Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pali sutras for the soul of 'survivor' Sok Sin

Pali sutras for the soul of 'survivor' Sok Sin

Pali sutras for the soul of 'survivor' Sok Sin


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

messy situation.

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

him implicitly."

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

for romance.

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.

On October

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

let go.

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.


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