Meeting Cambodia’s former Secretary of State

“Oh really? What were you doing before you retired?” I asked quizzically.

“I was Cambodia’s Secretary of State.”

“Be down in the lobby by 9.15am.”

The day previously, I had organised for a car to take me from my hostel in Paris to Charles de Gaulle Airport. I had a flight to catch, and with the public transport strikes at the time, I did not want to risk missing it.

Now sitting on a stool in the lobby, I looked at my phone – 9.00am.

Perfect, I’m early.

Settling in for the brief wait that remained, the main doors swung open and an elderly Asian man strolled in. He gestured in my direction, “you booked a car?”

I nodded.

He smiled knowingly, “let’s go then – you’re my first passenger, so you have to sit up front and keep me company.”

Now if you’re an avid reader of The 88, you will know that I love chatting to, and sharing the stories of the various drivers I have met on my travels. There was Aqeel and Saif from the UAE, and Vin from Cambodia. But this story, Sang’s story, has to be the most memorable yet.

“I wasn’t meant to be driving you today,” Sang quips.

“Why not?”

“Well, I’m recently retired – this is my brother’s business, I just do the books for him. But one of our driver’s called in sick, and so here I am.”

“Oh really? What were you doing before you retired?” I asked quizzically.

“I was Cambodia’s Secretary of State.”

The comment, loaded in itself, was passed by Sang so matter-of-factly. I was stunned. The former Secretary of State for Cambodia was driving me, to the airport. It was a moment of beautiful confusion, it felt like I should’ve been driving him instead. To Sang however, the title – weighty as it seemed to me – was just a part of his history, simply one of the many amazing things he’d done in his life. He noticed my disbelief and pulled out his passport. Well, not just any old passport – a UN issued Diplomatic passport. And sure enough, there it was in lovely cursive, Secretary of State.

Sang had spent almost the entirety of his career serving with the United Nations as a Senior UN Official, engaging in global diplomacy, especially in dialogue pertinent to his country of birth – Cambodia. His career took him far and wide, often to those less fortunate. As we continued talking Sang impressed on me the importance of helping others, a sense of responsibility that was so unshakeable within he decided to dedicate the whole of his professional life to doing so.

“People need people.”

Sang had moved to France with his family when he was 5, back when Cambodia was still a French Protectorate. After graduating from high school, Sang went on to study languages at university.

“I decided to study languages because all the pretty girls were studying that course,” he muses with a cheeky grin on his face. I didn’t ask how successful he was with the ladies but today, Sang can speak 9 languages:

  • English
  • French
  • Spanish
  • Italian
  • Laos
  • Vietnamese
  • Mandarin
  • Changzhou (a dialect of Mandarin)
  • Japanese.

“Italian is my favourite language. It’s just like music, so melodic in nature; it’s the language of love,” he comments with a glint in his eye. A romantic at his very core, he talks proudly of his children, who have all followed in his footsteps. Sang spoke most glowingly about his daughter, now working with the United Nations too.

“She speaks 7 languages, and her daughter can already speak 3 – she’s only four years old!”

As we got closer to Charles de Gaulle airport, I found myself wishing that the car ride would never end. Sang had, in the hour or so we’d spent together, become a hero of mine.

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He was a man who had spent his entire life doing everything he loved and wanted to do, with absolutely no regrets. He had traveled far and wide, from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap to the dusty roads of Chad. Through his work, he has left a legacy, an imprint, that will extend beyond his lifetime, living on through the people he touched and the family he has so lovingly nurtured.

A man who has achieved and contributed so much, has no right to be so humble. His story and his accomplishments deserve to be trumpeted from the mountain tops. And instead, there he was, driving me to the airport, simply smiling and reminiscing at a life well lived.

Ryan Cheng is the founder of The 88, and is passionate about telling stories surrounding travel, culture and identity.

Get in touch ~
Instagram: @chinkinthearmour

Featured image by Joakim Honkasalo on Unsplash

One comment

  1. I almost never leave comments on blogs, but wow. I just really had to say something about this piece! Not only is meeting a SOS a highlight, but I really enjoyed how you had the underlying message of human generosity and passion for helping others!! He seems like an amazing guy and meeting him seemed like a blessing! Thank you for your story 🙂

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