Mouly Loth - My Khmer Language Assistant
It has been very difficult trying to get the project of revamping the Khmer Phrasemaker under way. Jasmine has been much too busy to help and I was accomplishing so little that I started making plans to return to Phnom Penh in the hope of being able to hire someone there. Then Eric, Mark's business partner in the hotel enterprise, showed up with an older Khmer gentleman he'd just hired to act as his interpreter. I had a chat with Eric about the possibly of my using Mouly as my own interpreter as he has all the necessary qualifications: he speaks passable English, knows the Phnom Penh dialect and has the time. We started work a couple of days ago and the results have thus far been very satisfactory. Most important of all is that I now possess the missing template sentences I'd been unable to figure out before. This nearly doubles the amount of phrases I can now concoct. I'm also getting a much better handle on the elusive system of pronunciation. Some of the sounds are so bizarre that I'm as yet unsure exactly how I'll be able to describe them so someone else can pick them up easily. Take the Khmer word for "go"( "dteuv"), for example. It starts with a very soft "t" that is halfway between a "t" and a "d" and is followed by a vowel sound that I can only describe as being somewhat like an Australian the version "ow" that finishes off with rounded lips.
Mouly is quite an interesting fellow. He possesses an extraordinary knowledge of history and Khmer folklore and is perfectly happy to bend the ear of anyone in that direction. A little while ago I sat down with him to learn his personal history.
He was born in Phnom Penh in July, 1946, the first of six children. He describes his family as being upper-working class as his father worked at the palace at that time as a manager of construction projects. When the King died and was replaced by his son, Prince Sihanouk, Mouly's father had to leave his job as, in Mouly's own words, "there would be trouble stirred up by jealousies if he stayed". Using his knowledge, his father started a construction company building houses in the French style of the time.
From high school Mouly went to Phnom Penh University where he studied both English and German literature. His brothers and sisters managed to attain scholarships to study abroad and all went off to France. After graduation he went to work with his father. It was a couple of years later that the Khmer Rouge came to power. He was in Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1974 when they took over the city. At the time he was elated. The government of Lon Nol had been exceedingly corrupt and inept; the victorious Khmer Rouge offered a suggestion of a better times. Almost immediately the entire population was forced to leave the city on foot. Mouly became separated from his father and has never seen him again. For four days he and thousands of other Khmers were marched to Kompong Cham Province. War was still going in that part of the country, corpses of people and animals littered the roadside, the smell was atrocious. From the very beginning Mouly realized his life was in jeopardy; if the Khmer Rouge ever found out that he had a university education or came from a wealthy family he would have been shot. In a bold attempt to evade such a fate he pretended to be deaf and dumb. For four long years he pulled off the charade. It was a grueling time of overwork, very little to eat and continuous fear.
Liberation finally came in 1979 when the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia. Unable to return to Phnom Pehn, as hostilities were continuing there, he ended up finding work in a village. There he met his first wife. They had a child and for nine years Mouly scratched a living from the land. Then he heard of good job opportunities in the far west of the country. Leaving his wife and child behind, he went to Battambang where he got work as a porter carrying supplies across the Thai border. He returned to the village two years later. In the interim the Vietnamese had been battling the Khmer Rouge in the area around the village. His wife, child and inlaws had fled. He looked for them everywhere he could think of and asked everyone he met if they had seen or had news of them. He failed. He has never seen them again and doesn't know if they are alive or dead.
An American church mission took him in. He worked for them as a translator and a school teacher for which he received room and board but no salary. There he met his second wife. They were married in the church but shortly afterwards, in 1996, the mission was dissolved and left Cambodia. Before leaving they gave Mouly and his wife the remaining medicines they possessed. He sold them to a pharmacy in his wife's home province of Kompong Chanang then together they went into the handicrafts business. His wife made them; scarves, purses and children's hats, then Mouly would go to capital and, using his English skills, sell them to foreigners for a small profit. For several years they followed this pattern before finally making the decision to move to the capital to continue the business there. By this time a daughter had been born the them. In Phnom Penh they had another. Eric met Mouly while having his car washed and was impressed by his English skills. He'd been looking for an interpreter and hired him on the spot. Now he has also found temporary work with me. After nearly forty years his life is back on track.