Man Mun: Four Sisters and a Heritage to Look After

Man Mun working on a temple stone inside the Angkor Park.

SIEM REAP – Sheltering from the afternoon heat inside a construction hut reinforced by scaffoldings, Man Mun, a stone restorer, is carefully sorting, dusting and cleaning pieces of centuries-old stones. With his coworkers, he is patiently putting parts of the Terrace of the Elephants back together, in the Angkor archeological park.

At the age of 23, Mun has been away from the school benches for 10 years. He abandoned his studies at 13, because of poverty and family issues that didn’t let him have any choice but to find a job to look after his four sisters.

Numerous ancient temples in Siem Reap province are continuously being restored by experts in conservation. The Terrace of the Elephants, in the Angkor Thom complex, is one of those construction sites where each worker scrupulously does the job.

Behind simple fences made of ropes, visitors can witness a group of restorers dedicating their time to cleaning, repairing, and reattaching old and broken stones to bring their ancient glory back to life.

Although it was lunchtime when reporters visited him, Mun was still rigorously cleaning and attaching the stone. Noeurng Phira, the head of the stone restoration team, said the young man has been working here for over a year now.

Mun used to live under the pressure of his father, who was frequently making use of violence against his mother and was used to damaging the house’s property in acts of uncontrolled madness.

“When I saw my mother was hurt, I couldn’t help but feel hurt, as a little child. Whenever he argued with mom, my dad was used to burning down my hammock,” Mun explained on the brink of tears.

These flashbacks of violence are still very present in Mun’s memory and badly affect his mental health. At the age of 13, after his father ran away and left the family alone, Mun decided to drop out of school and start working to financially support his mother and siblings.

“My parents forced me to study but I couldn’t focus. I did try but I still failed. So, I decided to stop. In the first year, I looked after cows and buffalos and helped do the housework. The following year, I asked a villager for a construction job to earn some money because I didn’t know what to do if I stay at home,” Mun continued.

From a construction worker to a temple restorer

He then went on collecting minor jobs, from construction sites, to be a cleaner in various hotels in Siem Reap or hospitals.

In 2020, Mun even started to work as a sculptor in Preah Netr Preah district, Banteay Meanchey province. But after about two years, he returned to help his mother in his hometown.

Not long after, he applied to the APSARA Authority, which is in charge of the Angkor archeological park, to be a stone cleaner at a construction site next to the Terrace of the Elephants. The conservation mission he is working on is in collaboration with the Korean International Cooperation Agency (KOICA).

Over the months, Mun has become an expert in cleaning and attaching stones. He has come to love his work and appreciates preserving and restoring ancient temples.

“I like this job because what I’m doing helps preserve our ancestors’ culture,” he said.

Although he used to switch between jobs, Mun is willing to continue restoring Angkor temples. He said that working on the restoration of stones is not easy, especially at the beginning, but because of his passion, he keeps on putting effort into the work despite being exhausted.

Helping preserve the Terrace of the Elephants actually made him more enthusiastic.

“Many jobs I did in the past, I just did it with no emotion although I stayed with them for a long time. At first, this restoring job was more difficult and tiring than the ones I sued to do in the past. But as I love it, I simply do whatever task I’m assigned to.”

But being a stone restorer is only one part of Mun’s activity. In addition to renovating old temples, he also looks after farm animals at home, helping his mother with daily work after his shift ends while his sisters are at school.

Because he dropped out of school at a young age, Mun is illiterate. While he managed to find his way, he wants his younger sister to be educated, skilled, and have a good future. He does anything he can at home to let them have time and rest to pursue their studies.

One of his sisters will attend the high school national exam in December. His dream is to see her enroll in university to get a good job. 

“I’m not able to read, so I can’t do much … It is impossible for me to find a good job”, said Mun. “When I go somewhere, I ask others because I don’t know​ where I am and I can’t even read what is on the board”.

Sensing this complication in a fast-moving world, Mun is trying everything he can to raise this family’s quality of life.

Originally written in Khmer for ThmeyThmey, this story was translated by Sameat Sovansak for Cambodianess.

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