The adventures of Phatry Derek Pan in Cambodia

Now settling in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, without close relatives to accompany him, where unlike his Seattle home there is no local McDonald’s, Phatry Derek Pan adapts to a new pace of life. Slim and charming Phatry speaks fluent English and holds an American passport. Wearing a T-shirt and Khor Chev, (long pants popular among Cambodian farmers), and speaking broken Khmer, the 27-year-old does not look foreign to Khmer people, and he doesn’t see himself as a foreigner amongst Khmer. Phatry is an extrovert young man. He makes friends easily and gets to know people from every walk of life. To finance his three-year stay in Cambodia, the home country of his parents, he earns a living through his story-telling talents, mainly writing. In the United States, some of his friends and people he encountered nicknamed him ‘Mr. Khmer-connection,’ because he is famous as an American skilled at Khmer communications.

In 1979, at the largest Cambodian/Thai border refugee camp, Kao I Dang, Phatry was born to a well-to-do family, where he spent his early years before his family migrated to the United State via Philippines to escape from a prolonged nightmare. Phatry, at age 4, was raised, educated, and acquainted with American children as well as other Khmer refugee families growing up in a small town named Kelso before moving to Seattle, Washington, when he was 18. There, he learned Khmer from older neighbors, but couldn’t catch up easily. His father, once a businessman in agricultural productions, thought his young son rather learn English than Khmer. When he was a teenager his curiosity grew tremendously for his parents’ native country, which his father seldom spoke about. In college, he began to learn the Khmer language, traditions, and history, in particular. Studying Cambodia as an American student, was probably the most fascinating thing for him, says Phatry. His family held one thing in common with other Cambodian-Americans: Cambodia is their history; the U.S. is their future.

In which Phatry journeys home
It took the Cambodian-born American two and a half decades before visiting his parents’ home for the first time. Phatry believes his three-year residency in Cambodia will enable a first-hand understanding regarding his immediate ancestry rooted in a land known for its contradictory and tumultuous history of cultural glory and ethnic peacefulness until most recently, Pol Pot's violent genocidal chapter scarred and still shadows present-day Cambodians.

“I have waited for more than 25 years,” said Phatry, “Today, I will set foot for the first time on the soil of my parent's home province of Battambong.” In response to family, friends, and former girlfriends in the States, he claims that “…life in Cambodia has blessed me with the opportunity to travel more— to see the beauty and darkness that fills every corner of my country.” Staying in Cambodia by himself, even at his age, concerns Phatry's parents because he is the youngest son in the family of seven children. Not only is this his first time venturing into a foreign, post-war country— additionally, he has no living local relatives to ask for support, especially in emergency.

There was a time when his mother reminded him that “at night, locals will rob you because you're a foreigner.” But, in his reply to these worries, he says (in his online journal), “Yes, much of Cambodia is “lawless” but lawlessness, in my view, implies “anarchism.” Surely, not here in good ol’ Phnom Penh. You can piss outside and you won't get whipped like Singaporeans or ticketed for indecent exposure like in the land of Uncle Sam.

When offering Khmer concern and advice, Phatry's mother is not alone. Commonly, local conversations include “don't talk to any girls there. Most of them are prostitutes and their only intent is to get you drunk so they can steal your money!”

‘Who am I?’
In his second trip to Siem Reap, gateway to ancient temples and the nation’s rich history, the young fellow is more than fascinated by century-old temples. “This second trip will not serve as my last to Angkor. Surely, I hope to visit again in the coming months. What I look forward most on my third trip is visiting a small temple that bears my name. Really, no joke. If my name is unique as it is, it was a pleasant surprise to make the discovery on the map. I wonder what the history behind Prasat [temple] Patri is. Does anyone know?” wrote Phatry. It may take him longer than three years to establish his very own identity.

