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‘See Angkor and die’

4 Dec

‘See Angkor and die’

Fri, 3 December 1993

(This story, one of my favorites, was published 20 years ago today in the Phnom Penh Post)

Renée Grass died happy here in Cambodia a few days ago after travelling across the world to have her last dream come true.

The 83-year-old Belgian woman, frail from the passage of time, knew that she had entered the autumn of her life, several people who were on the tour to Angkor last weekend said. She travelled alone to Cambodia because her dying wish was to see the temples of Angkor.

“She told everybody ‘ I want to see Angkor before I die’ “, said Dr. Xavier Baranger, who was called to treat her after she collapsed and died on November 25 in Phnom Penh.

She arrived in the capital last week and was booked on a tour to visit Angkor over the weekend. Several other travellers and the tour guides suggested that perhaps the trip to Siem Riep and the difficult walk through the temple complex was too strenuous for her, ” but she refused their advice because she had this goal,” Dr. Baranger said.

Hours after she visited the temples, she became ill, and a special airplane from Aviation Sans Frontier evacuated her to Phnom Penh.

She died the next day in her room at the Hotel Cambodiana, with the doctor and hotel staff by her side.

” I’ve seen situations like this before, when old people have one last goal in life, and when they have achieved it, they pass away content,” said the doctor.

Madam Grass probably didn’t know that King Sihanouk completed shooting of his latest film “Voir Angkor Et Mourir” (See Angkor and Die) at the temple complex only months ago.

Renée Grass travelled widely up until her last days. Her passport was full of visas from Argentina to Italy in recent months. She told others on the tour that she had no children and was a widow.

” She told people ‘ If I die travelling, just cremate me where I am,” according to the doctor. Her body was cremated at Wat Lanka here in Phnom Penh on Monday.

How to Make Two Little Old Ladies Happy: A Thanksgiving Story

27 Nov

How to Make Two Little Old Ladies Happy: A Thanksgiving Story

By Nate Thayer

November 27, 2013

When I was a young boy, between five and 12 years old, I had a second mother.

Her name was Reba Thomas and she loved me and I loved her.

We have not been in contact for decades.

A few minutes ago, I dialed a number and asked for Reba. There was silence on the other end.

“Who is calling, please?”

“My name is Nat Thayer.”

There was silence for a moment, and then an urgent, hushed whisper to someone nearby. “It is Nat Thayer! Mrs. Thayer’s son!”

Then Reba Thomas came on the phone, her voice full of vigor and love. It has been more than 30 years since we last spoke.

“Oh! Nat! How are you? Where are you? I have missed you for so many years!” And then her strong, animated voice became tender. “You are still my little boy. I love you. I have always loved you.  When are you going to come visit me?”

My mother messaged me yesterday saying she wanted to be back in contact with Reba Thomas. She was worried about her and her old phone number didn’t work.

My mother is 82 years old. Reba Thomas is 84.

Reba Thomas  worked for my family taking care of us in Washington, D.C., between 1965 and 1973. I remember the days when Washington burned down during the violent race riots of 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I remember Reba Thomas, a black woman, holding me, a little white boy, tightly in her arms, in my home. I felt so very comforted that I was not hated, but loved, that day. I was scared. I was 8.

Yesterday my mother messaged me: “Dear. Nat, As you are good at tracking people down I hope you can help me find Reba, and that she is not dead!  Her phone is disconnected. I have sent a letter to her address but no answer.  I am afraid she may be ill? Hope you can help.  See you on Thanksgiving?  Love, Mom.”

So, I spent a couple hours yesterday tracking down Reba Thomas. I did not know whether she was alive or dead. I did know my mother was worried about her. And I knew Reba Thomas would be happy to hear from me.

Yesterday, I found her property records which showed she still owned the same house in Virginia she bought in 1976. But her land line phone was no longer working. I found a slew of relatives connected to her and that address. I located the church of which she has been a devout member for many, many years. I found a couple dozen telephone numbers connected to Reba and her expansive band of offspring, in laws, grand-children and others who she had, no doubt nurtured and loved over these many years.

