Monday 21 August 2023

"I was so happy I couldn't sleep" - Stories from Cambodia

"I was born at the end of the Khmer Rouge period, so I have no memory of it" said Kimleng Sang, acclaimed Cambodian photographer and popular tour guide. He continued, "My parents spoke later on about having to work very hard and not getting enough to eat. We were not allowed to eat fish, chicken or meat, only boiled rice. People would sometimes take papaya or banana roots and make a soup, but it was not permitted to eat the fruit." 

So strictly were these rules enforced by Pol Pot's communist Khmer Rouge regime, that when Kimleng's father secretly caught a chicken in the forest, his older brother didn't know what it was. "My father told him it was a special kind of rat," he said, "because eating a chicken was enough to get you killed if anyone found out." A favourite trick of the Khmer Rouge was to question children who were less likely to realise the implications of their answers and could inadvertently cause whole families to be summarily executed. The family were farmers, and better equipped than many to survive the forced labour, but they lost at least three relatives - a cousin, an uncle and one of Kimleng's grandfathers, all of whom disappeared and have never been found.

"The worst job I ever did"

The Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979, having managed to kill or cause the deaths of up to two million people in the preceding four years. Over time some semblance of normal life returned, but the family still struggled. Kimleng explained, "Although we owned some paddy fields and grew rice it was not enough for us to live on. When I was 14 I left home for Phnom Penh and took a job as a security guard and gardener for a rich family. They had been living in France, but returned in 1993, when the first elections were held after the departure of the Khmer Rouge." This was one of several jobs he would take, including unblocking toilets, driving and later on, working in a garment factory. He describes the latter as "the worst job I ever did. I worked from six at night until seven in the morning making clothes. I was tired all the time." For these long shifts he received $45 per month, $15 of which was his contribution to a shared rent, leaving very little for food, clothes and other expenses. 

He realised that his lack of education was holding him back. "I saw that city life could be good and that if you were educated you didn't have to work as hard as the people in the village," he said. "I left school when I was 13, and only completed grade five. I couldn't read or write even in Khmer but I had a friend who was a teacher who helped me become literate in my own language and also taught me English."

"I fell in love with photography"

In 1999, Kimleng returned to his village and told the family he didn't want to work as a farmer. Instead, he bought a tuk-tuk, drove local customers and began to meet foreign tourists. One tourist would help change his life. "I met many foreigners, including several who came for photography. I worked as their driver and helped to carry their equipment. In 2005 or 2006, I drove Canadian photographer David Bibbing during his stay in Cambodia. By this stage I was paying close attention to how the photographers worked and David noticed my keen interest. A year later he came back and surprised me with the gift of a simple digital camera. He helped me to use it and I fell in love with photography. When he gave me the camera I was so happy I couldn't sleep."

Kimleng went on to meet more photographers and received advice on lighting, technique and composition. He began combining his love for photography with his transport business and promoted himself as "the tuk-tuk photographer." By 2015, he had become successful enough to employ a driver which meant he could spend more time talking directly to his clients, explaining cultural matters and helping them get the pictures they wanted. "This made my service better and also provided a job for someone else," he said. 

I asked what it is that makes photography so attractive to him. He said "I especially like photographing people and love interacting with them, but I also enjoying taking pictures of nature." I recently spent three days with him, photographing life in villages close to Siem Reap, where he now lives. His affection for the people was obvious. He knew many of the villagers and took time to ask about their lives and families, listening intently to their stories. He also has a lively sense of humour and enjoyed making them laugh. His connection to the people and landscape can clearly be seen in his work which deserves an even wider audience.

Due to his own early experience, Kimleng strongly believes in the importance of education. During the covid lockdown, he started a school for village children to learn English. Unlike other schools in Cambodia, it does not require fees, but to fund resources, the pupils collect plastic items which are then sold for recycling. He explained, "this helps us to buy learning materials and also contributes to a cleaner environment, clearing the village of discarded items". The teachers are volunteers from overseas  and teach the class online. "We are very grateful to our overseas friends who help us. We would like to develop the school further, perhaps with a resident volunteer teacher who would come and stay with us." Anyone interested in helping with the school can contact Kimleng directly through his social media links, listed below. 

You can follow Kimleng on Instagram and find more details about his photography tours on his website.

For more stories from Cambodia see I used to steal small amounts of food just to survive and I felt a burning sensation on my forehead and realised I'd been hit

The photographs featured in this post were provided by, and are used with the permission of Kimleng Sang

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