Phatry Derek Pan smiling
In Kampong Speu province, Phatry standing with schoolchildren and university students, where the group of youth delivered books and pencils to the rural kids

Traditionalism in a trendy society
On one of several return trips from Cambodia, Phatry’s mother gave him a photo of a young, beautiful, Khmer woman, who lives in his mother’s home town Battambang. His mother, like most other Cambodian parents, still believes in a traditionally arranged marriage. For many decades, this ancient cultural norm has survived through generations and its practice continues with a large percentage of international Khmer business families, in spite of their living so far from home. He, however, like most contemporary educated youth, did not entirely accept his mother’s proposal. As a compromise, he promised to find a future daughter-in-law for his mother from Cambodia, but on his own. Although his mother was reluctant to accept this decision, she, too, is influenced by global modernity and 20 years’ living in American society. In Cambodia even today, archaic tradition still often supersedes personal evolution, or contemporary social thoughts and beliefs. Khmer parents use economic dependence to enforce control over their children. Only educationally or financially liberated Southeast Asians can hope to escape parentally arranged marriages.

A revolution of self-destruction
When the Communist Khmer Rouge attempted to transform Cambodia into a purely agrarian society, or the largest rice field worldwide, the country was ironically re-named Democratic Kâmpuchéa (DK) to reflect a non-existent democratic regime. More than 2 million Khmer were tortured and enslaved at gunpoint. Many died from executions, sickness and starvation. Others were starved, beaten, raped, and separated from family members to labor 12 hours daily in the countryside, often aimlessly digging roads and ditches to nowhere, occassionally, their own graves. Unlike Hitler's Germany during 1939-1945, no organized concentration camps were equipped with gas chambers and mass ovens to erase the evidence of “ethnic cleansing” in Cambodia. Cambodia's genocide has been the only time in history when people actually killed millions of their same native kinsmen. There were no Jews to hate and discriminate against, but Cambodia’s largest native religion, Buddhism, was forbidden and replaced with mandatory adherence to the laws and dictum of an invisible, all-powerful, non-existent entity, named “Angkar.” Hundreds of thousands Cambodians fled to safety across borders into neighboring Thailand; while some survived in overcrowded, ill-equipped U.N. refugee camps, later to be re-settled globally, thousands were also executed at their border arrival, and some still (elderly and children alike who risked their lives staggering toward the dream of freedom in Thailand, under the cover of nightly darkness, in silence, for weeks) were hurled to their deaths at gunpoint off the Thai mountaintop cliffs. Others still, were forcibly returned to land occupied by Khmer Rouge soldiers to discover an alternate fate.

A bridge from America to Cambodia
The Khmer Rouge's genocide, not yet one generation old, created a river of tears with personal, economical, and cultural impact surpassing the magnitude of Mekong. The ripple-effect of unhealed war trauma still invisibly breeds within each new generation. During Phatry's wandering in Cambodia he will record what he recovers about the past and current social order and social disorder. On a charity trip to Prey Veng province, like all other days, Phatry jotted down thoughts and observations when a group of university students delivered books and pencils to rural schoolchildren. As Phatry's foundational perspective regarding his homeland evolves, he will return to the United States to pursue a four-year Juris Doctor program. A prolific writer, Phatry hopes his three-years’ experiential work, will become the masterpiece that opens a magical window inviting younger generations of Khmer-Americans to understand Cambodia as their home country, rather than a tourist destination where they can enjoy cheap beer at nightclubs during school vacation.

Upon his JD graduation, Phatry plans to live in Cambodia permanently. He envisions himself architecturing long-term relationships between Khmer and Khmer-American. The war-torn nation's economy presently depends heavily on international aid, adding to its native agricultural industry, manufacturing and garment industries, and most recently; its new tourism industry. The country’s long term sustainability and growth will be vastly dependent upon its population, a generation of young Khmer, for human resources. This generational “human resource” engine could fuel more options for local and international commercial growth, especially if the same war-torn generation of overseas-born Khmer can connect. Together, though geographically diverse, Khmer youth could build educational and corporate resources, re-affirm cultural connections, and create unknown opportunities where none now exist. Perhaps in time, they could even mend one small seam, of the smallest broken heart torn apart a generation ago— thereby opening a floodgate of intergenerational healing.


  • bravo … Clap Clap Clap.. Three Cheers for Bohng Phatry Derek Pan :)

    I Solute!