When I was a very young child, Reba Thomas took my hand and heart and tried to lead me towards being a good person.

Reba Thomas made sure I was loved, clothed, fed, comforted and protected, like all children should be and too many are not. She cooked my dinner every day and made sure I was filled with the nutrients of food and warmth and love and guidance.

She was firm in what I should and should not do, in the daily cadence of early childhood life experiences that are so vital and gently guided this child along the right, firm path towards happiness in life.

She hugged me every day. She comforted and encouraged me and loved me, always. She listened and encouraged a little boy.

Reba Thomas made a little boy happier, stronger, more worthy, taking me by the hand and nudging me down to right path in life.

She told me exactly when she thought I was being bad—as bad as little boys can be–which is not very, but also a crucial time to gently influence them, with however much loving force is required.

She always made sure I knew she loved me and made  sure that I would have no doubt that she thought I was a very good boy, no matter what I did.

Reba Thomas was both moral conviction, strength of character, and unconditional love personified. She was selfless in her abundant overflow of generosity, kindness, and self sacrifice for others.

But she had no reluctance to redirect me, when I veered off the right path, as all children do. She never was reluctant to share her loving words and touch, nor her very unmistakable disapproving gaze of ‘this is not an issue up for discussion or debate’, followed by a declarative statement of what I must do, not do, and not do again.

This was always followed by a hug, a smile and accompanied by Reba Thomas making sure that this little boy knew he was loved unconditionally. That combination of qualities has been a mantra, so deeply important to me, that I have tried, though too many times failed, to replicate in my life with others.

Reba Thomas has had a challenging life, of which she has lived gracefully and with dignity and charity and compassion.

I have know doubt she has suffered, unspeakably. But, also, I have no doubt she has been and is loved by many, many people.

I am one of them.

Her husband, Samuel Thomas, died, young, many years ago. She had 9 children. Some are dead. Others are in prison. Others have been luckier. All loved their mother, their wife, their grandmother, their friend, deeply.

She took solace in her devotion to the Jehovah’s Witness, an apocalyptic Christian sect/cult. It has worked for her.

Yesterday afternoon, I started to track down Reba, using the same skills and knowledge and tactics I have used to track down international organized crime figures, politicians, and various assorted others of news interest during my career.

Hi Mom,

I am sure I can find her status pretty easily. What is her last name or names? And her full legal name. And the names–first and last–of her children. Addresses, phone numbers, employers, former addresses, church, and any other details etc. Any of the above will be useful. I will, of course, use the info discretely without alerting any of the above that someone is looking for Reba. And, yes, see you on Thanksgiving.



My mother replied: “Thanks, Nat!  Her full name is Reba Thomas. Mrs. Samuel J. Thomas.  Her daughters name is Angel Thomas.  I don’t think she uses any other name.  Lester Thomas and Samuel Thomas, Jr. Are the two sons who I think are still alive.  Sam Jr. I think lives in Florida.  She did work at a hospital in Virginia for a number of years..I think it was Inova Fairfax but am not sure.  I am afraid she may have died!  Oh, yes, she was a longtime member of a church not too far from her house..I don’t think it was Jehovah’s Witness.  I remember that they do not celebrate Christmas. Wow!  Is this really all I know?  Oh, yes.  She owned the house, probably had a mortgage on it, and it may have been sold.  

Thank you, dear.  Love, Mom.  PS. no reason not to let others know I am looking for her.  Nothing secret about it…worried friend!!”

A few hours later I replied: “Mom: I have done some digging on Reba. She still owns the house under her name in Arlington. She is listed as 84 years old. There are a slew of people who are connected to that address. The most prominent of which seems to be Lester P. Thomas, her son, now age 61. But the official records show the house has not been sold in several decades. She bought it in 1976 for 52,000 dollars. It is now appraised at 550,000 and is not for sale. A number of phone numbers are no longer operative. But there are also a number of people who have connections suggesting they may have lived there. They include Samuel Thomas, Linda Crumity Nakia Thomas Michael Thomas Rowena Abdon Patrick Thomas Reba Thomas  Patricia Mahan Ashley Thomas Deon Crumity William Thomas Theodore Thomas and more. I think Angel’s real name may be Ashley.

