Breaking the language barrier

The Thai and Cambodian governments are locked in a contentious legal case over disputed border territory, but at the social level, the shared cultural space of the two neighbours is evident and inevitable. As an example, we talk to a Thai woman who teaches Khmer to Thais and a Cambodian man who taught himself Thai from childhood _ and they believe there will be no winners or losers, no matter how the court rules.

Sompen Krutanon speaks Khmer as fluently as she does Thai. Born in the Northeast and once a resident of Phnom Penh, she returned to Bangkok two years ago and is now teaching Khmer language courses at Chandrakasem Rajabhat University and privately. In the process she’s become a small bridge that can perhaps narrow the perceived difference between the two nations.

When did you move to Cambodia?

I went to Cambodia to work in 1991 and came back in 2011. I’m very surprised with myself to have stayed that long.

There were three periods of my 20 years in Cambodia. First, I was there as a staff member of a non-profit organisation to support the victims and the underprivileged people. Then I worked for the development of the Cambodian people. When I first arrived there, I had a passion for the local handicrafts. Later, I founded a shop to promote local products. Most of the handicrafts were exported overseas.

When you first went there, how did you learn the language?

I never took a class, but I learned from the people. I learned with my memory. I always had a small notebook with me to write down whenever I learned new words.

It was funny that when I went there I was supposed to be a translator for my boss. Even though I used to work near the border, I couldn’t really communicate with the locals when I first got there. However, my American boss knows Vietnamese and actually could communicate with the Cambodians better than me! It is evident that Vietnam has a stronger influence on Cambodia.

It seems that the Khmer and Thai languages sound very different.

The alphabet of both languages may appear to be different, but surprisingly, some Thai letters, when looked at in a mirror, the reflections of those letters have similar shapes to some Khmer letters.

Let’s look at the word “sawaddee”. This word was first coined by Phraya Upakit Silapasan, who took it from Sanskrit word “svasti”. In Khmer, saying “hello” is “sour sdey”. If you look at how to write this word and how to pronounce it, you will know that the word “hello” in both countries came from the same root.

I believe that Thai people could learn Khmer faster than foreigners. But the grammar of Khmer may make it look like the two languages are totally different. If you know enough Khmer grammar, I believe you can understand the way Cambodian people think.

Have you ever thought that you might be Khmer in your previous life

It’s funny because many people keep saying that to me, but I don’t think so. I feel like I am 100% Thai.

In the beginning, I was having a hard time working with the locals, because they didn’t like Thai people that much. But I didn’t mind their attitude, I was there for work and I did my best. So, in the end, we’re like family now.

This may sound blunt, but what are Cambodian people like?

As people who have experienced and survived wars, they don’t think like us. They are true survivors. What they have and what we don’t have is survival skill. We are impatient compared to them. They are very determined.

What is your favourite place in Cambodia?

It would be my house in Preak Ho, in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. During my 20 years in Cambodia, I have collected antique and local handicrafts in that house. I wish to organise my collection into a museum, but it is up to my Cambodian partner who takes care of the house now.

What is your view on the Preah Vihear dispute?

With the current conflict, Thai people are satisfied with the information they have received and believe, and that is right in our perspective. In Cambodia, people there are also satisfied with the information they have.

In the 1960s, when the Preah Vihear case went to the World Court for the first time, I was living in Si Sa Ket. Even though I was still a child, I can still remember the situation. Back then, the Thai media was raving about positive news, even more than what is happening nowadays. At that time, it made people believe we would win the case, but we did not.

Personally, I believe that there won’t be “the winner” or “the loser”. The final judgement will be a compromise that both countries will have to work on together.

If you speak Thai to Somongkol Teng and he speaks the tongue back to you, you won’t have doubts about his nationality: you will think he’s Thai. This young Cambodian man is a former Fulbright scholar, and is currently completing his doctoral degree at the University of Minnesota in comparative and international development education. Now he’s teaching at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

Your nickname is “Mongkol”, which is a Thai name. Is it also Khmer word?

You are not the only one to have said that. In fact, Mongkol is a very Khmer name and is of Pali and Sanskrit roots. Just like in Thai, it means happiness and prosperity.

How good is your Thai and how did you learn it?

I can speak, read and write fluently. But since my Thai is self-taught, my speaking and reading proficiency tend to be a bit better than my writing.

It may sound funny but I picked up the language mainly from listening to Thai songs and watching Thai television when I was young and talking to my Thai friends. The fact that, linguistically, Khmer and Thai share many things in common made it very easy for me to pick up the language.

Why did you want to learn Thai?

It’s been one of my goals to learn the languages of Cambodia’s neighbours and beyond. I am inspired by my experiences in the many youth exchange programmes I have joined and the direction toward which our region is moving, which is becoming a unified Asean community. I believe mutual understanding is a big issue among us Southeast Asians. There are many things that we still misunderstand about each other, in particular between our two countries. In my opinion, this shall be best resolved through friendly conversations and exchanges at a personal level, and one of the effective ways I can contribute to doing so is by learning the language of my neighbours.

When was your first visit to Thailand? Can you recall the visit?

My first visit to Thailand was in 2002. I was then participating in the Ship for Southeast Asian Youth Programme (SSEAYP), an annual Asean-Japan exchange programme sponsored by the Japanese government. Thailand was one of the six countries we visited that year. While I had seen and heard of Thailand on TV before, it was the first time I got to visit and get a true Thai experience.

As part of the programme, we paid courtesy calls to Thai government offices, visited important cultural and historical sites, exchanged ideas with local youths and had a homestay with a local Thai family. It was the homestay programme that I appreciated the most. My host family opened their house and heart to me and made sure I felt at home with them. In short, those five days in Thailand were awesome in every way. I was able to make my very first Thai friends, clarify many misunderstanding I had had of the country, and best of all, learn of the many commonalities both of our countries share.

What do Cambodian people in general think about Thai people?

I believe Cambodians have both positive and negative views of Thai people. To an extent, we consider Thai people as our neighbourly brothers and sisters who share almost identical customs and culture with us. On the other end, owing to people’s experiences interacting with Thai people and most recently with media reports, many of us view the Thais as having a superiority complex against their poorer neighbours such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. Shaped by what we learned in history books and whatnot, many Cambodians also view the Thais as a little untrustworthy.

My point here is that the perception we normally have of each other tends to be based on media reports and stereotypes, which isn’t always the right thing.

Do you still listen to Thai music?

Yes, I like Thai music a lot. My favourites are Bird Thongchai, Groove Riders, Da Endorphin and most recently Getsunova.

What about Khmer superstars, can you share with us a few names?

My all-time favourite Cambodian superstar will have to be Mr Sin Sisamouth. He is a renowned Cambodian singer from the 1960s. Though now considered oldies, his songs remain very popular among Cambodians from all walks of life. Some contemporary Cambodian stars I like are Preap Sovath, Meas Soksophea and Aok Sokunkanha.

What is the lifestyle of young Khmer?

Compared to when I was growing up, young Khmer today are enjoying a very different lifestyle. They are now more materialistic and Westernised, and to an extent enjoy much more freedom. More and more of them are also pursuing higher and better education. They are into the latest technology [the latest phones, for example], K-Pop, hanging out at nice cafes and restaurants, and catching the latest blockbusters at the malls.

Do you think the Preah Vihear dispute will affect the relationship between the two countries?

I don’t think so. I believe both of our governments are working hard to resolve this issue through peaceful means. Of course, there are some elements in both Cambodia and Thailand that have hard feelings for the other side, but in general, things are quite normal and friendly.

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