The reincarnation of Penh the beggar boy

agent-orange1Penh is a beggar on the Penh Penh Riverside, but a beggar with a certain claim to fame, because when he was very young the Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths included his picture in a book about Agent Orange. The photo was taken in 2000, long after the Vietnam War ended, but Agent Orange lingers through generations.

Griffiths says Penh is 14 in the photo but he looks younger, gazing up at the camera with big eyes, a handsome and intelligent little boy with no future and no arms or legs, because Agent Orange causes mothers to give birth to monsters.

Penh was born in Takeo province on the Vietnamese border, and his parents brought him to the capital at an early age because there was no support for his condition there. There’s very little in Phnom Penh either, but an NGO provides a wheelchair and he begs along the Riverside, taking cash between the stubs of his flippers and pushing it into a special pouch sewn into his shirt.

Some years after that photo I interviewed Penh for a magazine, and asked him if he could explain his deformities – I was looking for evidence, in the form of family memories, of American planes spraying the village with defoliant. What he told me was quite different:

“I don’t know why I was born this way. I never did anything wrong, never harmed anyone. People in my village say I must have done something very wrong in my previous life, but I don’t remember my previous life. I used to try to remember when I was little, but I never could. I don’t think about it any more. I try to be good in this life, and I hope I can be reborn to a good body in my next.”


Screen Shot 2015-07-25 at 1.17.06 PMFrom Spirit Worlds – the interview was conducted in about 2006 for Southeast Asia Globe magazine. Philip Jones Griffiths’ photo of Penh appeared in his 2004 book Agent Orange.

4 thoughts on “The reincarnation of Penh the beggar boy

  1. I’ve heard this before, the idea that if you’re born disabled or handicapped you must have done something in your previous life to deserve it. I hope that Penh can lead a good life. It is a challenge given that just feeding himself becomes the goal of every single day.

    • Thanks for the comment Helen. I feel very sorry for poor Penh. When I interviewed him back in 2006 one of the questions I asked was who was the most important person in his life (after all, he can’t even feed himself. He said his sister. I imagine the sister is married by now, and his family network must be fraying.

      • As seems to happen so often to the most vulnerable. I imagine I’ve seen Penh, around the Foreign Correspondents Club area of Riverside? Not an area I enjoy visiting due to the extremes of western extravagance alongside local deprivation.

      • Yes, I’m sure you’ve seen him around there. He’s about ten years older now, of course.

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