One of the best ways to locate her, it seems to me, is through her church. I contacted the church in Arlington and the regional overseeing diocese. They will be back in touch. Whatever, I am sure she can be tracked down.

I think we can conclude that she has not died. There are no death records and the house is in her name. I think we can conclude her son, Lester, is still alive, as are a number of other offspring and grandchildren and in laws etc.

But I think the most important and easiest way is to determine which church she went to. Since she was devout, and these sort of churches are small and intimate, they would remember her. Or frankly, we can just go to her house. and knock on the door. It is a 15 minute drive away and that would answer all, or most all, the questions. The house remains owned by her. It has not been sold. If, by chance, she has died recently, her relatives would still live there. I suspect she still lives there.

I will let you know other info. I have several calls out which I expect to be returned. One way or another you will know by tomorrow.



My mother responds: “Nat dear…thanks so much!  You certainly unearthed a lot! Maybe you would be willing to go out there with me?  I admit to not wanting to go alone! And, you were always her favourite. ‘How is my Nat?  Is always her first question.’ Well, thanks again very much! Love, Mom”

Later, last night, I got a message from an author who is working on a book on organized crime in Cambodia. He wanted to talk and meet with me.

Hi Nate,

My name is Patrick, I wrote to you recently about Cambodia. I hope I’m not bothering you. I would really love to talk to you some time. I am writing a novel (it will be published by Grove / Atlantic) that is going to take place, partly, in Cambodia. Part of the book is about the manufacturing, and global trade of MDMA. I really want to talk to you, as you’ve been referred to me as an absolute expert in organized crime in Cambodia. Again, I hope I’m not bothering you, I know we’ve never met, and I know it might seem presumptuous to try and talk to you, but I really want to and I think you’ll like me if we get a chance to meet. 

Please let me know, as I’ve bought a ticket to go there in early January. Hope this finds you well.



PS, since my last email I also saw you written about in one of the history books I’m reading. Now we must talk!!!”

Patrick and I talked on the phone last night. Recently, he has worked as a private investigator, much of it on contract with various U.S. local governments. This gives one access to data bases of information that are often too costly to subscribe to or in that grey zone of legality for civilians to obtain.

I mentioned to him that I was trying to track down an 84 year old woman and old friend. He said he thought he might be able to help and to send him the basic data.

I sent him the following message: “Patrick: The elderly woman’s name is Reba Thomas or, sometimes, Mrs. Samuel J. Thomas. She has two sons Thomas and Samuel Thomas Jr. Her address is/was xxxxxx xxxxxx  Virginia. Her telephone number was. XXX-XXX-XXXX, but is no longer operative. I have other details. Anything you can come up with would make two old ladies happy.”

He responded within an hour: “Hi Nate, Great talking to you! Loving your articles. Try these numbers for Reba: 




Sam Thomas = (XXX)XXX-XXXX


Let me know if they don’t work out, and I can dig deeper.”

A few hours ago, I dialed the numbers. The first one came up disconnected. The second one was a machine. The third one, a sweet young voice answered.

“Is Reba Thomas there?” I said.

There was a pause. “Who is calling, please?”

“This is Nat Thayer. I knew Reba when I was a child.”

After a longer pause, she said “please will you hold on for a minute.” And there was a whispered but urgent conversation I overheard in the background. “It is for you! It is Nat Thayer! Mrs. Thayer’s son!”

And then a strong vibrant voice came on the line. “Oh! Nat! I have missed you for so many years! Where are you? I love you, Nat. You know, you are still my little boy! When are you going to come visit me?”

