Cambodian Revelations

Someone is burning the remnants of a fallen tree on a side street near the hospital.  Thick smoke billows out, giving a hazy hue to the torrid air.  As I cycle through the hospital grounds I wish I could photograph the family of four parked on their motorcycle under a tree.  One child stands on the floorboard of the scooter wedged between Dad’s knees and encircled by his arms which reach around her to the handlebar that she peeps over.  Behind Dad the second child stands on the seat peeping over his shoulder, in front of Mum who has one arm wrapped around the child’s waist, her other hand holding the wooden pole towering overhead, suspending the intravenous fluid bag connected to her child.

The young guy responsible for operating the boom gate at the hospital entrance smiles and waves goodbye as he releases the bar so I can cycle under it.  Will I ever get used to seeing floral pyjama-clad women walking the streets and traveling around on motorbikes?  In quick succession two couples on motorbikes turn the corner ahead of me, en route to the market, with a stack of vegetables between the out-turned knees of the driver and another pile stacked on the seat between the driver and his passenger who steadies herself against the high stack and peers around the side for a view of the street ahead.  A truck piled 1.5 times above it’s own height with tightly packed sacks comes next,  with a human head spotted between the sacks.  Then a number of trucks carrying people, with motorbikes, chairs, overfilled bags of unidentified stuff and wooden boxes tied to the bars of the cargo frame surrounding the crowd of passengers seated on wooden benches inside the cage-like enclosure.

Days earlier I was sitting on the bus from Phnom Penh next to a young mother with her son of around 18 months who spent a large part of the journey “tickling” me with his little finger pushing into my arm.  As we pushed slowly through the crowded streets on the city outskirts I marveled at the sights passing by.  A small child sat on a raised bamboo platform under a crudely thatched roof, naked and crying, as a woman in floral pyjamas ran towards him, past a rooster strutting it’s stuff on the side of the busy motorway.  Naked except for the kromar wrapped around his waist like a sarong, a man with a long bamboo pole bridged across his back between both shoulders, from which some cane baskets were hanging, wandered along holding the hand of a small boy.  Horse drawn carriages click-clacked along beside the motorcars, motorbikes, trucks and tuk-tuks.  One horse had a fluorescent coloured rubber head dress which bounced from side to side as he trotted, I guess being the equivalent of a headlight?  White cows meandered along in the dust, occasionally crossing the road and causing the traffic to slow down in order to duck and weave around them.  Two young boys traveled alongside each other, one on a motorbike, the other on a bicycle.  The cyclist had one hand on his handlebar and the other on the shoulder of his motorised friend, who pulled him along, negating the need to pedal.  Motorbikes laden with all kinds of agricultural produce traveled with passengers often sitting atop the produce, high above the driver over whose head they watch the world unfold.  A family on a motorbike come towards us, the youngest member standing in front of his driving Dad, eyes protected by red framed dark sunglasses.  A motorbike is parked on the roadside as boxes of beer are stacked onto the seat behind the driver, who holds them steady with one arm reached around behind his own back and the other holding the handlebar.

At each informal roadside stop, groups of men suddenly appear from nowhere, running towards the door of the bus.  They are motorbike drivers hoping to meet a customer off the bus who they can drive home for a small price.  Mostly they walk away slowly with disappointed looks on their faces.  As the sun sets and night falls I realise that there are no street lights on the motorway.  Many of the vehicles sharing the road with us also have no lights.  Fires burn in the front yards of many homes, I guess as open fire ovens?  Except for the headlights on the bus and the occasional television set lighting up rooms through open front doors of the hundreds of elevated wooden homes passing us by, these fires provide the only disruption to the pure black of night.

Off the bus, my week at work plays out over five days and as always, merges into a range of interesting, challenging and rewarding experiences.  Visiting colleagues join us from Phnom Penh and Tokyo to assess the project and provide support and advice.  As a “first missioner” there is still so much to learn and the world of humanitarian work is unfolding slowly but steadily into a lifestyle that I might choose to continue with in coming years.

Another unfolding revelation over the last few months, has been that of the lives of my Cambodian colleagues.  The economic reality of being Cambodian means that the choices available to and assumed by me, can only be imagined by my national counterparts.  I work with fathers who live away from their families for weeks and months at a time, sometimes only seeing their children a few times per year and often telling of spouses who work in rice fields for part of the year and travel to the city to work in garment factories once the rice is harvested, leaving children with various extended family members.  I also work with young people who work to support elderly parents and/or unemployed siblings and with mothers of very young babies who spend weeks at a time away from their infants who are raised by grandparents.  There are many other variations on the theme of family separation and communal support.  A surprising number of my workmates seem to share accommodation with each other, in conditions that have also surprised me.  All in order to earn the $400 to $500 per month that is considered profitable enough to warrant such extreme personal sacrifice.

Far less conspicuous than the overt poverty seen in the streets, these are the tangible experiences of Cambodia’s more prosperous and educated “middle classes” who embody the statistics of Cambodia as much as those living in extreme poverty.  The World Bank at state that the average annual income in Cambodia is $880.  According to the United Nations Development Programme at, 46% of Cambodians live in multi-dimensional poverty.  This is more than double the 21% of people identified as living on less than $1.25 per day, the standard indicator of extreme poverty (

The shared struggles of my colleagues have slowly revealed themselves to me as a rule and not an exception.  It is a phenomenon that I am still trying to process and comprehend, and a phenomenon that I suspect is far more prevalent in the world than my privileged existence could ever have previously imagined possible.

2 thoughts on “Cambodian Revelations

  1. Another good read Helen. Good to know that you are having a well earned rest poolside, before the next foray into the never ending poverty driven Cambodian experience. I loved the pic inside the bus. Imagine having to perch on one of those plastic seats for 4-5 hours!


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