Teacher, author, painter began his life homeless

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Teacher and author Bou Panha show his French language book at home in the capital’s Stung Meanchey district on November 28. Heng Chivoan

Bou Panha was born homeless. His parents were living in a refugee camp in Thailand and when they returned to Cambodia in 1993, they remained homeless, without land or even 100 riel in their pockets. Panha and his siblings had to beg for food while his mother went to work in Thailand.

Fortunately, despite the difficult start he had in life, an NGO accepted Panha into a programme and he moved to their centre and got an education there. Once he reached adulthood he became a French teacher, received a degree in rural development engineering from the Institute of Technology of Cambodia and then went on to author books.

Panha’s French classroom in Orchide village of Ou Baek K’am commune in the Sen Sok district of Phnom Penh is a simple affair with plastic chairs arranged in front of a blackboard at the front of the room and piles of books heaped in layers in the back.

Panha doesn’t like to talk about his past much, but his recall is quite sharp when he’s asked to do so. The 32-year-old educator said that his father was born in Preah Netr Preah district of Banteay Meanchey province but he himself was born in Site 2 camp on the Thai border. In 1993 the camps were emptied out and most Cambodians living in Thailand were deported home.

Unfortunately, Panha’s family came home to virtually nothing. They had no farmland to grow crops on and, to make matters worse, his father contracted tuberculosis and his mother was forced to go back to Thailand for work.

Panha readily admits that his life in the period from 1993 to 1996 was absolutely miserable and at times he was sure that there was no possible pathway out of extreme poverty and the daily struggle for survival, and that it would persist throughout the rest of his entire life.

His father’s tuberculosis was serious enough that it prevented him from working. Eventually his illness became serious and he needed to seek treatment for it in Siem Reap. Panha recalls the journey there quite well – from the perspective of a child it seemed to take an eternity.

His father took the children with him and travelled on foot from Preah Netr Preah district to Siem Reap province. They walked in the sun and in the rain. They walked all day and into the night. When they slept it was on the cold hard ground. If they ate, it was because they had managed to beg some money off of someone to buy food.

“Sometimes there was no road and we walked through the forest, sleeping in the rain, what little clothes we had completely drenched. I’m sure it took longer than it needed to because we weren’t sure of our route or destination. We begged from anyone who passed by. Sometimes they gave us milled rice. Some days they gave us money. And sometimes they gave us nothing but ridicule,” he said.

In 1998, his father took him and his three siblings to live in an abandoned health centre near the Banteay Chhmar temple site in Banteay Chhmar village and commune of Thma Puok district.

His father worked as a barber there after practicing the skill for a long time before charging anyone. He usually cut hair in exchange for milled rice or money to feed his children. Meanwhile, his eldest brother was hired to herd cattle for the villagers and they paid him 80 baht per month.

Also around that time, there was a kind person who wanted to adopt his youngest sister and take her to live with their family in Kralanh district of Siem Reap province and he remembers being angry with his father for allowing it, though today he understands it was a complex situation.

Panha said that his family’s life began to improve gradually while living at the abandoned health centre. Up to that point none of his siblings had ever gone to school. Then in 2002, Panha was fortunate to gain the support of the Mekong Children’s Organization and be sponsored with 500 baht per month, which allowed him to finally enrol in primary school in the village.

The organization saw that Panha was a good student and eventually took him to go live at their headquarters in Serei Saophoan town of Banteay Meanchey province.

“The reason why the organization took me to study in Serei Saophoan was that they thought if I continued to live in Banteay Chhmar commune it was more likely than not that I’d eventually leave to go work in Thailand just like everybody else did who lives in that area. Most of my friends only went to school long enough to learn how to read and write and then they headed straight for Thailand.

“But my father, although he was poor, he strongly loved education and he wanted his children to continue to go to university, but at that time I didn’t even understand what a university was,” he said.

Panha stayed on at the organisation centre for six years, working hard to learn English and French and to be able to pass the high school diploma exam. After he passed, the Mekong Children’s Organization came through for him once again by giving him a scholarship to study rural infrastructure development at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia for five years.

Studying at the institute required some French language skills, which Panha already had, and once he graduated in 2017 he applied to the school for a position teaching French, which he did for two years. After that he went back to the Mekong Children’s Organization to work for them for one year before packing his bags and moving to Phnom Penh.

Once he arrived in the capital, Panha began teaching French both in private tutoring sessions and in classroom settings. Today he teaches some students at home and some online, but he is most recognized for his social media presence with tens of thousands of followers who look to him for quick

In addition to teaching French, Panha also wrote a book on French grammar to assist French language learners, a project that took him two years to complete. And he’s actually written two other books, which are self help guides called “How to Achieve Goals” and “Birthday Love”.

Something of a Khmer renaissance man, Panha is also a talented painter and at one point he got the opportunity to travel to France and exhibit nearly 100 of his watercolour paintings, which he sold out of by the end of the exhibition.

“At that time, I was just happy to paint pictures and get praise from the French who at first were the only people who were buying my pictures. I gave 80 per cent of the money to the Mekong Children’s Organization out of gratitude for how they changed my life for the better and I only kept 20 per cent for myself,” he said.

Today, Panha lives a happier life than he ever could have imagined back when he was a child mired in poverty. Nor would he ever have guessed that one day he’d be an author, painter or even just a teacher.

Panha said that in 2025 he will return to his father’s hometown to teach French to children in the rural areas because it seems to be a dying skill in Cambodia – and he’ll also offer some English lessons as well, given his fluency in both languages, but French has always been his first love.