Honestly, I was weeping and it was hard to talk. I felt, once again, at 53 years old, like I was Reba’s little boy.

I was so happy to hear her strong, warm, loving voice. And she was happy to hear mine. And we promised to get together soon, very soon. And we promised to talk later this afternoon again.

Reba was, today, as we talked, at the bedside of her son, Lester, in hospital, who is dying, when she answered my call.

I will call her again this afternoon. I called my mother and passed on the news I had located Reba, that she was not dead, and she was very happy to hear from me and to know my mother wanted to know she was OK.

So two little old ladies in their 80’s are happier this afternoon than they were this morning.

And so is a 53 year old little boy.

My Thanksgiving has come early and with special meaning.

I am very thankful, as I am sure are many, for Reba Thomas to have been, and now again to be, in my life.

Memories of a Good and Great Man: Father Pierre Ceyrac

4 May

Memories of a Great and Good Man: Father Pierre Ceyrac

By Nate Thayer

May 2013

Amongst my myriad of youthful memories, I recall with a satisfied sense of quiet joy having spent some weeks getting to know two delightful, charming, adventurous and beautiful young French gals in the remote town of Aranyaprathet, Thailand, a deceptively sleepy border hub that was the covert control room of a raging war that brought both unspeakable misery and promised a long demanded and denied justice to millions of Cambodians.

The two women and I recently reconnected and, like I suspect is true for many thousands of others whose heart and soul Pierre improved so profoundly, our conversation quickly focused on Father Pierre Ceyrac, a good and great man.

Father Pierre gave—and still gives—me faith and hope.  

While the two women, Olivia Guerbet and Isabelle Viellard, bring back very fond memories indeed, this story is about him—Father Pierre Ceyrac who died one year ago this month.

Father Pierre and Isabelle may 2012

Father Pierre and Isabelle may 2012


Hello Nate ! what a nice surprise to have your email!

I was so happy remembering all those borders events!

One year ago I had the chance to visit Father Pierre (Ceyrac) with Isabelle just before he died and all the border memories came back to our minds; Those years are forever written in our hearts.

I wanted also to thank you after all these years for all the dreams you gave me.

Now I’m married with 4 children but my life is still full of the joy and the richness of those years in Aranyaprathet.

Do you know that Jean and Stephanie got married?

I wanted to thank you and Gary (Knight) for your friendship. I remember how welcoming you were each time we met you at Ploen’s (restaurant). 

The first time you saw us , you thought we were from SIPA and Gary told us later  that you  were very surprised that they had sent 4 journalists to the border; Something must have been happening , but usually you were the first to know…and then you realized it was SIPAR; only French teachers…no scoops…

But you had always been very nice.

I remember that Father Pierre was very admiring of you, Nate.

Well happy birthday with some days late


Dear Olivia:

So good to hear from you and the fond memories you and Isabelle both bring back to me from those times in Aranyaprathet.

And thank you so very much for the photographs of Father Pierre.

He is one of my all time hero’s among men and I miss him terribly.

You probably didn’t know this, but he married my brother and his wife in the 1980’s.

Please do keep in touch, my friend, and so glad to hear you are doing well. It was also so very nice to hear from Isabelle as well. You both seem as beautiful and charming as when we met so long ago.

warm regards,




Dear Nate

How nice of you to answer me so quickly.

Here is a picture of him when he visited me in Grenoble where we live; he looks like when we met him, doesn’t he? 

I hope you didn’t have a too big shock with the previous pictures I send you. The three of us looks  much older….

Do you have a picture of the wedding of your brother! How incredible! Did Father Pierre go to the USA? I would LOVE if you could scan a picture of both of you at the wedding.

Do you still have contact with people from the border? I imagine you are still in touch with Gary?

Do you remember this conversation we had :

“How is your foot?”

“My foot is OK, I just got blown up on a landmine”

I know the incredible story of you meeting Pol Pot! I know how you had been all those year searching for answers to this so awful tragedy of genocide of Cambodia; It’s incredible that you could ask him exactly the questions everybody would have wished to ask him and hitler etc! (That is on purpose that I don’t use capital letters to write their names). 

