Tuesday, October 26, 2010


It was March 1994 if I remember correctly. My first visit to Angkor. I was fortunate. I had almost 4 weeks at the temples and I took full advantage, spending every day amongst the ruins, much of the time at Angkor Wat studying the bas-reliefs and architecture. It was at Angkor Wat that I met Leho, a little Cambodian boy, maybe 6 or 7 years old, abandoned and living in the temple ruin. He was a pitiful sort - gaunt, weak, his hands and feet covered with sores - scabies and bug bites. A beggar kid working the very few tourists Angkor had back then.

As I usually do with beggars, especially children, I brushed him off the first couple of times he tried begging from me. But he looked so neglected and was so meek in his approach that I finally relented and gave him 500 or 1000 riel (20-40 cents.) I noticed that he went straight to the food stands and bought a small plain baguette (the cheapest and most filling food you can buy for 500 riel,) which he gobbled down all too quickly. This kid appeared to be in real difficulty - hungry, sick and seemingly alone - not one of the usual beggar-scammers working the tourists. So I made it a habit of giving him a little money every morning when I saw him at Angkor Wat.

He began to follow me around in my exploration of the ruin, not being a nuisance as temple children often are, but standing quietly in the background just watching what I was doing, which was fine with me. I'd buy him bottled water, share my snacks and occasionally bounce ideas and opinions off of him, some point of art or history, to which he would always nod in agreement.

I couldn't get his story out of him. My Khmer was poor at the time and his English non-existent. One of the temple nuns that tended the Buddhas on the third level told me that he was an orphan and that she knew little more of him than that. Slowly growing more fond of him and concerned over his situation, one day I gave him $15, hoping he'd use it wisely. A naïve move on my part. The following day he was missing. The day after that I found him on the third level of Angkor Wat with that same temple nun, his face bloodied and swollen from a pummeling. He had been beaten for the money by this band of miscreants>>>

I decided then to take him under my wing the best I could for the time I was there, which I communicated to him through the nun. He seemed grateful.

Almost everyday I would arrive at Angkor at 4:45AM to photograph the sunrise. Around 5:00 Leho would appear from the nearby pagoda with a big smile and come stand at my side as I took photos. The sun risen, we'd go get a noodle soup from one of the stands along the pagoda wall. After breakfast, back to the temple where he would stick by me through the morning as I studied and photographed the bas-reliefs or sometimes just sit and read. Come noonish he'd often have lunch with me at one of the sandwich carts, after which I'd go to other temples, leaving him at Angkor Wat. But I'd usually swing by in the evening on the way back to town and give him food and water or some money for dinner.

One morning he didn't show. Nor did he for the next three days. I started to worry. On the fourth day I began to search for him, asking the soldiers and nuns around the temple if they had seen him, but without luck. One of the nuns told me that he would sometimes stay in the southern gateway of the outer wall, a place rarely visited by anybody save the occasional monk to tend the enormous 'mud-daub Buddha' inside.

I walked out the path through the woods to the gateway and entered quietly. At first it seemed empty, but then I heard a sound from the great Buddha to my right. I peeked behind. It was Leho. Curled in a ball, coughing shallowly, seemingly unable to breath. He looked to be at death's door. He couldn’t walk. He was very hot. I picked him up and carried him all the way back to and around Angkor Wat, up the main causeway and out to the street, more than a kilometer, almost giving this old smoker a heart attack. I flagged a motodup and took him to a little clinic in town. He was in a bad way. Pneumonia I gather. Or maybe Dengue Fever. He was there for 4 days on IV something. I'm not sure what. I didn't visit. They charged me $75 in advance and assured me it would cover everything.

The next week he was back at Angkor again, as was I. He became a fixture at my side, carrying my camera equipment, eating meals with me and listening to me read stories of the history of Angkor from Parmentier, Glaize and Coedès, though I am sure he didn't understand a word. He showed me little secrets of Angkor Wat - the smiling apsara outside on the second level, the fork tongue apsara (photo below,) 'the friends' apsara pair in the first level interior gallery. It all did my heart good and I think helped him as well.

When it finally came time to leave I was terribly worried about him. I gave the nun and the police money to help take care of him and protect him, promising/threatening that I would return in two months and that I expected him to be well when I got back. They promised that they would watch over him. If I had accomplished nothing else in my stay there, I had accomplished this. I hugged him and said goodbye.

Three months later I returned, this time with my wife. First thing, we went to check on Leho. Sure enough, he was still there at Angkor Wat, looking a little bit better. The sores on his hands and feet were healing. The nun had kept her promise, feeding him and cleaning him properly. She said that even the police had honored their word, warning the other temple boys to leave him alone and allowing him to sleep at the police post. He seemed to have formed a relationship with the nun and was happier. I was only there for two weeks that time and spent less time at Angkor Wat, but whenever we (my wife and I) were there he followed us around just as he had before. Over the next year, we saw him a few times on our visits, looking stronger and healthier each time. Finally, after a couple of years, he just wasn't there anymore. Perhaps he moved to another temple. Perhaps he just moved on. 

Leho with the nun


  1. A very touching story. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. Nice story. Thanks for that.

  3. Thanks for posting this. I wonder what happened to him...

  4. And where are all your photos you were taking around this time???

  5. nicksellsphotos, Most right here in my office. I have literally thousands. Back when Angkor was a desolate place, the causeway was empty in the middle of the afternoon and the temple didn't have all of the scaffolding it does now.

  6. be great to see some online!

  7. That is one moving story... Almost get teary-eyed!

    With more and more Cambodians on the Internet, now, maybe someone could recognize him if you made an announcement on forums or on Facebook?

    I hope that he could meet a good fortune and is now having a good life in Siem Reap.

  8. Thank you for sharing. Stories like these is why I'm preparing to leave the U.S and move to Cambodia. I am Khmer American and have been back a couple of times.
    Your kindness goes a long way.