Monday, December 2, 2013

Background information on Cambodia

Cambodia shares its border with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.  The kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with a population of 15 million. The Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has been in power for 25 years.  The Khmer empire was once the largest in the region and ruled Southeast Asia for over 600 years. There are 24 provinces and I live in the capital which is probably the most developed part of the country followed by Siem Reap (close to Angkor Wat).

Phnom Penh was recently voted  the fourth worst place to live in the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit.  Karachi was fifth. I don’t plan on visiting the top three anytime soon. Here is more information on how they ranked the cities-

Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge was led by Pol Pot and he rose to power when the Vietnam War extended into Cambodia.  I had heard about the genocide but didn’t quite understand the gravity until I got here. Two million people lost their lives from 1975-1979. Schools, universities, libraries, hospitals and factories were shut down. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers and really any professional were rounded up and murdered along with their families. Religion was banned and temples were destroyed and monks were killed.  Music was outlawed and people were shot for simple things like singing, wearing glasses, laughing or speaking a different language.

Aside from targeting the educated Khmers, the regime also targeted foreigners and ethnic minorities. The Cham Muslims lost half of their population. Most people knew if they were picked up by the soldiers of the regime they would eventually end up dead.  Killing Fields and Tuol Sleng, a local school turned prison, became infamous.

I visited Tuol Sleng last Saturday and was overwhelmed with emotion. The prison is in pretty awful condition but they have left it as they found it. There are pictures of victims, their stories, and their “confessions”. You can walk through the prison cells, the torture rooms and the gallows. It was such a depressing experience but a necessary one to understand the society here. Everyone over the age of 30 in Cambodia has their Khmer Rouge story.

After years of inaction, the UN and Cambodia government setup a court in 2006 to prosecute the leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died of natural causes in 1998 while under house arrest in Thailand. Only the leader of the Toul Sleng has been prosecuted and found guilty. He is currently serving a life sentence. The three remaining leaders are still in Cambodia  – one was deemed unable to withstand trial because of dementia, two others are still waiting for their trial to start. Another leader died while waiting to be tried.

Naturally the locals are frustrated by the stagnancy. They want closure and they also want the leaders of the Khmer Rouge to acknowledge their actions. No one openly talks about what they witnessed or experienced. It is a very delicate subject, rightfully so.  I also wonder how the victims feel today. Mental health isn’t given much of a priority here so I’m sure many have suppressed their emotions.

The locals are really nice and welcoming. I have had several strangers tell me to be careful with my bag. Due to the language barrier, I think the expats and locals are pretty segregated socially. But when you can communicate, it is so amazing to hear their views on the world. They hate Vietnam and are cautious of Thailand. In the few conversations I’ve had, they really want political change and for Cambodia to be a regional leader again.

In my last post I mentioned my frustration with the sustainability of the NGOs and a few of you responded by criticizing the locals. But it isn’t that simple when most of the educated citizens were killed and education was eliminated. Cambodia has a lot to rebuild which is why I think many of the locals only live with short term goals in mind. Long term planning is a luxury.

The new generation needs to take ownership and until they are ready to do so, the foreigners are helping where they can.

I don’t consider myself a foodie but I do love food. I am trying to adjust my expectations and taste buds because the food here is bland for me. Everything seems to need more salt and a touch of hot sauce. Cambodians love their sugar and it seems to be in everything. Fish Amok and Chicken Amok, coconut based curries, are staples. Rice is everywhere and part of every meal. During my field trip last week, I was taken to a road side restaurant for local cuisine. The meal consisted of chicken, broth, and rice with fish sauce. I was amazed that people had the appetite for this at 8 am! I would have been happy with a hash brown.

I am still discovering dishes but my favorite staples so far are Thai and Indian curries because they are the most flavorful. French fries are ok here. I’m still searching for better ones. A decent cup of coffee is a rarity. I did find a local ice cream place that has awesome coffee ice cream so that is my go to comfort food.

Food is also very cheap. It is cheaper to eat out for every meal rather than buying groceries and cooking a meal. But I can’t bring myself to eat out all the time.

Traffic here is horrendous! There are lanes but nobody actually follows them.  1500 people die every year due to traffic accidents. Having been to Pakistan, India and Nepal, I am comfortable walking on the roads but it does take a few days to adjust. Tuk Tuks, bicycles and motos are the way to get around because there is no public transportation. And no one seems to walk. I take a tuk tuk to and from work and it usually costs $1-$1.5 each way. When you add that up, it is very similar to when the NYC metrocard was $76 per month!

It is hot and humid all the time.  I arrived in the dry season so temperatures can easily reach 90 on a daily basis. The past few days have been nice because there has been a light breeze. 

I figured these would be the topics you are all most curious about but if there is anything else you want to know about, just ask.


  1. that quote about the hashbrown is hilarious... also surprising that the food is bland. wonder if they are toning down for expats/you? have you tried Prahok?

  2. Nam, I have had it in dishes but not on its own so I don't actually know what it tastes like.

  3. Well i was surprised at what the Chinese eat for breakfast....really spice food at 8 am.
    I ended up eating eggs or oatmeal.
    Try finding some hot pot...i dont know if they have it there but its good and you can choose your own ingredients.
    I am glad that you have chicken there...i had difficulties in finding chicken lol.
    And you will have much fun and a whole new experience. Congrats babe.

  4. would think produce is real cheap? could be a good time to go vegetarian.

    metrocard is $124 now :(

  5. Really enjoyed the background/historical info on Cambodia...keep 'em coming!

  6. Lady! This is such fun following your adventures with you.


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