Finally, Cambodia

So, Cambodia, y’all.

As I mentioned just briefly a while back, our March trip to Cambodia broke my heart.

cambodian map

Going from Singapore to Cambodia was a complete and mind-numbing culture shock. I mean, I had expected that going from the U.S. to Cambodia would be a bit of a shock but it turns out that going from super-shiny, everything-is-new, non-stop-development Singapore to the poverty and stagnation in Cambodia was way more overwhelming.

As we drove from the airport at Siem Reap to our hotel, we passed dry yellow fields with gray cows so skinny you could count their ribs. Through the dust kicked up by our SUV, I could see children in various states of undress playing in the dirt next to women sitting in dilapidated lawn chairs of all varieties—the women fanning themselves in oppressive humidity, just waiting for someone to stop at their makeshift roadside stalls.

A particularly busy stretch of road with stalls.
A particularly busy stretch of road with stalls.

Everybody is Cambodia is a roadside entrepreneur, selling everything from plastic soda bottles of smuggled gasoline (makeshift gas stations were everywhere) to those baggy pants with elephants on them to fresh sugar cane juice.

You can see the gasoline in the soda bottles just to the left there at this more established roadside stall.
You can see the gasoline in the soda bottles just to the left there at this more established roadside stall.
Me with some of the elephant pants on display outside of one of the temples.
Me with some of the elephant pants on display outside of one of the temples.

But none of them seemed to have any customers. Cambodia is, sadly, one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Average annual income is $2.60 per day, with a third of the population living on less than $1 per day. According to the World Bank Poverty Assessment Report, Cambodia’s “near-poor”, those who live on less than $2.30 per day per person, may have escaped poverty but remain vulnerable to (even the slightest) economic shocks. The loss of just 1,200 riel  (about $0.30) per day in income would throw an estimated three million Cambodians back into poverty.

It is safe to say that the country and its people have not recovered from the horrors of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s. This failed four-year agrarian, Communist experiment led to the death of an estimated 2 million people, or a quarter of the total population through a combination of executions, disease and starvation. Because of the genocide, up to 63% of Cambodia’s population is under 30 years old.

The main victims of the executions were educated people – teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers. After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown, Cambodia was left to rebuild the country with hardly any educated people left to provide leadership and an ill-equipped, corrupt government.

As a result, Cambodia still has very little infrastructure with just a few roads (only 12% of which are paved), and no train system to speak of (there is a limited train system which runs to the southern seaport of Kampong Saom and to the northwest Thai border.) Much of the population, especially in rural areas, does not have access to electricity.

Yep, those are oxen.
Yep, those are oxen.

The “public” school system is mainly funded—inadequately–by students’ families. As USAID puts it:

Today, Cambodia’s education indicators are among the lowest in Asia. While the primary school net enrollment rate is an impressive 96 percent, the rate for lower secondary is 34 percent and for upper secondary is only 21 percent. Due to high rates of poverty in the rural areas, poor quality of education, and insufficient number of classrooms and teachers, school dropout rates in Cambodia remain high at the primary school (8.7 percent) and lower secondary school (19.6 percent) levels. Cambodia’s education system continues to be affected by a weak public sector service delivery system, minimal teacher capacity, lack of school facilities, and inadequate enrollment levels.

Tiny vendors who recited their ABCs in English while trying to entice us to buy something.
Tiny vendors who recited their ABCs in English while trying to entice us to buy something.

An even bigger problem holding the country back is government corruption. While Hun Sen brought in a measure of political and economic stability when he became prime minister in 1985, he’s also ruled with an iron fist and has allowed bribes and corruption to run rampant in his government. (Plus, he recently referred to himself in the third person during a speech celebrating his 30 years of power, and well, that’s a personal pet peeve of mine).

According to the reports over at Global Witness, every natural resource — from rubber to rosewood to sand –is exploited by the Cambodian government while the people get nothing. Even one of Bill Gates’ foundation to help prevent malaria has been ripped off by government officials. You know if one of the richest do-gooders in the world can’t keep it from happening, it’s pretty darn pervasive. And criticizing the government is, of course, extra frowned upon.

It’s all the more depressing when you contrast Cambodia today with the former glory and greatness of the Khmer culture. It is almost impossible to reconcile that the people who built the magnificent temples of Angkor are the ancestors of the people who today sit by the roadside scratching out a meager living by selling smuggled gasoline and can’t even send their kids to school.

kids playing

See? I told you Cambodia was heartbreaking.

There is a famous Cambodian proverb: “Don’t take the straight path or the winding path. Take the path your ancestors have taken.” Cambodians have a mixed bag when it comes to ancestors. But I hope that someday they can get back on the path of their Khmer roots and the golden age of their Angkor ancestors rather than staying captive to their most recent history.

Buddhist as tourist

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