Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Oldest human: 'Why do I live so long?'

Oldest human: 'Why do I live so long?'

Oldest human: 'Why do I live so long?'


Family members with Sek Yi and his wife, Ouk, at their home.


n the year Sek Yi was born, King Norodom - the great grandfather of Cambodia's

King Norodom Sihanouk - was on the throne.

The country was still a French protectorate and would remain so for decades. Phnom

Penh looked different too: far smaller and blessedly free of the modern scourge of

motorbikes, which were two years away from being invented.

It was 1883, in January or February, Sek Yi's grandson tells the Post, when he was

brought into the world in a small village in the south-east province of Kampong Cham.

Today Sek Yi's most remarkable achievement is that he is still alive: if his grandson

is correct then he is 119 years old, which would make him the world's oldest living


The lack of official records means it is impossible to know his age with certainty.

Sek Yi, therefore, will likely not get into the Guinness Book of World Records. His

appearance may not prove his age, but it does show that he is indeed ancient.

Sek Yi is extremely thin. He sits on the floor of his hut balancing his chin on one

knobbly knee and placing both gnarled hands square on the floor to keep him upright.

Tears roll from an eye that no longer sees, and fall onto his wrinkled chest. A lack

of teeth and generally poor health make him hard to understand.

When asked the reasons behind his long life, his answer is infused with his strong

Buddhist belief.

"Don't make bad karma," he says. "Don't steal things. Don't rape someone's


For both Sek Yi and his wife, Ouk, Buddhism is a cornerstone. Next to their bed is

a Buddhist throne in the traditional colors of yellow and red; behind the incense

bowl are two pictures of the Buddha to which they pray each day.

However the most remarkable sight in the room is the two wooden coffins that sit

between the bed and the coconut leaf wall. Grandson Yi Kan, 43, says Yi's coffin

was made five years ago when he fell sick. Ouk's was made last year and the expense

split between his grandchildren.

"The monk suggested that we make coffins for them, because we don't know when

they might die," says Kan, who is seated behind his grandfather. But once Sek

Yi's coffin was ready, jokes Kan, his health improved again.

The aged couple lives in a small house in Toek Yong village, Kok commune in Ponhea

Krek district. The village is around 50 kilometers south-east of the provincial capital

of Kampong Cham. The view from their tiny house provides a vista from one side of

the village to the other.

At 56 years, Yi Kim Hean is Sek Yi's oldest grandson. He is also a senior teacher

at the Hun Sen Ponhea Krek high school, and the only person who still recalls clearly

his grand-father's stories.

Sek Yi, says Kim Hean, was born in the Year of the Monkey, which the French colonialists

of the day would have known as 1883. His wife is around 12 years younger, making

her 107. Sek Yi's eldest son was Kim Hean's father, who was born in the same year

as Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk.

Kim Hean recalls asking many years ago the reason for his grandfather's long life.

Sek Yi, he says, turned to him and abruptly told him that he was born with "strong


"I remember his words," says Kim Hean chuckling. "He told me that

even when he was in his sixties he had the strength of an elephant."

That strength served him well. Yi was born into a farming family and combined both

farming and work as a traveling laborer. On occasion Yi went as far afield as Prey

Nokor, better-known as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, to work or cut trees. He also

journeyed between villages selling resin. Despite his travels, which were extensive

for a farmer at that time, he never visited Phnom Penh.

Yi was also renowned in his district as a champion wrestler, a stick fighting instructor,

and a singer and player of chabei, a type of long-necked guitar. He was so skilled

at wrestling that none could match him, and in time was appointed the bodyguard of

a district chief named Long.


Yi taught many of the skills he picked up over the years to some of his sons,

but not to his grandsons.

"In the past he would say he wanted to train us, but it got delayed again and

again," says grandson-in-law Bun Khorn, 35. "Now we are regretful that

these skills will be lost when we lose him."

It is too late now, says Kan. When his grandfather turned 115, he began to lose

his memory. For the last ten years he has not been able to walk at all, which means

most importantly that he cannot visit the pagoda. These days the monks come to see

him instead.

As you might expect, life at 119 is pretty monotonous. During the day the couple

live on their own, with food cooked by one of Yi's daughters. Some of their grandchildren

spend the night with them in case they need some assistance.

A water jar stands on the wooden floor of the small stilted hut; next to that

is a water pot for washing. A meter away from that on the verandah is a

small drop toilet.

Dragging himself across the floor and guided by his remaining good eye, Sek Yi can

slowly lead his wife, who is totally blind, towards the water jar to take a shower.

In return Ouk helps him get dressed. Since his last birthday Sek Yi's health has

deteriorated sharply, says Kan. Both legs have become very swollen and he has started

to lose weight.

Their lack of mobility requires they be taken care of, and fortunately there is no

shortage of relatives living nearby. Between them - and Ouk is Yi's second wife

- they have hundreds of descendants.

No-one is quite sure how many there are, but all agree that most people in the

three villages of Toek Yong, Tropang Prei and Ponlay are related to them.

Kim Hean says that Yi's first wife died after bearing him three children. He then

married Ouk - nobody knows the year, but it was sometime in the 1930s - and

the couple had another nine.

From them came around 70 grandchildren and, based on an estimated six children per

family, 420 great-grandchildren, says Kim Hean. The numbers of great-grandchildren

are only a guess, he admits: some grandchildren have more than ten children of their


Yi has outlived six of his 12 children, all of whom lived to between 70 and 80 years.

His mother, says Yi's 60-year-old daughter Sek Yeth who cooks for the couple, lived

to 114.

When it comes to food, they have specific tastes: Yi is still fond of ripe mangoes

and has no compunction asking his grandchildren to share theirs with him.

The couple only eat twice a day: once at 6 am and again just after midday. Dinner

does not interest them. Despite their lack of teeth, says Yeth, the two still enjoy

crispy cooked rice.

They also enjoy soups made from vegetables picked from the forest rather than those

grown using chemicals. Among Yi's favorites are P'aav (a small plant whose leaf-stem

is used to make mats) and Kuy (a species of vine tree with edible fruits and leaves).

Grandpa Yi drank his last cup of palm wine around 70 years ago, but still enjoys

his remaining vice, which is smoking. He has no particular preference.

In his youth Yi worked hard in the rice fields trying to improve the yield. Today

he and Ouk still push their descendants to grow as much as possible to ensure no

one goes hungry.

His grandchildren say that Yi is no fan of modern chemical fertilizers: natural products

such as animal manure and ashes are best. They are also reminded to remove all grass

from the fields and keep the dikes in good repair.

"Sometimes he wants to go to the field even though he cannot walk," says

one. "He is that concerned about our lives."

However, after 119 years of what was an often difficult life, Yi has become bored

with living. His grandchildren say he keeps asking when he will die.

Kim Hean repeats the words his grandfather tells him: "Looking after me is difficult

for everyone else. Why do I live so long?"


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