Things worth knowing about Cambodia

1. Facts and figures
  Cambodia Germany Switzerland Austria
plain 181.040 km² 357.021 km² 41.290 km² 83.870 km²
resident 14,450,000 82,330,000 7,605,000 8,210,000
resident per km² 79.82 230.8 182.22 97.69
highest mountain Phnom Aural
1.810 m
2.963 m
4.634 m
3.798 m
coastline 443 km 2.389 km 0 km 0 km
infant mortality 54.3 /1000 live births 3.5 /1000 live births 3.8 /1000 live births 3.7 /1000 live births
population growth 1.5% -0.15% 0.1% 0.2%
life expectancy 62.5 years 80.0 years 82.2 years 80.4 years
children per woman 2.6 1.4 1.5 1.4
Gross Domestic Product per capita (official exchange rate) 850$ 40,100$ 67,500$ 45,200$
2. The country and its people
90% of the people living in Cambodia are Khmer. The Khmer can look back on a rich history and a mighty empire and pride themselves on having built the temples of Angkor Wat. One million people lived in the city of Angkor Wat at the time of the Angkor high culture in around 1200. Paris was a small town of 10 000 inhabitants then. Beside the Khmer, Chinese, Vietnamese and other people belonging to different ethnic minorities (e.g. the Brau, Jarai, Stieng, Kravet and Tampuan) live in Cambodia. They speak their own languages but usually also Khmer as their second language.

Cambodia, that also and particularly means rice. The countryside is characterised by vibrantly green fields, the daily routine by the work on them and the diet by rice three times daily. The Khmer word for (to) eat is “to eat rice” (njam bay). Unfortunately, Cambodia can’t export the rice, even though it grows abundantly and in good quality. They say that due to corruption, its price would increase so much on the way from the field to the port that it couldn’t compete with the rice from China or India.

95% of Cambodians are Buddhists. Religion plays a visible role in their daily life and the typical pagodas characterise the landscape. Numerous, mainly smaller Christian churches try with (limited) success to missionise the Cambodians. They don’t do the reputation of Christianity and of the decent non-governmental organisation motivated by it any favours through their behaviour.

The consonants of the Khmer alphabet and its 20 vowls (click&zoom)
The language and the scripture used in Cambodia are also called Khmer. Khmer is one of the oldest written languages in South East Asia. It is very unlike European languages in grammar and pronunciation. A basic knowledge of the language however is easily obtained. Those who want to speak, understand or even write on a higher level, need to be hard-working though. For beginners, we can recommend the Language Guide Khmer (with audio tape) of the series Globetrotter/Kauderwelsch, ISBN 3-89416-881-1 (in German).

Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy and is divided into 24 provinces with 1621 townships. King Norodom Sihamoni is the son of Norodom Sihanouk, himself king of many years who has strongly influenced the fate of Cambodia since his first ascend to the throne in 1941. The prime minister is called Hun Sen and is a member of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) which has a lot of power in the country. The parties FUNCINPEC and SAM RAINSY are also represented in parliament. Hun Sen and his government do not enjoy the reputation to be particularly democratic. Hun Sen has run the country with an iron fist since 1993 and is often linked to violations of human rights, lawlessness, corruption and dictatorial airs. Since 1998 however, Cambodia has been relatively peaceful. After 30 years of war and with grinding poverty, corruption and lawlessness, this is truly a great achievement.

After the independence from France in 1953, Cambodia was doing quite well. That changed when in 1975 and after 5 years of civil war, the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot came into power. They wanted to transform Cambodia with brute force into an agricultural-communist country. After 4 years, in 1979, Vietnam occupied the country and stopped the terror. 1.7 million people died as victims of the Khmer Rouge. The country was covered in graves, the surviving had fled, been wounded or were traumatised. In just 4 years, the Khmer Rouge had destroyed the foundation of the Cambodian society: They had murdered all educated people, abolished religion, disintegrated the family as the main social unit, banned the money, emptied the cities and forced the people to do hard work on the fields.

After the end of the Vietnames occupation in 1989, Cambodia entered a transition period, in which the UN ruled the country through their UNTAC-Mission. The Khmer Rouge were brought down in 1979, however, they destabilised the country as guerilla fighters till 1998. After their surrender, the last fighters were integrated into the government army. Many leaders and collaborators of the Khmer Rouge today live unchallenged in the midst of their victims. Just two former functionaries are imprisoned and wait for the start of their court case. Pol Pot died in 1998 and cannot be held responsible any more.

