Cambodia’s Poverty


Today we went to help kids at a school in a very rural Cambodian area, by bringing them lunch. The guesthouse where we are staying was created to help support several schools, and this is the most remote, poorest one of them. IMG_2245Going there to help feed the kids there one good meal, one meal which they will only have less than once a week, and knowing that this is pretty much the only food they get, makes you really realize that some people, in this world, have nothing.


So we call it a big, bright, beautiful world, do we? It is, it is, at least for us. But for others, it’s a horrible, horrible life. Did you know that Cambodia holds the record for the most bombed country in World War Two? There are mines all over it, waiting for some unlucky (understatement) soul to step on them. In the Vietnamese War, a guerilla groups called the Khmer Rouge took power, and burned villages to the ground, surrounded cities, separated families. They killed all the teachers, and most of the adults anyway, and those lucky enough to survive were sent to work camps and made to work fourteen to eighteen hours a day, living on one bowl of watery rice each twenty-four hours. Children as young as five or six were made to do this. This happened less than 40 years ago! And as a consequence, today Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world.

My parents were alive when this happened. My mother was seven and my father was nine. They probably would have died in the work camps. Today we are all about the World Wars, and let me ask you a question. Where are our memorials for the slain Cambodians?

But this post is about our time spent with the kids. School is free in Cambodia, but you need to have the money to buy a school uniform. These families can barely eat. How are they supposed to get a school uniform?

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The answer: Ponheary-Ly. Her family was split up during the terrible times. Her father was a teacher, so he was killed, but her mother survived. Her aunts and uncles and a whole lot of her extended family was slaughtered. But she still has 6 sisters and brothers, who she still lives with today. She turned her house into a guesthouse, and she built a foundation for the kids of today so they can go to school. She is amazing.

IMG_2087We got in a van and made the two and half hour journey to the school. There, we unloaded all the food and prepared it for cooking with the kids from the school. The kids were amazing – they knew what to do and they all cut up the vegetables so fast.  It wasn’t a fancy meal – noodles with chicken, cabbage and carrots, but it’s the best food these children will ever eat.


Then, whilst our driver cooked all the food over this massive open fire, we played games with the kids, teaching them duck-duck-goose and playing one of their own games with them where everybody holds hands in a giant circle, and two people run around and tap the connected fists of two others. Then, both pairs run around in a race to get back to the open spot first. Whoever loses chooses the next pair. So it’s a bit like a slightly evolved game of duck-duck-goose.


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When lunch was ready, we served it out in giant buckets to each classroom. Each child took two big helpings and most brought some home in a plastic bag to their families.

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We walked home with them to the village. A few rode bikes, but most walked. The houses were ramshackle and built on stilts. In the day, the family would mostly stay under the house where it was cooler. Most were built out of nailed-together planks of wood, but several were built out of corrugated iron. None of them were waterproof or looked as if they could survive any kind of storm. And no AC, (no electricity!) although I probably didn’t have to tell you that.

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The point is, poverty is Cambodia’s middle name. And who caused that? Well, the Americans didn’t help by bombing Cambodia to bits when some Vietnamese started using the border as a supply run during the Vietnam war. This – and supporting the group against the Vietnamese – helped the Khmer Rouge get started. The Khmer Rouge tried to completely destroy the country, killing 2 million out of a total population of 5 million people. They killed anyone who had any kind of education, anyone who could help (doctors, teachers), anyone who helped the country be educated, entertained, healthy. I’m not saying you should feel guilty about something you had no part in. Just know that it’s happened, and it’s still happening. It’s still happening.

The chief of this village has one leg. He stepped on a land mine. Except I don’t feel bad for him, not in the least. You know why? He was part of a guerilla group. He burned villages and separated families, and killed, killed, killed. He waded through carnage and destruction. He smelled the rotten carrion corpses of people he had killed. And when Ponheary Ly asked him why he did it, do you know what he said?

“Because it was fun.”




  1. Those last two paragraphs are extraordinary and powerful and unsettling. Which is I guess what you meant them to be. Your writing will stay with me tonight as I go to bed. Keep writing.

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