We went to Cambodia in February 99 with the intention of visiting the ancient temple ruins at Angkor. But after a week of contact with the Cambodians we had come to appreciate their kindness and warmth and started to care about their more recent history, tragic as it is.
Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world with an average income of about US$350 per year (US$1 per day). But even this figure cannot convey the dire situation that the population of about 10 million finds itself in after so many years of war and genocide. So many people were killed in the 1970s (a quarter of the population, according to Newsweek) that most of the current population is now under 25! Any hope for the future must be based on education, but the current situation is desperate. Click HERE to learn more about Cambodia's history.
Education was abolished during the Pol Pot years 1975-79 and almost all teachers were executed. By 1979, when Cambodia was liberated by the Vietnamese communists, only 300 Cambodians with a higher education were left in the country and these were recruited to put together a national administration. Anyone able to read and write and do simple sums was qualified to be a teacher. New text books were written according to political guidelines laid down by the Vietnamese Communist party. The books were designed to make enthusiastic communists out of a population that had just been martyred by Pol Pot's communist regime. An impossible task! Many of these books are still in use but a program of deletion of political content as part of a European Community effort to rebuild primary education has left pupils with half-empty text books that lack continuity.
The average Cambodian adult has had less than 3.5 years education and half the country's primary school teachers never completed their own primary education. Of Cambodians born today, 30% will never go to school and of those that begin primary education only half will complete it. Only 2.7% will graduate from high school.
Teachers earn about US$15 per month and it is common practice for teachers to keep their classes beyond the regular 3 hour school day so that they can charge for "private lessons". Bribing of teachers to ensure exam success is commonplace so school certificates and diplomas have little value.
Ethnic Khmers account for 96% of the population, making Cambodia the most homogeneous country in southeast Asia. The largest non-Khmer group are the Vietnamese who probably number in the hundreds of thousands. The Khmers and Vietnamese dislike one another - the Khmers consider the Vietnamese to be barbarians and condemn their appropriation of the Mekong delta region in the 17th century. The Vietnamese despise the Khmers for not farming every available bit of land as is absolutely imperative in densely populated Vietnam.
The main religion in Cambodia has been Buddhism for many centuries though Hinduism and Islam are also present. The vast majority of Cambodia's Buddhist monks were murdered, however, during the Pol Pot years (75-79) and most of the Buddhist temples or "wats" were damaged or destroyed. Buddhism was declared the official state religion again in 1980. But the Buddhist religion had lost its moral content and its roots - it has become merely a superstition. "What there is today is a cult of the present and a cult of 'myself'" says the wife of opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
POVERTY and HEALTH
Life expectancy in Cambodia is about 52 years while it is 66 in neighboring Vietnam and 69 in Thailand. 20% of newborn babies die before the age of five and half of all children under 5 are stunted in growth or underweight due to chronic malnutrition. Tuberculosis, respiratory infections, diarrhea and other diseases of poverty take a heavy toll in Cambodia. Children are typically absent from school for long periods each year since children suffer on average about 5 respiratory infections and 5 attacks of long-lasting diarrhea each year. Goiter (caused by iodine deficiency) causes reduced learning ability in the large numbers of children that suffer from it - 30% in some parts of the country. Poor health is closely linked to lack of education - the Cambodians simply do not know how to take care of themselves. Medicines are now widely available in Cambodia but there are few doctors qualified to prescribe them correctly and inappropriate medication often further damages people's health.
Cambodia has the most serious HIV/AIDS epidemic in Asia and has the potential to become one of the worst affected countries in the world. About 1% of the population is HIV positive with about 20000 new infections annually. 90% of the infections are through heterosexual contact. Poverty has has pushed many women into prostitution and half the prostitutes are infected (35% of the prostitutes are minors). In Cambodia it is not uncustomary for young men to end an evening out with a trip to a brothel.
