Haunting Cambodia.

Cambodia is not easy to understand, and even harder to forget.

For starters, it’s the scene of one of the most horrendous genocides in the last century when, from 1975-1979, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge government slaughtered 25% of its people in a bewildering effort to wipe out all educated, urban and professional men, women and children. That carnage (and the 2.75 million tons of ordnance the U.S. rained down upon the country from 1970-73) left the remaining population with a profound fear that the murderous Khmer Rouge government would reappear and has afflicted approximately half the population with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

In fact, from 1979, when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deposed Pol Pot, until 1994, the country was not truly free of the threat of the Khmer Rouge.  And since then, the country has been ruled by a political party known as the CPP (Cambodian People’s Party) — to whom the international community has donated $18 billion in international aid. Unfortunately,   precious little of that money can be seen in this tragic country’s infrastructure, education system, or economy.

A full 30% of Cambodia’s population lives in poverty, 66% suffer from seasonal food shortages every year, and 40% of children under five are underweight.

67% of the population (or more) is illiterate and bribery, and corruption begin at Grade 1, with many students forced to pay their teachers for their lessons and grades.

Almost 80% of people in rural areas live in primitive thatched houses, many without running water or electricity.

Given the country’s history of unleashed violence under the Khmer Rouge, it is also not surprising that domestic violence is rife, afflicting almost one-third of Cambodian women.

You would think all of this would make Cambodia totally depressing, but somehow, it’s not. It’s enchanting. The people are beautiful, and show touching appreciation for any help they are given—while maintaining achingly low expectations of a government that has not exactly served them well.

I can’t say the countryside is unspoiled, because it’s been devastated by deforestation and neglect … but when you drive down the road and see riotously green fields of rice interrupted by languid pools of lotus blossoms, and watch sweet brown children thrashing about happily in the water that is everywhere in the rainy season, it is a notoriously easy place to lose your heart.

Since 1998, Heifer International has been working in some of the least served areas in Cambodia, developing Self-Help Groups (largely led by women) that are helping 12, 244 poor, marginalized families make the steep climb out of poverty. I can’t wait to tell you some of their stories!

Stay tuned!

Categories: Cambodia, Children, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments

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30 thoughts on “Haunting Cambodia.

  1. Ginger

    Wow Betty,

    Once again another amazing journey never short on heart-wrenching pain, but brimming with hope because of Heifer and your reporting! Can’t wait to learn more.



  2. I’ve had the luxury of visiting Cambodia a couple of times and couldn’t get the children out of my mind. The youngest ones sent out to beg from the tourists, asking us for “one US dollar.” Our Cambodian guide forbade us from giving them any money which perplexed and angered me, especially since HE was Cambodian. I wasn’t sure what his angle was. I gave the children money anyway. Are you given any instructions/guidelines?

    Also, with the death this week of former King Norodom Sihanouk, I will be curious to read if you run across any funeral parades, or learn from residents how they remember him. He was quite complex and controversial.

    • EOSR – I didn’t realize you’d been to Cambodia several times! The last time I went (in 2005) the children and adults were ALL begging around Siem Reap and it was a total drag because the minute you gave one person money you were literally mobbed by others — I hated it! Maybe that is why your Cambodian guide told you not to give — but things have changed/improved considerably since then, and of course, I was in the countryside and nobody begs there. And I’m always with a bunch of Cambodians working for Heifer, so it’s not a tourist situation (thank goodness!) About Sihanouk — so interesting you should bring him up — obviously a very complex character! He was bounced out of office by Lon Nol whom the US supported and who gave our military carte blanche to bomb the living hell out of the country …then Sihanouk urged the people to join the Khmer Rouge to oust Lon Nol and the rest is …genocide. Sihanouk’s son Ranariddh was an opponent of Hun Sen (the corrupt creep that runs CPP) throughout the 90s but the Prince never really endorsed him. Sihanouk was beloved by the people, for years, but I don’t think he made very good use of his influence, and certainly empowering the Khmer Rouge was an apocalypse.

    • Lux Mean

      i’m a cambodian. i never give or buy anything from children because it will encourage their parents to keep sending them out to beg or sell stuff to tourists or in other venue such as restaurant.

      • Earth Ocean Sky Redux

        That makes complete sense Lux. I didn’t stop to think it out. Thanks.

      • Hi Lux! Thanks for the comment and I agree — it’s always good to give through an organization that is responsibly making sure the right people are given the help they need.

  3. Wow, Betty…I think this is one of your best crafted recaps yet…I had no idea of the devastation of Pol Pot that continues in this country. Thank you for that information. The photos are beautiful and the introduction is so moving.

