It begins with a girl: The Sponge Tree

Editor’s Note: Daughter Shelby is in Cambodia this with with a missions team from Antioch Church. They are partnering with Transitions Global. You can find her other posts by looking back through the blog.

By Shelby Dee

Angelina Jolie stays at the Prison Hotel when she visits Siem Reap. At least that’s what Sopanha tell us. It’s not the real name of the hotel, of course, only what our tour guide calls it because you can’t get close to it or see inside.

In between filling our minds with facts about the Angkor temples, Buddhism,  Hinduism,  Animism, and Cambodian history, Sopanha tells us his own story.

Sopanha is an orphan of the Khmer Rouge. His father a lawyer, his mother a nurse, the family was ordered to leave the city. Separated from his parents when they had to escape based on a tip that they would soon be arrested. At age 10 Sopanha asked his grandmother, why his parents left him behind.

“Because you are old enough to answer when the soldiers come.” When they came, the soldiers took his grandmother away. He never saw her again. He was forced by the Khmer Rouge to work in the Children’s Mobile Unit.

“I am not scared,” he says.

Sopanha tried to escape many times only to be found and beaten in punishment. Eventually he did escape to the mountains. To the jungle. During the night he would sneak into the village.

“I stole for my stomach,” he tells us. A smart boy, he found a way to survive. After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, he came out of hiding, and eventually was reunited with his mother, who is still alive today.

At Ta Prohm Temple, Sopanha pauses to tell us about the Sponge Tree. A soft wood that would not be used for timber. The roots of the tree curl up from the ground and wrap around the temple in a snake like fashion. One tree has literally wrapped itself so tightly around another that the first tree is now entombed inside its giant tendrils.

Sopanha. The Cambodian people. They are like that Sponge Tree. Deep roots that cling tight to the land. Loyal. Unmoving. They find a way to survive in the face of extreme adversity. Like the Sponge Tree, they will find their way in this world.

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  • Thanks for sharing the stories through these updates, miss Shelby.