When Chounj Chhoeun first entered into the employment of Vann Molyvann, all he knew about his new boss was what he had heard repeated by others: he was famous, and he ran a strictly disciplined household.
Chhoeun had no idea that he had just got a job working for Cambodia’s most celebrated living architect, and he had his reservations about the posting.
“I was not sure myself that I could do it,” recalled 55-year-old Chhoeun, sitting in the leafy front yard of his employer’s home – a modernist building in a quiet riverside neighbourhood of Siem Reap that the architect shares with his Swiss wife.
“Everyone said that Molyvann was a very strict person and I was so hesitant, but I decided to give it a try.”
“It has been almost 25 years now,” he said, smiling as he recalled his first impressions. “But it feels like it was just yesterday.”
For almost half his life now, Chhoeun has lived with Vann Molyvann and his wife, first as his driver and later as his full-time caregiver.
It’s not a life that he ever imagined for himself. Born in Kandal province, he lost all his siblings to starvation under the Khmer Rouge.
It was a tragedy that drove his mother almost mad, he said. “It was a very sad thing that I and my mother could not forget.”
Before working for Vann Molyvann, Chhoeun was a driver for a well-known politician, a job he found stressful. “When I held the car’s steering wheel, my hands were shaking and I kept thinking that I would die … I would die for some reason,” he said.
At first, he was wary of Molyvann. “When I just started working as his driver, I really didn’t know his habits and his personality, so I kept watching him all day,” he said.
“Then I started to feel that he’s a very kind and nice person.”
Gradually, Chhoeun’s duties progressed from being a mere driver. Today, he oversees the staff of Molyvann’s house, organises his meals and manages his diary.
“He is a very punctual person,” Chhoeun said. “I have to make sure that things happen at the exact time I was told.” Molyvann is also fastidious about his appearance: “All his clothes must be ironed and well prepared.”
Chhoeun said that he admires Molyvann most for his hunger to keep on learning.
Despite being almost 90 years old, Molyvann reads the books in his library every day and encourages those around him to engage with new technologies that he himself finds baffling.
“He keeps telling us that we should learn something new even if we are old … maybe about new technology and how to check online news to know how the world goes,” he said.
Last year Vann Molyvann decided to leave his house in Phnom Penh – a town dotted with his landmark buildings: the Olympic Stadium, the Chaktomuk Theatre, and large parts of the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s modernist campus – and make the move to Siem Reap permanent.
In a rare interview earlier this year, Molyvann told the Post that he has already found a place for his and his wife’s stupa in a local pagoda.
Chhoeun said that when he heard the news of the relocation, he had no qualms about following his old boss, even though it meant leaving his family behind in Phnom Penh.
“I was happy to follow him here because he is the person I respect the most,” he explained.
Smiling broadly, Chhoeun said that he would “never get tired” of his job: “You know, everyone really wants to see and talk to Vann Molyvann, but most of them have no chance. Me, I see and talk with him every day.”