A Brief History
In 1975, Cambodia was a terrifying place to live. The Communist Party of Kampuchea, aka the Khmer Rouge, lead by Pol Pot and backed by the North Vietnamese, took power by force and evacuated all the cities in an attempt to convert Cambodia to an agrarian society, forcing everyone to work in farm labor camps.
All industry stopped. Books were burned and religion was outlawed. Artists, musicians, teachers, business owners, anyone who questioned the new government, and everyone with an education was murdered, including people who wore glasses, because they looked smart. Really.
During the 4 year reign of the Khmer Rouge, it is estimated that between 1.4 million and 3 million Cambodians died either by execution in the Killing Fields, or in a former school turned prison called S-21, or from starvation and disease.
In 1979, the Khmer Rouge was driven out by the Vietnamese who established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, essentially a socialist puppet state of Vietnam. In 1992, the UN stepped in. In 1993, the monarchy was restored, a parliament was elected, and the name was changed to the Kingdom of Cambodia. Since then, Cambodia has experienced tremendous economic growth and recovery, but they still have a long way to go. It is one of the poorest countries in the world with roughly 2 million people living in poverty and 40% of children are chronically malnourished.
I recently spent 10 days in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. And as you can imagine, it was a life changing trip. Dr. Patrick Vickers and I were invited there by a man with a huge heart for the poor, and who for the last 20 years has established several foundations to provide medical care for those who would otherwise have none.
All photos/videos by yours truly.
The Land of a Million Mopeds
There are 1.5 million people in Phnom Penh, and 1.3 million mopeds.
Mopeds are everywhere. And this former moped owner thinks it’s pretty awesome.
Here’s the street scene at lunchtime a few steps from my hotel.
Old folks on mopeds
Families on mopeds
Napping on mopeds
People making me really nervous on mopeds
Puppies on mopeds!
And even a moped parking garage at the new mall
Attention Entrepreneurs: All you need to open a gas station is a steel drum and an air compressor
Street corner gas stations are everywhere. Many of them sell gas in recycled soda bottles.
Every car in Phnom Penh is a Toyota
Ok not every car, but around 95% of them are. Camrys, Corollas, Highlanders, Land Cruisers, and Lexus SUVs abound. You’ll see what I’m talking about in the video coming up.
The default mode of transportation for tourists is the tuk-tuk
This is essentially a motorized rickshaw, a two wheeled carriage pulled by a motorcycle.
A few bucks will get you pretty much anywhere you need to go in the city.
Mr. Heng was my driver for the week.
Apparently he’s also into shooting assault rifles and bazookas, so don’t try any funny stuff.
All that car and moped exhaust makes the air kinda polluted on busy streets :(
Thanks for the scarf Sean!
Driving in Phnom Penh is crazy
Drivers are constantly swerving between lanes, cutting each other off, turning into oncoming traffic, driving on the wrong side of the road… You know that feeling you get when you think you’re about to see a car wreck? It’s like that every 15 seconds on the road in Cambodia. And despite the total insanity on the streets, there is very little horn honking, and no one gets mad.
This is a perfect example of how expectations influence our emotions.
In the U.S. we expect everyone to drive in a safe orderly fashion, observing all traffic laws, and when someone doesn’t… ROAD RAGE. But in Cambodia, everyone expects everyone else to drive crazy, and no one appears to be surprised or upset by it. Unrealistic expectations are one of the greatest sources of disappointment and unhappiness in life. Keep your expectations low, and more often than not, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Most intersections don’t have stop signs or traffic lights, so it’s a total free for all
Everyone just goes. This clip raises my blood pressure every time I watch it.
FYI There were at least 173 mopeds and 41 Toyotas in that clip.
“Cambodians will eat anything,” a Cambodian girl told me
The exotic side of Cambodian cuisine includes snails, larvae, bugs and balut, which is fertilized duck eggs. Imagine cracking open what appears to be a hard boiled egg only to find a dead baby duck inside. And there went my appetite…
I’m not going to show you a picture of balut, but here’s a shot of some tasty looking larvae, snails and clams from the Central Market.
“95% of people do not have refrigeration”
According to a government official I spoke to. Many people buy their food fresh daily at one of many open air markets throughout the city, or from restaurants and street vendors. Here’s a little video tour I shot of the Central Market starring Dr. Patrick Vickers and our friend Sean. Prepare yourself for mounds of beautiful fruits and veggies, and a few slightly disgusting items as well.
Oh and they drink from plastic bags
Many street vendors serve soft drinks and fresh cane juice in plastic bags with ice and a straw, which is cheaper than cups, and so they can recycle the bottles.
Cambodia is the only country where KFC is losing money
American fast food is actually expensive compared to the local fare sold by street vendors, which may be why KFC hasn’t caught on. There are 6 Kentucky Fried Chicken locations in Cambodia that are reported to be collectively losing about $200,000 per month. The only other American fast food restaurant I saw in Phnom Penh was a Dairy Queen.
Cancer rates in Southeast Asia are less than half that of the U.S.
This includes Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia. Their most common cancers are liver cancer (caused by alcohol and hepatitis), lung cancer (caused by smoking and pollution), and colon cancer (caused by increased meat, dairy and processed food consumption). Even though they have much lower cancer rates than many Western nations, the cancer rates have risen sharply in the last two decades due to increasing Westernization/Industrialization.
Average annual income is $2.60 per day, with a third of the population living on less than $1 per day. It is one of the poorest countries in the world.
I’ve noticed the term “White Privilege” being bandied about a lot these days. To anyone out there complaining about White Privilege, it’s time to broaden your perspective. White Privilege pales in comparison to American Privilege. Despite your race, gender or socioeconomic status, the truth is, if you were born in America or any other first world nation, you are super rich and have countless advantages and opportunities compared to Cambodians, and millions of other people in third world countries. This is why illegal immigrants are still coming into the U.S. in droves, some of them risking their lives to have a fraction of the opportunities American citizens have.
No matter who you are, there will always be people with more “privileges” than you. That’s life. Stop comparing yourself to people who have more. Envy, jealousy and resentment will make you miserable. Gratitude is the secret to happiness, so stop complaining, and count your blessings. You have so much to be thankful for!
Cambodians have very little debt
After the Khmer Rouge was ousted, the new Cambodian government encouraged the people to return to the abandoned cities by giving them free houses. So basically everyone owns a home debt-free. And many of them operate small businesses out of their homes like little grocery stores, restaurants, moped repair shops, etc. In addition, most people do not have credit cards. They live very simply and are good savers.
Most bathrooms look like this
Hey what’s that sink sprayer for? …Oh.
No toilet paper except in tourist/ex-pat friendly places.
I didn’t see any pharmaceutical industry ads
Apparently pharmaceutical companies are not interested in attracting customers in countries where people cannot afford expensive drugs and do not have insurance to pay for them.
The phone and power lines are a little disorganized
Cambodia is probably safer than the city you live in
In Cambodia the murder rate is 3-4 people per 100,000.
The murder rate in my hometown, Memphis, TN is over 30 times higher at 133 per 100,000.
Healthy food is relatively inexpensive
Much of the produce you can buy on the street is grown locally and organically by default, because the farmers can’t afford pesticides. Just make sure you wash it really well.
A fresh young coconut and a bunch of bananas for breakfast cost me $1.50 U.S.
This $25 jug of Vermont maple syrup is an exception
In Cambodia, you’re going to see stuff like this
And my final fascinating fact…
1 hour massages are only $4.
Four Freakin Dollars!
Next time I visit, I may not come home… ;)
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