    • Thanks, Cindy — for some reason (maybe too much information, as I read as much as I could about it), this was one of the hardest intros to write. I wanted to convey a lot of what I learned, but not be too heavy-handed. Thanks for the uplift!!!

  4. Anne Orndahl

    Fascinating piece about Cambodia…I can’t wait to read more about your travels there!

  5. Thanks Anne — I can’t wait to write!

  6. Great job with the synopsis Betty – such a shell-shocked society, still, and yet, as you say, enchanting. I loved your description of the current regime – just fantastic!

    • Oh don’t get me started on the CPP — what crooks!! It’s so tragic and unbelievable that people can betray their country to such a vile extent!

      • I couldn’t believe what I saw, when I was there 2007-8 – and what was more distressing was the lack of amazement from the people I met. Such a traumatised society.

        The appalling excesses of greed I’ve read about more recently hasn’t amazed me, then, but I’ve been thrilled to see a bit of resistance, or at least some outcries, if not always well directed.

        It’s heartening to know that effective NGOs like Heiffer are working there. I sometimes think empowerment is a greater gift than food – and to be have struck upon a way to provide both is a testament.

        Best wishes, Betty

  7. Martha Radatz

    I am so waiting to hear stories of hope from Cambodia! Our short visit there last year left me incredibly sad—-despite the fact that, like you, we found such beauty.

  8. Wow, great post, Betty. Sara and I were so sorry not to make it to Cambodia the entire year we lived in Vietnam. We had intended to when our stay was cut short by the earhtquake in Haiti and the need to relocate there. Sara did work with some Khmer refugees in southern Vietnam. I can’t even begin to get into their stories. So much pain!
    I love your posts!

    • There are so many Khmer people in the Mekong Delta and near the border in Vietnam … in fact, many of the Vietnamese projects include Khmer people, which I found interesting since I’d just been in Cambodia. The two countries are neighbors and have been in conflict for years – they’re traditionally enemies, really … which makes it interesting that Vietnam was responsible for getting rid of Pol Pot, arguably the best thing that anybody’s ever done for Cambodia. SO tragic a history!

  9. Genie Wolfson

    Can’t decide which one of these pictures I like best. They are stunning!


  10. Beautiful photographs and wonderful writing, looking forward to reading more stories. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Nancy

    These photos are simply beautiful, and capture the spirit of hope.

  12. Your pictures are absolutely stunning! Cambodia holds a very special place in my heart. It is a sad and beautiful place that I hope I have the chance to revisit someday. Thanks for stirring up my fond memories! Travel safe 🙂

  13. Beautiful photography and I can’t wait to read more! Cambodia is a place I really want to visit soon.

  14. Oh dear. Stick to posting the lovely photos – an incredibly superficial and inaccurate history of how Cambodia ended up where it is today. Try googling ‘illegal US bombing of Cambodia’ and ‘US veto of Khmer Rouge seat on UN’ for starters.

    • Dear Mark, I agree that in trying to stick to a manageable post size, this is definitely a superficial history of Cambodia, but I did my very best to give a brief overview — including the 2.5 MILLION tons of ordnance the US dropped on Cambodia .. and yes, in other comments, the US backing of Lon Nol, who ousted Sihanouk who then backed the Khmer Rouge … I have read pretty extensively the history of the country (sorry you didn’t feel that showed) but I do feel as if the current government is incredibly corrupt and not serving the people’s needs at ALL. Glad you liked the photos, though!!

  15. I’m sorry to be commenting after Mark, but seeing as I’m here… Betty’s posts aren’t political essays on what the US has or hasn’t done in Cambodia, but what Heifer International are doing right now to help a population who are starving.
    I quote:

    “half the population lives with PTSD
    bribery and corruption begin at Grade 1
    1/3 of Cambodian women have been abused by their spouses.
    $18 billion in international aid has been spent on golf courses, Mercedes limos and the personal enrichment of CPP henchmen….
    while 30% of Cambodia’s population lives in poverty, 40% of children under five are underweight.”

    I’ve never been to Cambodia but after reading stats like this, I can only say “Thank god for Heifer International” and add my thanks to Betty for telling the story so well.

  16. Thanks, Rosie — I really DID try to do as good a job as possible in conveying what I’ve come to learn about the history of the country. And yes, I do think our country has a LOT to answer for in the bombing and aftermath of the Vietnam war — but I also believe that billions of dollars of aid money (given, perhaps, out of guilt or a sense of responsibility that the world didn’t do more to intervene in the genocide) but that money certainly can’t be seen in governmental projects or infrastructure — and the book “Cambodia’s Curse” by Joel Brinkley really informed a lot of my thinking on this situation.

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