I heard also the terrible story of betrayal about the news of his death. You must have felt so blessed! It was so unfair! So disgusting!

What have you been doing since then, where have you lived, USA ? Asia? Do you see your family or are you a lonesome cowboy  far away from home? 

Oh girls!! they ask so many questions, that ‘s life!! Because, in my case, memories give to my life so much energy. Now I’m happy but it’s not so exciting you know! By chance my children (Amelie 18 years old, Clément 17, Eloi 13 and Félicité 9) are nice and are happy but thank God I had a life before getting married!

I married in blue. I had already two children; Gary (Knight) and Fiona came for the wedding! How nice of them.

Hoping that I don’t tire you with my words and I wish you a beautiful day, wherever you are now.


Dear Olivia:

Thanks for the kind and thoughtful message. Pierre was one of God’s gifts and remains a big influence on me even after his death.

He married my brother and his wife (who both worked in Khao I Dang refugee camp) in the Philippines in 1986. Sadly, his wife died of cancer at 39 in 1997.

I never did meet anyone who didn’t love Father Pierre.

I used to go to his mass in Aran even though I am not Catholic!

I still have many contacts from the border days. I later moved to Phnom Penh and then later to Bangkok. I moved back to the U.S. in 2001 and still wrote and traveled, spent time in Iraq, Yugoslavia, Mongolia, North Korea etc etc.

I moved back to Asia in 2010, but then back to where I am now in Washington D.C. last year. I write mainly about North Korea these days, but also quite a bit on Cambodia and other places.

And you and Isabelle and Pierre still all look as beautiful as the days I knew you.

I will try to find a picture of the wedding Pierre performed for my brother and send it to you.

I posted the two pictures you sent me on Facebook (where I stay in touch with many old border friends) and many of them commented on the picture.

My very best to both you and Isabelle.

with warm and fond wishes,



Are you up or not yet in bed? I’m sooooooooooo happy to read you already!

And the pictures already on face book!! I feel middle aged and you move at the speed of the light!!!

Well, I don’t have Facebook address. Is it possible to give you my daughter address, Amelie Guerbet so that I can see news about you?

Well all what you write touches me a lot. 

What a pity the story of your sister in law; When people love each other it’s so sad to see the end of their life on earth…….


I haven’t been to bed because I am working on Asian time on a North Korea story. Of course you can use your daughters address. Just go on FB and ‘friend’ me and you will see the pics and other stuff



I will write you more later but “à table!!!”‘

It’s time to go for lunch; You know in France we eat all together around the table..

Please accept Amelie’s contact so I can know more about you. Except if you judge that she’s too young.


Olivia's children and Pierre

Olivia’s children and Pierre


Eat well. I accepted Amelie’s FB request already. Talk soon. And tell Isabelle I posted her pic with Fr Pierre too



Thank you for accepting the facebook request; it is very kind of you. 

I will write you on email for it is easier.

Last year I suddenly decided to visit Father Pierre; I hadn’t seen him for 6 years.

He had always been writing to me, but the last years we just talked by phone.

I live in the mountains and now I’m not the adventurous girl I used to be. I don’t move much, visiting sometimes my family in Paris but that’s all.

But last year  suddenly when I heard that Father Pierre was really in a very bad, bad shape and in a quite desperate mood, I suddenly decided to go to India.

You are used to moving around the world, but, for me, it was so new, so wonderful to have this feeling of irresistible freedom and attraction.

His niece told me he would be quite alone during May and she was worried because it’s the really hot season then there.

The minute after, I called Isabelle and within five minutes she agreed and we both decided to go to India to see Father Ceyrac.

We arrived in Madras in May.

Well, it was a big surprise to find Father Ceyrac standing up in quite good shape. I was sure I would arrive to put a flower on his tomb.

What a surprise to find him having lunch in the dining room all well dressed and combed.

