It’s Friday afternoon, still hours before the Heart of Darkness comes to life, before it becomes difficult to move through the crowd, before the speakers start to blast “I Will Survive” and “It’s Raining Men.”
The only sound in the empty bar on Street 51 is Pen Samnang’s voice, crooning a Khmer love song at the top of his lungs. He is standing on a chair behind the bar, dressed only in shorts. The song finishes: he takes a bow, jumps off the chair.
“I love to sing romantic songs,” he says with a laugh. “I like to sing about love.” He then launches into the chorus of “Sex Bomb” by Tom Jones.
Most people know him as the flamboyant owner of the bar referred to by regulars as “The Heart.” Behind this entertaining public persona, however, Pen Samnang is a shrewd, serious businessman who runs Phnom Penh’s most popular expatriate and tourist bar.
He’s also a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime that wiped out his entire immediate family—mother, father, older brother and two younger sisters.
The tragic history of Pen Samnang’s life surprises many who know only his festive and sociable personality. His family lived in Phnom Penh and he was attending Tuol Sleng school—soon to become a torture prison and today a genocide museum—when the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital in April, 1975.
Pen Samnang, who was 9 at the time, joined the forced exodus from Phnom Penh and ended up in Svay Rieng province. He says the Khmer Rouge were not so strong there. But they did kill his father, who had been a soldier in the Lon Nol regime.
“My dad was not handsome,” Pen Samnang remembers. “He was very ugly, but he was a good man and very strong.”
After three years of manual labor in Svay Rieng with little to eat, the family decided to move to Pursat, where there supposedly was rice to eat. They arrived there in October 1978.
“When we met people there, we saw they had very skinny faces and they were very small,” Pen Samnang says. “My mom started crying and said she would die there. People asked us why we came there because they said we would die soon.”
Pen Samnang was separated from his family and forced to cut rice and learn the philosophies of Angkar, the name the omnipresent Khmer Rouge organization called itself.
At one point, Khmer Rouge soldiers asked him if he wanted to see Vietnamese people being killed. He was taken to a field where dozens of people were waiting. He saw people shot in the heart and struck in the back of the head.
“The people said, ‘please, help me!’ in Khmer,” Pen Samnang says. “I thought, ‘If they are Vietnamese, why did they speak such good Khmer?’”
He and other children in his group were told that Angkar would soon kill them. Pen Samnang ran to his mother’s house 20 km away.
“I told my mom to escape, but she said she couldn’t move,” he says. “She was so skinny. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, how are we going to live?’”
Shortly after, Pen Samnang was told that all children could return to their families because Angkar was not responsible for them anymore; the Vietnamese were coming. The Vietnamese troops had already captured Phnom Penh in January 1979, sending the Khmer Rouge fleeing into the jungle.
But in March of that year, the local Khmer Rouge took the children back. On the night Pen Samnang had to leave, the remaining members of his family—his mother, an older brother and two younger sisters—were killed.
“That’s how you lived in the Khmer Rouge,” he says. “You live through one night and one