Update: The May 2 1999 edition of the South China Morning Post gives the following figures: 3.7% of Cambodians now carry the HIV virus, including 18% of military personnel and 40% of prostitutes. This implies that the level of HIV infection has nearly quadrupled in the year or two since Mr. Kamm wrote the book "Cambodia, report from a stricken land" that gave the figures in the above paragraph.
One in every 250 Cambodians has been dismembered by a landmine - this is the highest per capita amputee rate in the world.. Up to 8 million mines still lie undetected, almost as many mines as there are people in Cambodia. Only malaria and tuberculosis kill more Cambodians than mines do.
According to legend, a woman called Penh once found some Buddha images on the banks of the Mekong. She housed them on a nearby hill and the town that emerged around the hill became known as the Hill of Penh, or "Phnom Penh". It became the capital of Cambodia in the 1440s when it became clear that the previous capital, Angkor, was too close to Thailand and too vulnerable to attack. The population of Phnom Penh grew to about 500 000 by 1970 and then suddenly fell to just a few thousand when the Khmer Rouge took over the city and expelled almost the entire population to the countryside as part of their disastrous program of ruralization. Most of the capital's educated people were killed and so when the city was repopulated it was largely by uneducated country people who lacked the skills needed to succeed in the city, so the city has taken on some of the characteristics of farmland, with pigs, chickens and ducks now commonplace. The population is now about 900 000. Its a low-rise city with low key attractions and tourists don't tend to stay here long - we stayed two nights in the Intercontinental Hotel, the tallest building in Cambodia with 17 floors (there are prisons in Hong Kong that are taller than this). The poverty of the city was obvious in the daytime from the lack of private cars, though small motorbikes are everywhere. Most of the roads are unpaved and the sewer system overflows every time there is heavy rain (we were lucky enough not to witness this). At nighttime most of the buildings are dark - they probably do not even have electricity.
Phnom Penh has almost no public transport, unless you count the many small motorbikes and cyclos that cater to the brave. Less suicidal tourists can rent taxis from the major hotels but, since it is impossible to find taxis anywhere else, it's necessary for the driver to wait outside whatever place you have decided to visit, so that he can drive you back to your hotel afterwards. Cambodians drive on the right but half the cars have the steering wheel on the wrong side (the right), making it very difficult to overtake - it's not unknown for taxi drivers to rely on their passengers to tell them when it is safe to overtake. "Safe" may not be the right word, of course, for there doesn't seem to be any highway code and helmets are unknown in this motorbike-dominated city.
An interesting geographical note about the Phnom Pehn area is that when the Mekong floods each year it forces the Tonlé Sap river, a tributary of the Mekong, to flow backwards. This fills the Tonlé Sap lake near Angkor to five times its usual depth and makes this one of the richest lakes in the world in terms of the variety of fish.
On our last afternoon in Phnom Penh we visited this building (see photo), which used to be a high school. You may find it quite attractive, with the palm trees swaying in a gentle wind under a warm sun and a clear blue sky, but what about those 16 gravestones between the trees? They are the graves of sixteen prisoners who had their throats cut here in 1979 as Vietnamese soldiers gathered outside Phnom Pehn, preparing to oust the Khmer Rouge from the city. This school was taken over by the Khmer Rouge during the Pol Pot regime and became a torture center known as S-21.
Twenty thousand prisoners were tortured here, including a number of Khmer Rouge officials and a half dozen westerners. Some died during torture and were buried in mass graves in the school grounds. All the others, whether or not they had "confessed", were taken to the Choeung Ek extermination camp (the "killing fields") to be executed.
Bullets were considered too expensive so the prisoners were bludgeoned to death. When Phnom Penh was liberated by the Vietnamese, only 7 prisoners were found alive at S-21. One of them was a painter - some paintings of what he witnessed at S-21, along with photographs, can be seen HERE. Do not follow the link unless you have a strong stomach. We didn't visit the killing fields, but we were told that there are so many human bones strewn across these areas that it is impossible to move around without crushing some of them underfoot.
Click HERE to visit the beautiful temples of 12th century Angkor, northwest of Phnom Pehn and just north of the huge lake known as Tonlé Sap.