It’s 5:30am and I sit here on the balcony of our ocean front beach villa on an island in Cambodia, watching the sun rise and a storm roll in, and all I can think about are the words of a man I met just yesterday. Sakphear Eak is the Business General Manager here at Sol Beach Resort on Koh Rong Sanloem, and when we asked him how he came to be working here, we heard a much more complicated, humorous and inspiring story than we had expected.
As Sakphear said to us with a little smile on his face, when we asked him that first question, “Let’s rewind and go to the start”. Sakphear (pronounced Sakpeer) was born in 1983 in Kampot, Cambodia. At the age of two, his family home was burnt down in the village where his Father was chief, and they were forced to leave by the Khmer Rouge. At this point they moved to Sihanoukville to establish a new life, which is where he still lives now with his mother and three of his siblings. I asked him how big his family is and he laughs, “I’m one of thirteen, do you believe it!”.Sakphear is one of thirteen, however like so many other Khmer people, his family was horribly impacted by the Khmer Rouge of 1975-1979. He has three siblings he’s never even met, who were killed before he was born, so he grew up with five sisters and four brothers. He explains the struggle of growing up in such a big family. Money was scarce and they could only afford one set of clothing per year for each child, food was limited and he laughs and tells us how he would always go for the meat before the vegetables, fighting with his siblings to get in first. With a cheeky grin he says his ex-girlfriend nicknamed him ‘Piggy’ because he will now eat everything in sight, since he didn’t have a choice when he was young. He’s very proud of being the tallest in his family and puts it down to his love of playing soccer as he was growing up, something he is still really passionate about.
In 1998 Sakphear’s father developed a lung disease and passed away. He tells us of the words his father spoke to him and his nine siblings just before his last breath – words that he said have stayed with him every day since he was 15. “If you are rich, don’t forget to help poor people. Please, when you are big and have power, see when you are small.”. Sakphear says his elder brother is his hero, because of that exact reason. He’s progressed as a court officer in the government, and says he could easily buy a big house and nice car, but he doesn’t, because he chooses to live a simple life so that he can look after his family. Sakphear’s family is now spread out all over Cambodia, but due to his Chinese descent, they are reunited once a year for the Qingming Festival, to come together to make offerings to his fathers grave where he is buried in a pagoda in Sihanoukville.I asked him when he first learnt English and express how strong it is. He looks at me seriously and tells me it needs a lot of improvement, he first started learning it at secondary school at the age of 12, and still listens to podcasts regularly to keep learning. When he graduated at the age of 18, his mother and elder siblings forced him to take an exam to become a teacher, his father’s occupation before he passed away. The exam could only be taken in Ta Keo province, and Sakphear had dreamt of travelling elsewhere in Cambodia, so only agreed so that he could experience somewhere new. He laughs and tells us he stayed in a guesthouse with five friends and while they all studied, he went out to explore just like he had dreamt! When he returned they were all still studying and because he couldn’t turn on the television or music while they were trying to concentrate, he just laid on his bed and vaguely listened to what they were learning. Imagine his surprise when he got into the exam and he knew all of the answers! At that stage Sakphear said he had to fight with two voices in his head – one telling him to flunk the test so that he didn’t have to become an English teacher, and the other telling him he should always do his best and that he probably wouldn’t be in the small percentage that would pass. The latter won, and two months later he received the results saying he was one of the five out of 70 that had been accepted into the Ta Keo teacher training centre. From there he studied for two years before being relocated 60 kilometres out of Sihanouk Ville in a rural area, where he spent his first two years as an English teacher. He desperately wanted to return to Sihanoukville, and managed to move back to teach in a private school for six years. Sakphear’s dream of travelling hadn’t changed, and at this stage he left his secure position as a teacher to become a Program Management Official with an NGO that works to improve life for HIV victims. Five years and a promotion to Director later and a new opportunity came his way.
When he finally gets to the stage of the beginning of his story with Sol Beach Resort, Sakphear smiles and starts talking about it with a sparkle in his eye. He met the owner, Steve, by chance while he was working for his friend on the island. His friend’s brother owned the land that Steve was trying to lease to establish the resort, and he needed help with translating documents. As the resort began to progress, Sakphear became more and more involved in overseeing construction while Steve was overseas. He tells us how the islands of Cambodia are becoming famous after the most recent series of ‘Survivor’ was filmed on the neighbouring island of Koh Rong, but makes sure we know that Koh Rong Sanloem is the better choice – a lot less crowded with much more privacy (exactly what we’d heard from other travellers and the reason we chose this island!). Sakphear is filled with pride at the opportunity to manage the resort, boasting about being the only Khmer styled resort on the island.Sakphear admits it’s very different to his previous job but says he feels free on the island. His home in Sihanoukville is in a local market. He tells us, “In Sihanoukville you are always hearings motos and cars, it feels too busy, too noisy”, and it takes him 15 minutes to just get out of his house. On Koh Rong Sanloem he loves the fact that every day he is meeting new people from all over the world, and it’s the perfect spot for his love of fishing. He says he is challenged every day and is always thinking on his feet rather than taking a few hours like in his office job, but “I won’t destroy this opportunity. No one can destroy my chance now, except myself. But I’m not crazy.”, he tells us with a laugh.
I ask Sakphear a few trivial questions out of interest. His response to the ever-so-typical “If you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be?”, didn’t disappoint – “My dream is to know how a Prime Minister or President lives. Like Barack Obama or someone. I want to see how their daily life is, I grew up fighting with my brothers and sisters for food and clothes. I want to see what their life is like. We are different people. Different rankings. I don’t wonder so much now but when I was in my 20s, I really wanted to know.”.
Sakphear tells us he now has two dreams. The first, to visit all provinces in Cambodia, because he believes you should know where you came from first. He has 15 of the 25 left. The second, to travel to England, so that he can see snow, and to watch his favourite soccer team, Manchester United. Sakphear tells us, “My life motto is try your best. That’s all you can do. If I fail then I can only blame myself but I can’t be disappointed because I know I have done my best. I used to be jealous of my friends that had rich families with so much money to spend every day. Now I just know if they don’t try hard they are not better than me. You cannot sit and wait for someone to give you something. You have to work for it.”.
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