Seated in an upper room in Phnom Penh’s Samaki Raingsey pagoda, Venerable Serey Vothnak traces unseen shapes on a scratched wooden table with his finger, sounding out the letters of the holy Pali script with each stroke. Within this 2,000-year-old script, the language of the sacred scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, he says, are the building blocks of the modern Khmer tongue—the language he learned from his parents when he was a boy, and that his family has spoken at home for generations.
But Serey Vothnak was not born in Cambodia, and Serey Vothnak is not the name he was given at birth. The 28-year-old Buddhist monk was born in a village on the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam with a Vietnamese name. He is a member of the Khmer Krom—“Lower Khmer”—community, a millions-strong ethnic group that maintains strong cultural and familial ties to their cousins across the border in Cambodia. For many ethnic Khmer, Cambodia’s majority ethnic group, that border runs like a wound between a people divided not by custom or culture, but by uncaring colonial powers.
“What I miss the most in Kampuchea Krom is my family,” the monk says, using the traditional—though controversial—name for the provinces of Vietnam once claimed by the Khmer Empire. “I was born in Kampuchea Krom. My parents are from Kampuchea Krom, and I became a monk there.”