ODONG DISTRICT, Kompong Speu Province – The note was concise, just five lines of Khmer script scrawled in gold ink on a leaf of notepad paper.
“Final word,” it read. “1: Sell my truck to pay for concrete. 2: Get $1,000 back from Ly Oun at Prey Phdao [market] and pay teacher Chamroeun for the gravel.”
The message ended with the word “goodbye.”
On June 29, police discovered the note next to an empty bottle of pesticide in the room of Poun Van Ath, the popular chief monk at Wat Srah Khlaing in Paing Lvea commune.
After hearing shrieks from his room in the pagoda at about 4 p.m. that afternoon, a nun saw Poun Van Ath convulsing in front of his altar, where he had been meditating for hours.
Monks and laymen at the pagoda rushed the 36-year-old to Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh, where doctors pronounced him dead. Two days later, police ruled his death a suicide. An autopsy was never performed.
The death of Poun Van Ath has shocked this rural community of farmers and left many here in disbelief, unable to accept that the man they had grown to revere over the past decade could have taken his own life.
They find it especially hard to believe that what apparently pushed him over the edge was the road construction project that consumed the final two years of his life.
After arriving at Wat Srah Khlaing around 2005, Poun Van Ath quickly made a name for himself. Known for performing water blessings that could ward off bad luck, he became something of a local celebrity, attracting a diverse fan base.
In interviews this week, locals and monks at the pagoda described Poun Van Ath as a man devoted to his community, something they said could best be illustrated by the multimillion-dollar road construction project he began two years before his death.
The 16-km Road 140 branches off National Road 4, spanning two districts and three communes. The beginning of the road is paved with concrete, making for easy travel. But after about a kilometer, a dusty and rutted dirt track takes over.
For the next 15 km, the road winds through farmland flanked only by parched rice fields and the occasional cluster of homes. Deep potholes are sporadically marked with rusted-out fuel drums.
According to Sam Boeun, 62, the chief of Trapaing Andoung village, where Wat Srah Khlaing is located, Poun Van Ath first got the idea to build the road in 2013 while returning to the pagoda after receiving treatment for an abscess in his liver.
“When I was driving him back to the pagoda, he was in pain while traveling along the road and he said, ‘How would sick people or pregnant women feel using the road?’” Mr. Boeun said. “So he decided to build a new road.”
Mr. Boeun said Poun Van Ath soon became fixated on the construction project, traveling the country in search of donations to help finance it. And when he was not looking for donations, he worked side by side with locals and other monks shoveling dirt or pouring concrete.
Mr. Boeun said he thinks Poun Van Ath’s obsession with the road was what ultimately drove the monk to suicide.
“He was worried he could not finish the road construction,” Mr. Boeun said. “He was an ambitious person. When he began something, he wanted to finish it.”
Before his death, Poun Van Ath managed to scrape together about $1 million for the project, said Um Pheng, 31, a monk who worked on the road. But significantly more money was needed.
“He needed between 5 million and 6 million dollars to finish the road,” Um Pheng said.
According to monks at Wat Srah Khlaing, Poun Van Ath poured every riel he raised into the project. The only thing of financial value he left behind, they said, was the white truck he mentioned in his suicide note.
“When he died, he left nothing, not even one riel,” said Pen Phearun, 37, another monk who was close friends with Poun Van Ath.
Like most of the monks and laymen interviewed Monday, Pen Phearum said he did not believe his friend committed suicide.
“Some said he had no ability to build the road and that debt from the road caused the monk to kill himself,” he said. “It’s not true.”
Pen Phearum suggested that Poun Van Ath may have taken too much of his liver medication and overdosed.
Asked about the suicide note, acting chief monk Yin Phab, 76, who said he had known Poun Van Ath for about 10 years, deflected the question.
“I don’t believe he committed suicide because of this road project,” Yin Phab said. “He never complained about it before.”
The day before his death, Poun Van Ath also left a message on his Facebook page.
“Every road was built with money from the government or with dirty money,” he wrote. “But me, I am a crazy person who used money raised from chanting ceremonies and begging to build a 16-km-long road and [some] even attacked me, calling me a cheat.”
Police this week cited both the suicide note and Facebook post as evidence that Poun Van Ath killed himself over the road project and debt accumulated because of it.
“The first reason was already stated in his note: to sell his car to pay debt,” said Sam Sak, chief of the provincial police’s serious crimes bureau. “And second, he built the road by himself, without sponsorship from anyone.”
Hong Chansokha, director of Kompong Speu’s public works and transport department, said the provincial government did not help finance the project because it had no money to spare.
“We have to think about priorities and cannot just focus on one place,” Mr. Chansokha said.
He said Poun Van Ath came to his department once, for advice on technical aspects of the road, but never asked for financial assistance.
Mr. Chansokha said he repeatedly tried to convince the monk that the road project was far too ambitious to undertake alone.
He also said that despite his admiration for Poun Van Ath, his department had no intention of finishing the road.
However, Mr. Boeun, the village chief, said he hoped to raise enough money to finish paving a half kilometer of road that was left only partially complete after Poun Van Ath’s death.
“The rest I will not be responsible for,” he said.
Mak Pheap, 49, who runs a small eatery about 5 km from where the road turns from concrete to dirt, said members of the local community had repeatedly asked local authorities to pave the road, but to no avail.
Only Poun Van Ath was willing to do something about it, Ms. Pheap said.
“Nobody dared to stand up to build the road, only him,” she said.
Living in a shack along the dusty dirt track, Ms. Pheap said she donated $100 to the project and would be willing to donate another $500 to see the monk’s dream realized.
“The road was his pride, this was his honor,” she said. “We still want to help the monk.”
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