Side Street in Phnom Penh: Music From a Grandfather’s War Wounds

On a side street in downtown Phnom Penh, Cambodia, you’ll find a homely little Anglican church.  If you saunter by of a Sunday, as I did not long ago, you might notice that several people linger on the premises after morning services.  It was enough, at my visit, to draw me in, on the chance I might take home with me a sabbath story.

The priest was absorbed in a counseling session with a young couple – marriage is a demanding business these days –  but I struck up conversation with a young Khmer musician who began to describe his life in a village on the border with Vietnam.  The central figure in the story was his grandfather whom he had loved dearly. Long ago, it seems, as World War II broke out, the grandfather had been conscripted willy-nilly into the French colonial army and sent by ship to fight in Russia’s remote Far East.  

Wat Botum, one of the most prominent and venerable (est. 1442 CE) pagodas in Phnom Penh.
Place of worship in Theravada Buddhism, burial site for notables, and venue for instruction and sacred vows.  Credit: wikimedia.commons

Though lucky to survive, he brought home grave wounds on his thigh and abdomen.  Even worse – he was unhinged. For five years, the returned warrior would strip off his clothes and limp, silent and naked, to the pagoda, sometimes wandering into the forest.  Trailing him in this brokenness was his distressed but tender wife. He began to drink heavily, said the young Khmer. But in all these things, the grandfather could not explain himself.  Despite such trials, his wife would not abandon him.

Then, to everyone’s astonishment, the old man began to emerge from his torment.  Was it the tenacious love of a wife? The regenerative powers of the human body and spirit?  The merciful touch of heaven, perhaps? Who knows? But he resumed speaking, as though returned not just from the long-ago Russian front, but from the grave itself.  He began to tell for the first time of what had happened to him in those faraway and cruel places. It was these stories of suffering and courage that drew the young Khmer boy to his grandfather’s now-healed side.

The plucky old man lived – by dint of his family’s love – into his nineties.  And his grandson now makes music of the stories he once heard, yes, of bewildered suffering, but also of a tenacity and love that wins healing against all odds.   

4 thoughts on “Side Street in Phnom Penh: Music From a Grandfather’s War Wounds

  1. Thank you for this, Jonathan, and do keep telling us these stories that are proof that, against all odds, God’s love is still in our midst – sometimes in surprising forms and ways.

    Edgar Stoesz


    1. Hello, Edgar! Lovely to see your note. You’re right that the tide of despair runs strong in our time – the headwinds aren’t kind to pilgrims. All the more reason to be deliberate in aspiration. Sarah Caldwell’s mantra: I shall not be deflected from my course! She was a ‘Traipser’ of the noblest kind.


  2. Simply the best. The simple is the best and I know first-hand of the greater good that exists all over the world. Your story testifies to this. Thank you for the lovely reminder Jonathan.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s