Khmer and they needed someone to write Khmer songs to put in their movies. Him Nophea built up his popularity with his first three songs, Bodyguard of Love, Water Lily Changes Its Colour and Too Late to Be Awakened. All of his songs became very popular all over Cambodia after they were screened on TV. Many music production companies were now interested in him, but he was under contract to Sunday.
In 2009, he composed a song to admire the Prime Minister’s wife, Bun Rany Hun Sen, for her charity work as head of the Cambodian Red Cross. Recently, at his home village of Kok Trobek, a hospital, a school and a pagoda were opened as a gift from Prime Minister Hun Sen. The Prime Minister also visited Him Nophea’s village in May this year and declared Him Nophea as his honorary adopted son.