Rural Life in Cambodia

One of the real benefits of traveling several hours by tuk-tuk in rural Cambodia was the chance to glimpse life in the many rural villages we passed through, especially from Banteay Srei to Bang Melea.

Women sweeping the dirt floor of their living area with brooms made of bundled sticks; children bathing by the well that supplies their water; entire families dipping water cans into the stream and using them to water a field of crops; and children waving and smiling as you pass by.

But, lest anyone get nostalgic or unrealistic, you must remember that Cambodia is a poor country.  The average household income in rural areas is about $750 USD.  That is annual income.  Yes, $750.

Driving through the villages, there was some consistency in the homes of the villagers.  Most home consist of a small shack built on stilts that I assume serves as the bedroom and private living area.  The most basic of these structures are wooden platforms with blankets serving as walls.  There are also a number of these homes that are thatch both on the roof and for the walls.

A rather "upscale" home in rural Cambodia

A rather “upscale” home in rural Cambodia

A nicer home seems to be wooden platform with wood siding and a tin roof.  The few masonry structures one see are typically public buildings like schools, government offices, and police stations but many villages don’t have any of these.

Underneath the shack, there is likely to be some hammocks or motorbikes or a work area.  Many homes have an additional “living space” closer to the road with an open area hut, on shorter stilts.  Many times, the family’s well – either hand pumped or bucket drawn – is in this front area.  If any business is run by the family – selling fruits or vegetables, for instance – it is located in this hut closer to the road.

The children are adorable as you ride by and likely to wave and give a heart warming smile.  The few Cambodians that I interacted with also seem quick to smile despite the conditions they live in.  Infant mortality is high and disease, lack of good drinking water, and poor education create a landscape of limited opportunities for these young children.

Average life expectancy is right around 60 years and infant mortality hovers around 90 deaths per 1,000.  This is from the Peace Corps website on the rewards and frustrations of working as a volunteer in Cambodia:

Cambodia is a study in contradictions. It is an ancient culture that has existed for more than 1,000 years that, at times, is frustrated from a pace of development that is lagging behind that of its neighbors. From another perspective, Cambodia has only recently emerged from decades of terror and turmoil. In spite of this tremendous setback, Cambodia has made remarkable progress in a short time and is continuing to develop rapidly. The development needs in Cambodia are huge. The education and health systems are still emerging from a state of complete collapse, the agricultural systems that support most of the population are still quite primitive, and infrastructure gaps can still make completing simple bureaucratic tasks difficult. Corruption is endemic in all government systems, including education and health care. Legal systems are also fragile, and many laws relating to basic human rights are not enforced.

At the same time, the potential for impact as a development worker in Cambodia is enormous. Cambodian people are kind and friendly, eager to learn so as to improve their conditions. Everyone is aware of the problems and most are willing to discuss solutions openly. The countryside is beautiful, the food is delicious and nutritious, and Cambodians are proud of their ancient history.

Cambodians, especially those over 30, can tell you stories of horror and loss. Everyone has lost family members and friends under the Khmer Rouge regime. Yet, as a largely Buddhist society, people get along peacefully and without visible rancor or competition.


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