  • Ric

    That’s a very interesting piece. I saw Patry in a Youtube video made by his by his former Khmer teacher in the U.S. Frank Smith who made a serie called “Khmer Extreme”, but there’s nothing extreme about it though. At first I thought it was dubbed because Frank Smith spoke excellent Khmer,then I was even more amaze because he is khmer language teacher, and some of his students were Khmers, as in Patry. I thought that Patry’s spoke khmer pretty well and was articulate. He said he was selling real estate, and writing articles, among other things.

    I myself was born in Cambodia, but left when I was a small child during the Vietnamese invasion in ’79. I spent most of my life in the U.S., mainly in Philadelphia, and for the last couple years I’ve been in Chicago. However, I have never been back to Cambodia, and I could not see myself living in Cambodia like Patry. I just have such a negative image of Cambodia and only associate the country with war and struction, hungry poor destitude people, super corrupt and inefficient government…, of course let’s not forget that what happed to Cambodia was a direct and indirect result of the then U.S. foreign policy in that region. Cambodia was heavily damaged by U.S. carpet bombing by B-52’s years before the communist Khmer Rouge took over.

    I guess Patry is more stary eye then I am party because he wasn’t exposed much to Khmer-ism and knowledge about/of Cambodia until he was a young adult when he was able to learn and discover it on his own. I lived among a sizable Khmer community in Philly so I was always aware of Cambodia and what was going on there, and psychological impact of that experience has on the Khmer people living in U.S., so I guess being Khmer and Khmer-ness was not a college age novelty for me was it might as been for Patry. In in anycase I admire him for taking the risk and challenge of reserve migration, because in some way that’s even harder. I look forward toward learning about his continuing experience in our motherland.

  • Dawn

    I think that Phatry has noble intentions. I hope that he is able to realize his dream of bridging relations between indigenous Khmer and Khmer-Americans. Perhaps this article will be a starting point for creating a community of Khmer youth worldwide who could work together to accomplish some very beneficial relations.

  • yboutrou

    Chum Reap Sour LOK
    LOk kiom som saseur lok kiom nouv srok barin Ayouk 63 cham kiom some lok meta

  • Chris chipp

    I am an expat american, working for a multi-national in Phnom Penh. Phatry is without a doubt the most real down to earth and honest young man I have had the pleasure to meet. He has been a major asset to my company’s success in get established in Cambodia. He also must be recognized as a Khmere-American who is on a quest to do something other than learn more about his families heritage in Cambodia. He is attempting to give something back to this emerging economy and the young people who are really making an effort to learn the west and doing business. I hope that I am proud to truely call this man a true friend and a decent human being.

  • ZJ

    Great piece, Tharum!
    Kudos to you and Phatry Pan.

  • […] Phatry was the one who hooked us up with the deal. Phatry is one of these young, overachieving, global citizens who you start to encounter more and more frequently as you dip into Global Voices and the global blogosphere. He is a ‘Khmerican” – born in Cambodia, but raised and educated in the US. In fact, he’s from my hometown, Seattle, and on the way to last night’s bloggers’ dinner we talked about Blue Scholars, the Long Beach rock group Dengue Fever, and Asian gangsters from Los Angeles who are deported to Cambodia, a country most of them don’t remember (having emigrated to the US as infants) and with a language most of them don’t speak. […]

  • […] The adventures of Phatry Derek Pan in Cambodia Now settling in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, without close relatives to accompany him, where unlike his Seattle home there is no local McDonald’s, Phatry Derek Pan adapts to a new pace of life. Slim and charming Phatry speaks fluent English and holds an American passport. Wearing a T-shirt and Khor Chev, (long pants popular among Cambodian farmers), and speaking broken Khmer, the 27-year-old does not look foreign to Khmer people, and he doesn’t see himself as a foreigner amongst Khmer. […]

  • Heang Kim Hor

    Derek, I have just met you at the ELT a few days, and i found that you are the resourceful person for the Cambodian youth, in term of any of your contributions that you are able to do, for instant, you are a creative person,good at English, and worldwide knowlege. I hope, you will share more in the class and outsides. Kim Hor

  • Bok

    You have done a brilliant job here Tharum

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