From the age of two years old, Bin Yan and his four siblings, who are Kuoy indigenous people, were not as lucky as other children as their father abandoned them after their mother passed away. They lived on their own helplessly and had to earn a living.
When he was seven years old, Yan was forced to live with a family in his village and work as domestic help doing housework and even then he sometimes didn’t get enough to eat.
Today, life is much better for Yan. He managed to get an education and earned a Bachelor’s degree in law from the Royal University of Law and Economics and a Master’s degree in political science from Pannasastra University.
However, although his difficult upbringing is now just a shadow from his past, he admits that he still feels some sadness and pain over it.
Sitting under a white light in front of a pile of books written in both Khmer and English and holding one pen in his hand, Yan – a thin man, aged 30, with a dark complexion – talked with The Post about his life as an indigenous person residing in O’Rai commune’s Anlong Svay village of Stung Treng province’s Thala Barivat district.
He recounted how he came from a poor family, but things became much worse when his mother died in 1993 and his father left him and his siblings.
Yan said that at that time he and his four siblings lived in misery because there was no one to take care of them. They had to beg villagers for a place to stay and they all lived separately and worked in exchange for food instead of attending school.
He said one day he saw other children in the village going to classes together and he was eager to study with them, but had no opportunity to go to school until eventually he began living with his grandmother who sent him to first grade in a torn school uniform.
“My house was very far from the school, so I had to walk about 5 km each way. When flooding occurred I would actually have to swim across 10 streams to reach the school. And I had to go to work every day after class,” he said.
According to Yan, at first he walked to school with a few friends, but then they all dropped out because of it was too difficult to get there between having to ford streams and walk through the forest.
Yan said the first person who inspired him and encouraged him to study was a man named Ven who he worked for at an NGO after he finished grade 10 after deciding that he would rather work with knowledge than become a farmer.
One day some foreigners visited his community and he heard them speaking English with each other. Yan said he became obsessed with learning it and he practised his English day and night until some of the local villagers started to say he’d gone crazy.
Yan recalled that when he reached secondary school, he had to transfer to a facility that was more than 10 km away from the primary school and at the time he didn’t even have 100 riel to his name.
Sometimes, because he was travelling so far, he’d have to steal people’s bananas that were growing near the roadside on the way because he was so hungry and he once tried eating a tuber that his sister had dug up in the forest only to get poisoned by it.
Due to his family’s poverty, he suspended his studies when he reached grade seven and went to work in Stung Treng market.
Yan added that when he was able to return to school the principal gave him permission to move up to grade nine because he’d been an outstanding student previously and the chief monk at the nearby pagoda allowed him to stay there in exchange for doing some work around the pagoda.
Yan learned more English from the monks and became an English tutor to other students until he finished grade 12 in 2012. By then he knew he wanted to study in Phnom Penh but he didn’t know where.
“I decided to go to Phnom Penh no matter what and I packed up everything, mostly books. I had only 60,000 riel. The taxi driver wanted to charge me 40,000 riel and another 30,000 riel for my stuff. I begged him but he refused and pulled my luggage out and dropped it on the ground and said his car doesn’t run on water. So I returned to the pagoda,” he said.
He said that he then kept trying to earn more money to go to Phnom Penh. He thought of teaching aerobics classes and he borrowed speakers from friends to play music and he earned about 200,000 riel from that and he was able to go to Phnom Penh.
When he first arrived in Phnom Penh he was very surprised because he saw high rise buildings and women wearing nice dresses unlike in rural areas. He went around Wat Phnom and just laid his things to the side unwatched.
“In my hometown, people can leave their things without anyone stealing them. I thought that no one would take my old bicycle. But it was gone when I returned. Luckily, the thief didn’t steal my bag of books,” he said.
It was a hard time for Yan as he only had around 100,000 riel left and he lost his old bike too. He used to read about famous people that used to stay at Wat Ounalom, so he decided to ask the monks if he could stay, but he was rejected so he was homeless for the night.
He called his friends and one let him stay temporarily for a few nights. He then earned some money from working in Ouressey market and rented a room that cost $15 per month.
He said that lifting things for people was too hard to do, so he decided to ask the owner of a restaurant called Poipet near the Kirirom cinema of he could wash dishes to pay his rent and tuition fees.
In early 2013, he got a scholarship from Pannasastra University, which he had applied to after graduating from grade 12. He worked hard and was able to buy another bicycle.
He said that the restaurant he worked for they lacked an MC and he asked the owner if he could try out and he got the job, which eventually led to him becoming a presenter for a big company that even did ceremonies at city hall.
Then he was asked by the owner of Radio Tonle to work as a DJ for them, for which he received a salary of 100,000 riel.
As his income gradually increased he was able to support himself and pay for the rest of his studies at Pannasastra University. Then he enrolled at the Royal University of Law and Economics.
Today Yan is the author of books in Khmer and English: “Golden Heart Student”, “Bopha Phnom Penh”, “Win Fate, Create Miracle” and “Right Choice, Right Time”. These four books are on sale at major bookstores in Phnom Penh.
In addition to writing books, Yan also owns another shipping company named Konmon-Chicken while also mentoring over 10 indigenous youths from provinces aged between 15 to 20 years old and in the future he intends to form an organization to help poor students with accommodations.