3. Economy
Cambodia’s main source of income is agriculture, especially rice cultivation while the cultivation of other crops (i.e. coffee) and stock farming play secondary roles. Freshwater fish is an important component of the national diet and fishing of it is therefore done extensively. The extraction of natural rubber has not yet reached pre-war levels. Further natural resources are most notably precious stones in the north west of the country, moderate offshore oil sources and tropical wood. The traditional craft of weaving fine silk is maintained, particularly in the province of Takeo where Sorya e.V. is based. Here, beautiful clothes of highest quality are produced.

Cambodia has little industry and thus import of manufatcured goods from Thailand, China and Vietnam is an important factor of the economy. An example: Many Khmer drive a motorbike or scooter. Most of them don’t wear a helmet since these are imported from Vietnam and priced at $12 which is much too expensive. There are endeavours to establish Cambodian manufacturing of helmets which could drop the price to $7. However, much still needs to be done to get there.

An exception to this situation is the prospering textile industry which also produces for H&M, the GAP, Adidas and others. It is the main pillar of Cambidian economy. Numerous women from the provinces around Phnom Penh work there, though the working conditions are scandalous: For 40-60 hours of work a week, they receive an official minimum wage of $61 a month typically $80 with overtime. But a report of the National Institute of Statistics showed that around $100 is the minimum monthly income adequate for basic living in Phnom Penh.
A further important industrial sector grows to be tourism. Almost three million people travel to Cambodia every year, mainly to see the UNESCO world heritage site of Angkor Wat. 

The national finances are highly dependent on money from foreign aid organisations and agencies. Official Development Assistance, ODA, counts for 50% of the government budget. The omnipresent corruption is still a huge problem.

10.000 Riel. The bill shows former king Norodom Sihanouk (click&zoom)
4. Money
The national currency are Cambodian Riel. One Euro roughly equals 5,050 Riel, one US Dollar approximately 4,100 Riel (click here to see the most recent exchange rate). There are notes worth 50, 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 Riel. Coins are not used.
US dollars are excepted as payment everywhere, Euros however not. You will find ATMs on most larger towns.

 The inflation rate has reached now 6% fueled by soaring prices for petrol and food, rice in particular. One liter of bottled water costs R 500+, one liter of petrol R 5,000 (US-$ 1,25). A meal of rice, vegetables and meat will set you back between R 2,500 and R 10,000. A bus ticket for a distance of ca 60 km costs R 10,500. Beggars sometimes say “Som muy rooy” which means “Please (give me/can I have) a hundred (Riel)”. Simple tourist accommodation costs $5 to 10 a night.
A construction worker gets US-$ 100 per month (US-$ 5 per day); teachers earn  $50 to 100 a month, a soldier even less; tuk-tuk drivers sack up US-$ 20 per day in high season; a waitress gets US-$ 1.65 per day. For Cambodians living in the countryside a humane life is impossible with less than $1 a day and head. However the National Poverty Line for rural areas is set at R2,500. But that half a dollar is not enough to buy some decent food for a family.  In Phnom Penh life is even more expensive. 

Cambodia's age structure compared to European countries
5. Youth and Education
Cambodia is a young country. Almost 60 percent of the population is younger than 24 years. Issues such as education, professional training and economical growth but also violence, drugs and AIDS are among the most urgent problems. A new generation born after years of war and violence faces the challenging task of coming to terms with the shadows of the past and mastering their own path through life. Roughly 300,000 youths flood the job market each year. But less than half of them will find a full-time job.
Keeping children in school beyond the first few years of school, enhancing the quality of teachers and reducing the large student : teacher ratio are the most significant challenges facing the educational system in Cambodia. Children are expected to work to contribute to the livelihoods of households and this directly interferes with schooling. Household direct costs for schooling, such as pocket money, transportation costs, and supplementary tutoring, remain substantial for the majority of Cambodian families. Parents pay for one child US-$ 115 to 150 per year - amounting more than 80% of the non-food expenses for most families. 

