It began, as such passions often do, with the simple delight of a rusty Volkswagen Beetle bought for a song in 1994.
In the two decades since, Ing Samath’s pleasure has burgeoned into a full-blown romance, evidenced by his fleet of 25 or so vintage and classic cars that he keeps in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Objects of beauty in their own right, they also paint a story of Cambodia’s recent history.
Originally from Kampong Cham, Samath was sent to Phnom Penh at the age of nine (the schools were better, he says) to live with his uncle. It was the 1980s, and the youngster arrived in a city whose streets churned with an array of Soviet vehicles – Ladas, Moskoviches, Russian jeeps — brought in by Vietnam, the USSR’s ally, which at the time backed the post-Khmer Rouge government.
Years later, Samath learned to drive in a Russian jeep that his father, a military man, used. Despite the ungainly features of many cars of that era, the young man was bitten by a bug: that Beetle bug.
But he didn’t keep his first car for long. After persuading its former owner to part with it for $150, Samath fixed it up and sported it about town for a few months before a French soldier, in Phnom Penh with the United Nation’s UNTAC forces, spotted it and offered him $750.
“Et c’était vendue [And it was sold],” says Samath, who still looks pleased with the deal.
These days, it would be much harder to make him sell any of his collection.“I do it for the pleasure,” says Samath, as he shows Post Weekend some of the vehicles that he keeps in Siem Reap. “I like to work on them, to drive them around and to show them off a little. But it’s not for business.”
Even when Angelina Jolie’s production team approached Samath to use his cars in the filming of First They Killed My Father – the adaptation for Netflix of Khmer Rouge survivor Loung Ung’s best-selling memoir – he was reluctant to part with his prizes.
“I was worried that they might be damaged,” he says. “But in the end, they took very good care of them.”
Many of the vehicles in Jolie’s film, which is expected to be released later this year, belong to Samath.
His is a motley assembly of cars, old and relatively new, and in various states of repair. There are motorbikes, too, including a classic 21-year-old Harley-Davidson Road King. Somewhat incongruously among them all is a snazzy, souped-up 2006 Mini Cooper.
It gleams alongside a burly, black 1971 Mercedes 600 whose battered frame is being repaired by two members of a four-strong team who work permanently on Samath’s cars.
Samath says the Mercedes is a seminal part of Cambodia’s history.
“It was a Khmer Rouge car,” he explains. “There are photos of it with Pol Pot, Ta Mok and the other cadres.”
Beneath the chassis, a worker alternately solders and hammers at the engine’s frame. The interior is virtually empty. Magnificent details remain, like the elegant steering wheel with an art-deco feel.
The dashboard is new – Samath made it himself – but he’s still searching for seals to replace those that have atrophied over the years.
“It’s going to take a long time to finish it, but I’m not under pressure,” he says.
As any classic car owner knows, finding spares can be tricky. Samath picks up parts from Thailand and elsewhere, but he won’t be drawn on how much it will cost to restore this piece of history. Yet it could prove lucrative: In 2014, a Mercedes 600 that reportedly belonged to a former African dictator was sold at a Paris auction for about $600,000.
Outside the Heritage Suites Hotel, another gleaming Mercedes 600 of the era can be found, which Samath helped to build and in which he maintains an interest. A hint of the car’s former owner can be found in front-mounted metal brackets, which once held the flags signifying the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk was on board. Beautifully restored, it and its cream-coloured cousin are often seen on Siem Reap’s streets.
But Samath nearly faints with happiness when presenting a 1985 Mercedes 560SL, a car whose sleek, powerful sexiness makes it a sought-after classic.
“This one’s for cruising,” he says with a smile. “And for showing off a little.”
It regularly attracts the eye of other enthusiasts.
“When I drive it, I often come back to find cards on the windscreen from people who want to buy it,” he says, looking aghast at the suggestion that he might ever sell it.
The 560SL was brought to Cambodia from the United States by a friend who sold it to Samath.
Most of his collection, though, is sourced locally, including a white Toyota Land Cruiser that once belonged to a governor of Battambang; the vehicle reflects a 1990s post-Cold War shift from Russian vehicles to Japanese as the political landscape changed.
By then, says Samath, most of the old French cars had been taken to Vietnam or were being used by farmers who couldn’t afford a newer automobile.
Most, but not all: Samath’s oldest prize, a 1934 Citroën Traction, can be found in the centre of Siem Reap, outside Café Indochine, where tourists regularly stop to photograph themselves next to its extraordinary elegance.
In the past, says Samath, few people valued these metal-and-chrome relics, not least because they were liable to break down and needed expert help – and parts – in a country that was chronically short of both.
“People weren’t interested in old cars,” Samath says. “They were [perceived as being] for poor people. That’s beginning to change, and more people are starting to see the value in the old cars.”