We had one marvelous week with him. We shared a lot. He was a real gourmet! And he appreciated chocolats saucisson, foie gras and Pinot des charentes.

He was always taking care of us. “Are you OK?” “It is not too hot for you?”

He was so nice, so tender.

When I left him it was quite hard because I knew it was for the last time. But we were so happy to leave him in such a good condition.

Back to France and one week later exactly I received a call from Sabelle telling me that Father Pierre had died during the night.

His last night he had some of the goodies we had brought: pâté and pineau.

Two friends kissed him goodnight.

They asked for a blessing.

During the night he stood up and had a little walk as he always had to pray as he had done throughout his life.

And in the morning they found him in his bed.

You cannot imagine how blessed I felt!!!

Even more because we knew he had finally finished his life “standing up” and he was not sad at all.

Sorry, but I could talk and talk and talk about him because he had such a great impact on my life.

He was like a fairy for me—you know the light by the sea that shows you the way. How do you say this in English?


Olivia and Pierre Madras, India May 2012

Olivia and Pierre Madras, India May 2012


What a beautiful story. I loved Pierre like perhaps I have loved no other. He gave me faith in man. Thanks so much for sharing. I would like to share your story on my FB page as there are many, many friends of mine who loved him like you and I did and would be very moved to hear your story. My FB page is not a public page–just for friends who I keep in touch with who have moved to different parts of the world, as happens in life. With your permission, I would like to share your story.

Even when I think of Pierre tears come to my eyes



Au cours de nos pérégrinations alors que je disais au Père Pierre à quel point il reflétait la lumière de Dieu il me répondit avec humilité : « On reflète tous la lumière de Dieu ».


Un autre jour il nous as redit comme il aurait pu faire davantage , comme il aurait faire davantage…


Il nous as aussi parlé de l’importance des jeunes qui sont « l’avenir du monde » « c’est important les jeunes , dis-leur de beaucoup étudier pour après aider les pauvres ;il faut beaucoup aimer et aider les pauvres » .

Il nous a parlé des couples et de l’attention et la gentillesse qu’il est important que les époux se témoignent et de l’importance de la prière. Il faut prier l’un pour l’autre 

As I was telling him how much, for me, he reflected the light of God and he answered: “We all reflect the light of God.”

He said how he could and he should have done more.

He told us the importance of young people who are the future of the world.

“Young people are really important people, tell them to study a lot in order to serve and help poor people.”

“Tell them that we have to love, and to help a lot, the poor people.

He told us about couples and “how attention and kindness are so important between lovers.”

And he told us “the importance of praying for each other”

Dear you, I am very sensitive to the fact that my words could touch your heart.

I tell you again how much Father Ceyrac was proud to know you! You were also his hero.

He loved to talk about this time when there had been shelling and landmines exploded and that you had gone back to carry somebody wounded, despite of the danger.

I’m sure he’s very happy that I tell you this and he sees now and that ‘s what put those tears in your eyes.

How often I did cry with him.

He has always been so faithful.

I knew he was there somewhere thinking of me.

Of course, like you, he knew so many people; but each person was important when he met them. We were all unique .

When he was talking to you, you were THE most important in the world.

And so also could feel all refugees who felt, each one, to be the favorite.

That ‘s the way I think God loves us but it’s really incredible to realize  with our little brains because there have been so many men.

But when you have had the chance to have met Father Pierre, you have felt this love, this love which tells you your value, even though you are a “pauv type”, as he used to say about himself;

About the mail I send you before ,I’m very touched that you could feel like telling the story on your FB. Do what you want but please correct the English so that it’s not too hard to understand.

Thank you for your care

Love (can I write that in English or is-it too strong for friendship?)



Thank you Olivia:

It is all so very touching and so easily understandable when talking about Pierre.

And of course you can write love in English or any other language. Everyone wishes more people would both be loving, say so and act so. Like Pierre did in his very special way

Much love to you as well my friend,



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