A Stooped Icon of Angkor, Forever Sweeping

SIEM REAP, Cambodia, March 22, 2003 : "Lonely Planet!'' came the shout as a knot of tourists emerged through a narrow temple passage. ''You're the man on the Lonely Planet! You're famous! Did you see him? He's the sweeper. Now we see him smoking a cigarette.''

The tiny temple courtyard was jammed with people turning this way and that to see like a glimpse of a movie star on the street images they had only seen before in guidebooks. They nudged past one another on narrow walkways as their busy guides maintained a burble of dates, empires and the polysyllabic names of ancient kings.

Oblivious, the sweeper moved among them, an old man bent double as if examining the dust at his feet, one hand behind his back, the other making tiny strokes with a small twig broom, pushing a cluster of dry leaves across the ground toward some unseen destination.

People hurried backward as he approached, crouching, too, with their cameras, to photograph the small, familiar figure ceaselessly sweeping among the ruins.

Rare is the photographer, reaching to capture the mysteries of ancient Angkor, who has not found inspiration in a picture of the sweeper at Ta Prohm temple. Guidebooks are drawn to the image, too.


Photo by John McDermott

The old bald man with his frayed black shirt and flopping rubber sandals has become one of Angkor’s living icons, like the white-robed nuns who tend the statues at Bayon temple, the woman with no hands who sells incense at the entrance to Angkor Wat, the monks in dazzling orange and the little girls, unbearably sweet among the old gray stones, who smile for photographs and dollars.

They have become images as indelible as the giant smiling heads or the jagged towers that have stood motionless for centuries amid the twisting trees and the calls of jungle birds. The difference is that at 6 p.m., once the last tourists have departed, these living temple artifacts pack up and go home.

The Ta Prohm sweeper stashes his broom in a secret niche among the stones, but he does not rise to his full height; his back is permanently bent, just as the carved dancers on the temple walls are forever floating.

Remarkably quickly, both hands behind him now like the tail of a duck, he navigates the narrow temple passageways and crumbling portals and crosses the broad stone causeway to the road.

He carries with him the wooden cowbells that he tries, without much success, to sell as souvenirs, and he clanks as he walks.

Past lounging buffalo and barking dogs he marches, farther into the countryside, farther from the grandeur of the temples, through the mud and the tall grass, to the tiny corrugated metal shack he calls ”kind of a ruin.”

His name is Chhoun Neam; he is 81 years old; he is threadbare, illiterate, widowed and nearly blind and when he is not busy sweeping, alone and sleepless in his shack at night, his head is filled with demons.

It grows dark almost as soon as he reaches his home and the light from his oil lamp, shaded by a slice of a plastic water bottle, leaves most of his room in shadow.

There is a worn straw mat on the floor and a musty, sagging mosquito net. Not much else. The smell of manure from nearby water buffalo mingles with the tart smoke of village cooking fires.

Mr. Chhoun Neam will visit briefly with a neighbor for a bowl of rice or gruel. But he seems to prefer his loneliness.

”I like living alone,” he said one recent evening, sitting on the floor of his shack. ”Nobody cares if I live or die.”

Like most Cambodians throughout the centuries, Mr. Chhoun Neam began his life as a farmer living on the edge of poverty. As a boy, he tended water buffalo in the bright green fields. When he was old enough, he joined the endless labor of his village, planting and harvesting watermelon, corn and rice.

When French archaeologists cut away the jungle that had buried Angkor, Mr. Chhoun Neam saw the grandeur of the temples for the first time, too. Young and strong, he became a laborer on a restoration team, hefting huge stones that had been scattered for hundreds of years.

THEN came horror. Like almost every Cambodian of his generation, Mr. Chhoun Neam is a survivor of one of the cruelest periods in his country’s history. Over four years in the 1970’s, a brutal Stalinist regime, the Khmer Rouge, ruled the country, causing the deaths of nearly one-fourth of the population from starvation, overwork, disease and execution.

Among the dead were his two young sons, ages 12 and 15, the only treasures he had ever possessed. Late one night, he said, Khmer Rouge soldiers came to his house and told him: ”O.K., you just stay here. We’re going to take the kids.” The boys never returned.

They haunt him. Alone at night and restless, Mr. Chhoun Neam crawls from his mosquito net onto the straw mat and listens to the stillness that blankets the temples and the villages that cluster around them.

”The dead don’t think about us,” he said. ”But we are always thinking about them.”

He hears the song of the frogs in the wet rice fields, and sometimes the hoot of an owl, he said — a signal that someone is dying.

”It used to be, I thought they’d return,” he said. ”I waited for them. I know it’s too late now. My sons are dead. But I keep having this stupid idea that they’re going to come home and find me.”

Mr. Chhoun Neam himself barely survived the hard labor and starvation of the Khmer Rouge years, in his 50’s and forced like many others onto a work gang. When the Khmer Rouge were finally driven from power in 1979, he was too old and too weak to heft the temple stones as he had before, or even to farm.

He returned to Angkor as a sweeper, earning about 30 cents a day, and the Ta Prohm temple became his mission.

”There is a war between the jungle and the temple,” he said. ”Trees, grass, vines all over the temple. That’s why I have to sweep.”

If even a few leaves fall in the courtyard he chases them down.

But no matter how hard he sweeps, the thoughts accumulate. He thinks about his age, he said. He thinks about his poverty. He thinks about his sons. ”I try to forget, but I am always thinking.”

Cambodia is at peace now, moving into the future, and the temples are filled with the clamor of the tourists and their guides.

But no matter how many visitors crowd around him, Mr. Chhoun Neam works on.

”If I don’t sweep,” he said, ”it will all grow over. The leaves keep falling. If I stop to eat, the leaves keep falling. I never nap or rest. I sweep all the time.”

Copyright The New York Times