The Streets of Siem Reap

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Tok Vanna

Last year I discovered Sister Srey Cafe near the end of my two month stay in Siem Reap. The cafe is near the old market along the banks of the Siem Reap river. It is run by two Australian sisters who came here a number of years ago and fell in love with Cambodia and its people. Most of the staff at the cafe are pursuing their education while working and they balance work, school and a little bit of Cambodian life. Even with all they have to do they helped me out last year when I was trying to sell my motorbike and again this year they helped me look for an apartment.

Although they didn’t know me from any other tourist they were there to help and I guess that is just the kind of people they are, but this story is not about them. I could write many stories about the people I have met at Sister Srey since I spend a lot of mornings here at the cafe eating and watching the world go by. Cambodian style.

Last year outside the cafe I noticed one of many street vendors in Siem Reap. This guy spends his days on the side of the street selling books off of a two wheeled cart. Last year he caught my eye while eating breakfast as I would watch him set up for the day. As I left the cafe and passed by he would always say hello and smile.

Scott_Sharick_Photo__2015_14908This year when I returned to Siem Reap I watched him a little more. I watched his routine and each day I watched a little part of his life. The more I saw the more I wanted to know. What brought him here? How far away does he live? How long has he been selling books. Family?

I guess the one thing that intrigued me the most is watching his unending daily routine. Day after day he rides his bicycle from his home, cleans out his spot on the road, drags his cart down the road from it’s nighty resting spot and one by one he sets up the books. For you and I this might seem to be a rather simple routine but for 48 year old Tok Vanna each and every step is a challenge. In 1988 while he was a government soldier he inadvertently picked up something while clearing foliage which turned out to be a land mine.

In an instant his life was changed as his hands were blown off of his body.

This is not a sad story or a story looking for pity. This is a story of success. A story of persistence and determination.

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Vanna arranges magnets on his book cart

Three decades of war left Cambodia littered with land mines. It is estimated that up to six million unexploded mines and other ordinances exist in Cambodia today. The indiscriminate placing of these mines means that no one knows where they are located and as diligent as the searches have been there are still many people each year that are either maimed or killed by the land mines.

Tok Vanna was an unwilling soldier when the accident happened. Times were confusing. Multiple groups were fighting in Cambodia years after the Khmer Rouge lost power. After the explosion we was left a young man in his twenties with no hands.

When he first awoke from the explosion and saw his missing hands he wanted to kill himself. He didn’t know how it would be possible to live. How could he get a job? How could he support a family if he even ever had the chance to marry? How could he do something as simple as feed himself?

He had a grenade in a pack around his waist which he wanted to use to end his life. His efforts to wrestle the grenade from his pack were thwarted by a friend who grabbed the grenade. He was sent to a government hospital in Phnom Penh for nine months of care. During that time his pain subsided, his thoughts of suicide diminished and thoughts of a future began to occupy his mind.

After discharge from the hospital he was too embarrassed to go back home to his family so he stayed in Phnom Penh and became a beggar. Times were not good for Vanna. Eventually an aid worker brought him to Siem Reap where he was given a job selling local crafts to tourists visiting Angkor Wat.

Over time he saw the silver lining start to brighten. He married and started a family. In 2000 he left his job with the charity and started his own business selling books on the streets of Siem Reap. In the beginning he would walk the streets to sell his books but now he has his spot on the road near Sister Srey Cafe. Under the shade of a tree he stands by his cart and watches the daily activity hustle by.

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Vanna can always be found in front of Sister Srey Cafe

I guess everything in life is relative. A bad day for you or I may actually be a good day for someone else. Working thirty years in health care one thing I have seen time and time again – when people are faced with what they perceive as an insurmountable challenge they soon realize that have can overcome those challenges. Although so many of us think ‘we never could’ when the time comes we actually can. And we do.

All of a sudden complaining about our little problems in life take a back seat to those things that actually have sincere meaning in our lives. Luckily I learned so much from my thousands of patients as well as people I have met on my travels.

This story is about one of those people. One man, one story and one guarantee – any time you pass Vanna’s cart you will always get a smile.
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2 Comments on “The Streets of Siem Reap

  1. Awesome post Scott, you’ve done a fantastic job of telling the story of this man. It just goes to show you that EVERYONE has a story, one just needs to pay attention, ask some questions and all of a sudden….we find inspiration. Often times we are all to busy hurrying along and we miss such opportunities. Thanks to you for giving us an important lesson and some inspiration for the day, a welcome respite from all the bad news and superfluous junk we are so often bombarded by on the internet. Bravo!

    • Thank you Karl. It does make one wonder what lurks under the surface of everyone we pass by every day.

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