After visiting Malaysia and Vietnam, I made my way to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had heard that Cambodia was a poor country but I had not done any research prior to landing there. I had not yet seen the famous Netflix movie “First they killed my father” by director, Angelina Jolie and was poorly educated about how the Vietnam war had affected this neighboring country.
While traveling through South East Asia, Cambodia remains the country that had imprinted itself on my brain and heart the most. Here is the ugly truth about visiting Cambodia:
History of War and Conflict
Cambodian history is quite terrifying. Cambodians have been through wars and a genocide started by their own people. During the Vietnam War, the country found itself victim to mass bombing that killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. Many locals lost everything they had in the destruction of their farmlands and villages and had to find refuge in the cities.
During that time, a group of rebels known as the Khmer Rouge (KR) were slowly gaining power as more Cambodians felt humiliated and deceived by their government. On the 17th of April, 1975, the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital, Phnom Penh, and overthrew the Cambodian government. They renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea.
KR moved all civilians from major cities to work sites where they were forced to build their own houses and work in rice and vegetable fields. The year KR gained power was called Year Zero and Cambodia was to become a self-sufficient agrarian country where money had no value. All clothes and accessories were taken away and the people were forced to wear grey uniforms.
In addition, KR carried out a purge where they mercilessly killed any educated Cambodian or government officer. This included professors, university students, soldiers, scientists and doctors.
During Khmer Rouge’s reign, Cambodians were massacred, tortured and died from malnutrition and exhaustion. This ultimately led to the Cambodia Genocide where the country lost between 1.5 to 3 million civilians, that is, 25% of its total population.
As time passed, KR’s leader, Pol Pot, became more and more paranoid and ordered the killing of many of his own comrades. In 1979, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and finally overthrew Khmer Rouge.
Fast forward to 2019 and the country, although recuperating, is still living the aftermath of the horrors of its past. Many Cambodians in the present day have been separated from their family members having no idea if they are alive or dead. The poverty levels are high and a large percentage of the population remains uneducated.
When landing in the Siem Reap you will appreciate its small yet charming airport. The bathrooms are clean and stylish, the infrastructure modern. However, the city itself is a different story. Due to years of civil wars and conflict, the infrastructure of Cambodia is actually quite weak. Only about 11% of roads and highways are paved. The country still relies heavily on foreign aid for construction of schools and hospitals. Many Cambodians do not have access to electricity.
Although many advancements are happening at a relatively rapid rate, the country is still a long way from offering a decent standard of living to its population, especially those on low income. Internet, for example, is very expensive and only used by wealthy Cambodians.
In recent years, many countries such as China and Australia have been investing massively in infrastructure in Cambodia. During my visit, I was surprised to see a small village school built and managed by South Korea. When inquiring, I was told by my driver, that many countries, such as the South Korea and Japan, have offered support in educating Cambodian children.
With a fair government and support from the world, Cambodia will hopefully rise from the ruins caused by the Khmer Rouge.
During my week in Siem Reap, I was increasingly shocked by the number of children that I saw on the streets every day. It started in the temples. I would see a few kids running around, hiding behind the pillars while tourists and locals would place money notes in from of Buddha statues while praying. As soon as the people left, the kids would steal the notes and run to the next statue.
My cousin stopped 2 boys and after a friendly exchange of words, asked them why they were not in school. They said they had been in the morning.
At another temple, a young teenage girl tried to sell postcards to me. Again, we asked her why she was not in school. She went to school yesterday, was her reply. Surprisingly, all these kids answered in good English.
While driving up the mountains to the National Park, we saw young children crawling out of the jungle, covered in dirt, begging for money as the tourists drove by.
Eventually when asking around, one of my tuktuk drivers in Siem Reap, who was also a local volunteering teacher, told me that there were not enough schools in Cambodia and therefore children would either go to school for half a day or a few times a week.
Also, because of the disastrous history of Cambodia, many of the parents were uneducated themselves and did not see the importance of sending their kids off to school. Some parents even find it more profitable to send their children to sell products or beg in tourist spots instead.
Around the temples, you can find signs telling you not to give child beggars money as that discourages them from going to school.
Cambodia is definitely one of those countries you have to go and visit. I have had my most exciting travel experiences with Cambodians: check my post here. But the reality is that every country has a darker side and in Cambodia, it felt a little darker than other places. I hope this post was a fair representation of my experience in this country and that it can help shine some light on your own experience when you visit.
If you want to donate towards education and children in Cambodia, please visit the Cambodian Children Fund. I picked this foundation to link to on my travel blog as it has been recognized as one of the best foundations in Cambodia.
Until next time,