The Meanderthals

A home for Som On

Som On’s shoulders seem a little squarer these days as he mounts his tuk tuk, leaves the curb and takes us on our daily commute to work near Phnom Penh’s Russian Market.

His almond-shaped eyes seem brighter, too, and his smiles more abundant than ever. There’s a quiet contentment about him, which comes as close as possible to an emotional outburst as you’ll find in Southeast Asia.

All this is because a bunch of people he’ll probably never meet got together and bought a house for Som On and his family.

Som On’s life is typical among Phnom Penh tuk tuk drivers. He was raised in a family of poor rice farmers in the provinces, and years ago moved to Phnom Penh for a chance at making a living in the big city.

He gets up around five a.m., exercises to keep his uncharacteristic paunch in check, then heads off to work long hours. He spends much of his day sitting in his tuk tuk outside his base camp at the Spring Guest House on Street 111, waiting for a fare. Many days the results are not good: “No customer,” he says.

So he pulls his tuk tuk to the side of the street ad the end of the day, locks it, and rides a bicycle about 45 minutes in pitch dark to his room in Takmao.

His room is home to Som On, his wife and two kids and one sister. Until recently, his brother was calling the place home, as well. It’s a 10 by 10 room with a linoleum floor, one fluorescent light bulb, and a couple of fans to bring a breeze to the family during the hot season.

He’s been a king with no castle, a man who, by his own definition “is very poor,” but who is the first to reach into his pocket when an elderly beggar approaches.

You reach his home by parking on the main road, walking down an alley and past the school where his kids spend their days, bang a left at the end and head into a tiny walkway that connects a series of crude concrete structures.

There’s a communal toilet somewhere in the complex that houses countless families like Som On’s, all of whom navigate the labyrinth of paths strewn with rocks and traversed by pushcarts and motorbikes, sharing space with the pedestrians who make their way back and forth in an endless stream of humanity.

The shower is a huge cistern perched by the room’s entrance, where his kids dump buckets of water over their heads to rid themselves of the day’s dust.

Like many other Cambodians, Som On is driven by self improvement. He takes English classes regularly, scrawling new words and phrases in Khmer and English on the yellow seat back of his tuk tuk – a study guide on wheels. At night, he studies Korean, positioning himself to take advantage of the steady flow of Korean tourists who flock to Phnom Penh. He’s also taking driving lessons so he can ride the surge of popularity in taxi usage here. Once a rarity, they’re popping up increasingly as Phnom Penh goes more upscale.

Som On has become our friend in addition to our serving as our regular tuk tuk driver, and that’s why we decided to put a campaign together to raise the capital he needs to build a house. He already has the land, having scraped together the cash needed to secure the sliver of space wedged between two other homes not far from where he lives now.

He carted tons of sand to backfill the tract, which he proudly detailed when he gave us a tour not long ago. The land is about 40 feet wide and 120 feet deep – about the size of my friend Jim’s garage back home – fronted by a narrow dirt road and backed by a small pond choked with lillies and weeds . For Som On, it’s where his dream resides, and the $4,000 he needed to build the house was an insurmountable obtacle that seemed unattainable to a guy who proudly brandished his new ATM card to us one day, thrilled that he’d scraped together $100 to start saving.

“Oh, thank you very much,”: he softely said the day after Christmas, when we gave him the news that more than 30 people from around the world had contributed to the effort. That, plus the portion Gabi and I had committed to matching, put Som On immediately and squarely in the construction business.

Typical of Cambodians, Som On had responded to our invitation for lunch by bringing not just his wife and two children, but also his mother, three sisters and two of their kids, and he mentioned that his brother would also be joining us shortly. It’s always a family affair in Cambodian society, which explains the dire need for a place for all these people to hang their hats.

His wife beamed as she sat next to him on our balcony, her limited English adequate enough to capture the moment. Across the table, Som On’s mother smiled, her eyes speaking in volumes what her verbal skills prohibited.

Somehow, word had travelled quickly and, to my ears, silently, around the table: Som On’s family’s dream had come true in one, short, breeze-buffeted moment. There were no excitable declarations, no expressions of shock, no outpourings of emotion.

We built a gingerbread house together with his kids, Wichea and Rattana, at one point painting each others’ faces with icing as much as the gingerbread dormers and windows. The significance of our erstwhile construction might have been lost on the kids, but not on the adults, who quickly jumped into the fray, adding gum drops and strewing icing along the structure’s eaves.

These days, Som On gives us regular updates on his research. Ever diligent, he waded into the task immediately (“Skop,” he said to me moments after we’d given him the news, charmingly mispronouncing my name, “after happy new year you help me make plan for my house”) and with a great sense of urgency. Within days he had obtained the necessary permits from the commune chief, had obtained quotes on the construction job (“Ohhhhh…thlay nah!” he exclaimed to us, “too expensive”, so he decided that he, his father and father-in-law will tackle the job) and consulted with the monks to find a good-luck date to begin.

It’s January 28, a day that aligns well with Som On’s sign, his family’s and the moon and stars, I imagine. It’s the Buddhist version of a celestial building permit, thus ensuring that good luck, along with sound construction, will make the structure a suitable and happy place for Som On’s family.

Earlier this week, with Gabi waiting in the back of the tuk tuk, waiting for me to emerge from my office to head for an errand over lunchtime, Som On spied a quarry truck down the street from my office. He hustled after them, obtaining a business card so he could secure a quote for rocks to build a riprap border around the back of his house.

He tucked the business card in the back of his wallet, a faint smile on his face as our eyes met.

“In my my life, I never so happy,” he told us recently.

So construction is in our immediate future, and we’re invited to join in the hammering, sawing, nailing and sweating. Gabi, Kirsty and I will be there, but we’ll have in our hearts each and every one of the family and friends back home who took a moment, wrote a check, and helped deliver a miracle for a young family most of them will never meet.

“I wish to thank all of theses people,” Som On said in his halting English the day we gave him the news, looking at the list of names Gabi had typed to go along with the certificate with the total we raised. ” I wish to thank them very, very much.”

Ditto from us.


  • Trina Laird

    Happy New Year Gabi and Frank! This is so awesome, we are so excited for Som On and his family – it’s amazing how just so little when added up like this can do so much for someone else, it just warms my heart. Thank you for taking this on and for including all of us on your journey, at the end of the day it’s a welcome reminder of how much we should be grateful for, and to really cherish what we have. You guys rock – we’ve always known you’re a blessing, but truly – I hope you realize the humongous impact you have on not only Som On’s family, but on others who read your stories and are inspired to do more. Thank You!

  • fbk

    It is a splendid thing to know that even in small ways, one can make a difference. You did a great thing, you guys, in making this happen ….fbk

  • Howie Sholkin

    Frank,Thanks for sharing the story behind the family. Your journalistic roots are showing through as we learn how our contributions make a difference.

  • Thank you Skip or Skop for broadening my life by learning about your life of choice.

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