With its rolling hills and chilly nighttime air, Mondulkiri province is a world away from lowland Cambodia. It is quite a contrast both climatically and culturally as we were jokingly told, “Sen Monorom [the provincial capital] was a one-horse town, but the horse died.” The nightlife is pretty tame, unless of course you happen to be at the
Phat Gecko Bar, just a stone’s throw off the main two-lane road. There you will meet, quite possibly, the most interesting man in the world: Moth Morn. Move over Dos Equis guy, Mot can out-trek, out-swear, out-joke, out-sing, and definitely out-drink you, sir! Mot and his girlfriend Virginie, or Vivi for short, own the Phat Gecko bar and run a tour company catering to adventurous international travelers.
Quick with a joke that can be “a little bit disgusting, you know” or a light of your smoke, Mot has a genuine smile that is contagious. He is a lover of The Doors, Bob Marley, and Johnny Cash, regularly humming the tunes and often improvising the lyrics.
Mot was born shortly after the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia. Unlike most Cambodian families, both of Mot’s parents survived the Khmer Rouge’s “agrarian revolution” and gruesome genocide. When I asked him how his mother survived the brutal conditions, Mot proceeded to tell the story of how he got his name. “Near the end, my mother had a dream. A man held up three plates and asked my mother to choose. The first had food, but even though she was starving she told the man, ‘No, I will still be hungry tomorrow if I eat your food today.’ The second plate had a bowl of water on top of it. My mother didn’t want this either because she will still be thirsty the next day. The third one had a knife on it. This one my mother took because she could hold it and it will last. She could cook, hunt, and protect herself, you know. When I was born my mother named me Moth which means knife in Khmer. I was the something she could hold on to. I was the something that would last. I think I helped pull her through.” Mot reverently told this story. It was a shock to see this dirty jokester become so reserved. Mot revealed the same demure countenance when trekking through the jungle. His respect for nature became most obvious when, during lunch, Mot silently set aside a portion of his meal as an offering to the forest.
Whenever a classic rock song comes on the radio, I am reminded of the fun-loving tour guide I spent a few days with in Mondulkiri. I think back to my first impression of him: an oddball who tells one awkward joke too many. That initial judgement has been replaced by thoughts of what a dynamic individual he is, and who we all are underneath our black trucker hats.