T HEY came from Kratie for their first visit to Phnom Penh, a tribal couple in search
of news of their son missing at war.
Prom Empil and his wife Ehhpong used all their money, and borrowed from their neighbors,
to raise the 40,000 riels they needed to make the trip. They borrowed clothes as
well - they were told their traditional tribal dress was not appropriate for the
big city - and set off.
"Where can people sleep, where can people find food in this town?" were
the first questions they asked the staff at the Preah Ket Meala military hospital
near Wat Phnom after, two days later, they arrived in the capital.
The doctors and nurses there had some difficulty understanding the couple's Khmer,
which they spoke with a northern accent, but eventually they were able to tell their
The hospital staff just called them Khmer Leu (highland Khmer) and no-one was certain
of what tribe they were from, but possibly the Jarai.
From Sre Traing village, about 80km north of Kratie town, the elderly couple's oldest
son, aged 23, left home to join the army three years ago.
They had not heard from him for the past six months and grew worried. Then they heard
from a friend of his that he had been shot in the arm. After waiting some more, they
decided last month to come to Phnom Penh to search for him.
It took them 10 days to collect the money they needed. They secured permission to
make the trip from their village chiefs. One donated a pair of trousers to Empil,
while one of their son's friends gave him an old army jacket. Ehhpong was given new
They took a boat to Phnom Penh and, when they arrived, asked a moto-driver to take
them to the military hospital. They got lost along the way, but finally found it.
"They were surprised by all of what they saw around them. When I explained to
them the electricity and the television, they laughed at me," said a doctor
who befriended them and relayed their story to the Post.
All they really wanted to know, however, was whether their son was dead or alive.
"I brought them all around the hospital to look and try to find their son. He
was not here," said the doctor, who said he couldn't be named because it was
against military rules.
"We sent a message on the radio to check whether he was in Battambang hospital.
We didn't get any answer."
The couple stayed four days at the military hospital, sleeping there and eating their
meals at the hospital kitchen.
"They were being polite when they said they liked this food," said the
doctor, smiling. "Usually what they eat at home is more spicy than the food
in Phnom Penh."
Prom Empil, who said he was around the age of 65 but wasn't quite sure, had taken
out the heavy ring he usually wore through his right ear and put in a small gold
He brought with him his pipe, which he never rarely stopped smoking. One day the
doctor offered him a cigarette.
"He was happy to get it and found it very tasty," said the doctor, who
said he had never seen a sight such as the old man - whom he called "Uncle"
- and his wife at the hospital before.
After four days, realizing their search was fruitless, the couple left. The doctor,
and a passing photographer who happened to see them and soon fell under their spell
upon hearing their story, gave them enough money to return home.
The old man asked the doctor to write a note explaining the reason for their odyssey
to Phnom Penh - and that it had been unsuccessful - in the hope that "people
would take pity on them and give a discount on the boat fare."
"They were ready to come back another time to look again for their son. I convinced
them not to do it. It is too expensive for those people," said the doctor.
A few days after the pair left, word finally came in from Battambang - their son
was in hospital there, alive.
"I will write to tell them the good news," said the doctor, regretting
that their village is too far to go and tell them in person.