The formal education structure consists of pre-school education, six years of primary school (grades 1-6), three years of lower-secondary school (grades 7-9) and three years of upper- secondary school (grades 10-12).
Preschool education (Early Childhood Care and Education, ECCE) lasts three years and caters to children aged 3-5. It is not compulsory.
Primary education is compulsory for children aged 6-11. The primary education program is the first stage of basic education. General secondary education is divided into lower secondary and upper secondary school. Lower secondary is for grades 7-9 and, in principle, compulsory for students aged 12-14. Upper secondary school is not compulsory and includes grades 10-12.
Primary schools are usually organized around two daily 4-hour shifts. There are two sessions per day, and children attend one of the two - either 7am-11am or 1pm-5pm. Classes are held 6 days per week, Monday thru Saturday. Students in primary school spend only four hours a day at school.  During the time of the day a child is not in school, they sometimes attend tutoring classes with a teacher, or they might be working or attend non formal education classes -  such as English and computer classes by SORYA.

Cambodian teachers particularly in rural areas, are unable to ensure a decent standard of living with their wages and often supplement their income with other types of employment. This situation inevitably hinders their capacity to prepare their classes and class materials, and has decreased the quality of the education overall. 
An average teacher receives lower earnings than an average civil servant does, although the difference between the two is small. The gap between the earnings of a teacher and those of an average worker in all other economic sectors is larger (in total and from primary occupation). 
Teacher levels of education are low. About a quarter of primary school teachers hold an upper secondary degree. Almost two-thirds of secondary teachers have completed at least grade 12, while 18% had some post-secondary education. Younger teachers tend to have achieved higher educational attainment.  
A majority of teachers are young. About 40% of primary school teachers are below the age of 30, while secondary school teachers are slightly older on average. Remote area schools have the largest concentration of young teachers. Three quarters of educators in these schools are younger than 30 years old (Germany: 50% of teachers older than the age of 50). 
In many primary schools, basics amenities and facilities, like furniture, equipment, toilets,running water, ventilation and teaching/training materials are still either inadequate or absent making it difficult for teachers and pupils to teach and learn effectively. For example, about 44% of the schools have no water supply and 31% no latrines. 

Cambodia and its neighbouring countries (click&zoom)
6. Geography
The Kingdom of Cambodia lies in South East Asia. Its neighbouring states are Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. Flat western Cambodia is dominated by rice fields and its characteric sugar palms. These regions are largely deforested. In the North and West of Cambodia lie low mountain ranges. The provinces east of the Mekong are densely wooded and hard to access. Red soil is typical for this area.
All of Cambodia is characterised by water. The rivers Mekong and Tonle Sap and the lake Tonle Sap in particular influence the Cambodian landscape and its population’s way of living. During the wet season (May to Octobre), streets and whole parts of the country can be flooded. During the dry season (Novembre to April), the country and its people live on the water reserves from the wet season. The absence or late onset of the rain (as it often happended in the past years) thus proves to be fatal. The temperature is constantly high. During the wet season, it is a bit cooler than during the dry season. However, temperatures rarely drop to below 20° C.

The capital Phnom Penh counts around 2.5 million inhabitants. It is the political, economical and cultural centre of the country. Further large cities are Battambang (250,000) and Siem Reap (200,000), the 'capital of tourism' close to the temples of Angkor. Siem Reap develops and changes rapidly - in stark contrast to the rest of the country. In peak season more than 5,000 people visit Angkor Wat every day.
Much less tourists visit the 440-km sea coast covering four provinces of Cambodia, namely Preah Sihanouk, Koh Kong, Kampot and Kep on the Gulf of Thailand.  Sihanoukville has become a booming beach resort and flights connect to Siem Reap now. Visitors figures to the region have started to grow on a small scale. 
7. Issues, Trends and Problems
Every country has “its” issues or topics, resulting from history, geopolitical and/or economical situation. Cambodia’s issues attest to war, to poverty, their consequences and the recent change.

Society: Dealing with the traumatic history. Corruption. Bad state of infrastructure, especially roads. Lawlessness. Tourism. Participation in world affairs after long absence. Sex tourism. (Child) prostitution. Buddhism/tradition vs rapid entry into global modernity. Development and developmental collobaration.

Economy: Illegal wood clearing. Grinding poverty. Corruption. High level of economical growth. Customs barriers and free trade, membership in ASEAN, WTO. Economical region South-East Asia. Chinese influence.

Politics and Law: Tribunal against the Khmer Rouge. Human rights and democracy. Corruption. Political instability. Dictatorial tendencies.

Health issues: HIV/AIDS. Tuberculosis. Poor medical prosivion. (Synthetic) drugs. Alcoholism. Landmines.
8. Further sources and links
Department for Foreign Affairs Germany:

CIA - The World Factbook - Cambodia:


Tales of Asia:


And the book "Kulturschock Kambodscha" written by Sam Samnang, ISBN 3-8317-1294-8, 14,90€.