“Cambodian Latter-day Saints: Moving in a New Direction,” Ensign, June 2010, 48–53
In the midst of the late spring rainy season in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the Tonle Sap River—which has poured into the Mekong River for months—defies its natural movement and changes course to flow in the opposite direction.
This directional change causes the Tonle Sap Lake at the head of the river to swell to five times its size, bringing much-needed nutrients to the fish and birds that feed there.
Like the river that changes direction, members in Cambodia have felt how the gospel of Jesus Christ has helped change the direction of their own lives. Their hearts now overflow with the joy and peace the gospel brings. This swell of joy provides spiritual food for their souls.
Although the country has faced dark times, the gospel of Jesus Christ has helped many Cambodians see the light of a new day shine through the darkness of the past.
During the country’s political turmoil in the 1970s, many Cambodians were driven from their homes and lost family members.
Loy Bunseak, president of the Siem Reap Branch in the Cambodia Phnom Penh Mission, was nine years old in 1975, when he and his family had to leave their home. They—along with millions of others—were required to perform hard manual labor in the country’s vast fields.
During this time, President Loy lost both of his parents and five of his eight siblings.
Despite the hardships, President Loy always had at least one thing to help get him through his pain.
“I always had hope,” he says.
The determined hope that helped President Loy get through the trials of his childhood is the same hope that later allowed him to recognize the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Because Cambodia is largely a Buddhist country, President Loy grew up without a knowledge of Jesus Christ. He began to learn about the Savior when Latter-day Saint missionaries came to his home and told him and his family they had an important message to share.
“I had never heard of Jesus Christ until I met the missionaries,” he says. “I wanted to learn more about Him.”
After intense study and discussion, President Loy and his family were baptized in 2001.
“The missionaries helped me learn from the Book of Mormon, but I received my testimony of its truthfulness from God,” President Loy says. “I could see how living by the teachings of the Book of Mormon made my family happier.”
President Loy’s experience is not unusual. Khan Sarin, president of the Sen Sok Branch in the Phnom Penh Cambodia North District, was separated from his family as a teenager and forced to work in the fields.
“I felt hopeless at this time,” President Khan says. “I did not know if I would survive.”
Looking back, President Khan feels that the Lord protected him from harm several times in his life. As a young man he joined the army and was shot at from as close as 20 feet (6 m) away but was not hit. He also stepped on many active land mines that did not explode. One land mine he stepped on did explode, but he was not seriously injured.
Because of the dangerous circumstances soldiers found themselves in, they did whatever they could to be protected. Several men in the military got tattoos because they believed the tattoos could help keep them safe.
“Before I became a member of the Church, I didn’t know anything,” President Khan says. “Now I know that it was Jesus Christ—not the tattoos—that saved me.”
After President Khan’s wife, Suon Sokmo, met the missionaries and was baptized, he was impressed by the changes he could see taking place within her. He accepted her invitation to study the scriptures together, and he soon decided to be baptized.
“The most important thing that I ever received in my life is the testimony I obtained from studying the scriptures,” he says.
Pich Sareth, a member of the Phnom Penh 12th Branch in the Phnom Penh Cambodia North District, also saw trials at a very young age. He was only five years old when he was separated from his family and forced to work in the fields. He would sometimes find crabs or frogs he could eat to quell his hunger.
Brother Pich’s wife, Seng Tha, and her family were also forced from their home. Because she was only four years old and small, she was not required to work, as other children were. She was separated from her family much of the day and was watched by elderly women who could not work.
After meeting the missionaries in 1995, Brother Pich and his wife began to learn about the love Heavenly Father has for them. “When I had problems, I could see that praying helped me get through them,” Brother Pich says. “I knew Heavenly Father cared.”
After Brother Pich decided to be baptized, his wife also gained a testimony of the gospel and was baptized.
Since their baptisms, Brother Pich and his family have recognized the joy that stems from gaining a testimony of Jesus Christ. The Pich family takes time every day to read the scriptures. As they have done this, the joy of the gospel has permeated their souls.
“We feel we are on the right path now, and we want to stay on this narrow path and continue to progress,” Sister Seng says. “I am grateful every day that we can have our children on this path with us.”
The joy that President Loy feels extends in both directions—to his ancestors as well as his descendants. President Loy and his family visited the Hong Kong China Temple in 2004. Not only were President Loy’s wife and children sealed to him, but the saving ordinances of the temple were also completed for his father, mother, and the brothers and sisters he had lost.
“I cannot even explain the joy I felt in the temple,” President Loy said. “I knew my family was being made strong. I know that the temple is necessary for families to live together forever.”
President Khan and his family also had the opportunity to be sealed together as an eternal family in the Hong Kong Temple. “The feeling I felt at the temple is something I had never felt before. It is hard to express my feelings in words,” President Khan says.
Thanks to the spreading of the gospel, members in Cambodia are receiving the spiritual nutrients they need to survive. Although the Church is growing in Cambodia, members hope that this growth is just a precursor to a huge blossoming of the gospel in their country.
Just as the fish and animals receive needed nutrients when the Tonle Sap Lake overflows, a growing number of Cambodians are receiving the spiritual nutrition they need thanks to the overflowing desire in members’ hearts to share the gospel.
“When a pot is covered, it boils over,” President Khan says. “This is the feeling I have in my heart. I must open my heart to tell everyone what it is feeling.”
President Loy hopes the residual effect of the gospel being taught in his home will be that his daughters will continue to embrace the gospel and teach their children.
“After I found out about Jesus Christ, everything became better in my life and with my family,” he says. “Having the priesthood in our home brings us together. If we have a problem, we sit and discuss it as a family.”
Since the government of Cambodia granted the Church legal recognition in 1994, thousands of Cambodians have accepted the gospel. The Pich family looks forward to the day when the gospel will spread across all parts of the country. Brother Pich says, “I hope someday there will be a temple in Cambodia.”
Sister Seng agrees: “Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, are alive. My hope for the future is that the Church will continue to grow so a temple can be built.”
President Khan recognizes the ways his life has changed since learning of the Savior. He believes the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only thing that can heal Cambodians from their past trials.
“After I became a member of the Church, I lost a lot of the pain I felt from things that had happened in the past. I’ve received a new light that I never had before,” he says. “Everything feels new.”