The first week in Phnom Penh was the first week of my life where I woke up consistently at 4 am. Hello, jet lag. Despite my many attempts to force myself to sleep I finally took my professor’s advice and went to watch the sun rise over the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. I walked the short distance from the hotel to the river front (two blocks) and found a spot on the low wall facing the water. Like most cities, Phnom Penh rises early. Electricity is a luxury and the day’s business begins before the sun has even gotten out of bed. People were walking the river front and chatting with friends. Tuk tuks and motorized scooters raced along the road delivering people and packages.
As I began to watch the sky lighten up a Cambodian man came and sat down a little ways from me on the wall. We acknowledged each other and continued to watch the golden streaks of sun light push back the night’s dark blue. A little bit later he asked where I was from and I told him that I was from the United States. He was very friendly and his English was quite good. I found out that he was born in Kandal Province, where he grew up on a rice farm with his two older sisters and one younger brother. He is thirty-six years old. Ten years ago he came Phnom Penh to study at university. He earns a living by giving motor rides during the day. At night he is a DJ at the local Manhattan Club at the Holiday International Hotel. He plays mostly electronic and dance music.
I asked him if he had had a chance to travel anywhere else inside of his own country. He told me that one of his favorite places to visit is Siem Reap (home of Angkor Wat), especially for the sunsets. He has also been to Vietnam and Singapore, which he visited with a friend who is also a DJ. In fact, he was leaving once the sun had risen to drive to Vietnam to visit a friend. This led me to ask him about his opinion on the large population of Vietnamese people living in Cambodia and their affect on the country. He explained that many of those Vietnamese living in Cambodia are living here illegally. It is easier for them to make money here than it is back home in Vietnam. They take thousands of jobs from Cambodians every year. The Vietnamese living in Cambodia make up nearly 5% of the nation’s total population.
He also asked me if I knew about President Obama’s recent visit to Cambodia. He said that he would President Obama to speak with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen about the big issues facing Cambodia today: land grabs by the government and private businesses, the increasing Vietnamese population, poor conditions of public schools, and the government’s lack of concern and action over the poor living and working conditions of its people. He does not think it is right that a government and its officials should be so rich when the majority of the people are so poor. Since 2008, the Cambodian government has allowed much of its country’s farm land to purchased by foreign companies, mainly Chinese and Vietnamese, or seized from the local people who have lived and worked on their farms for many generations. Often the people who live on these farms and other lands are evicted with little monetary compensation. The government provides no help with finding alternative housing or occupation. Protesters are most often jailed. A interactive map shows the land that has been seized since the early 1990′s, with most of it occurring within the last five years.
Vuta is concerned with the state of Cambodian public schools. Like in the United States and many other developed countries, the government provides free schooling to children. These schools are usually built in an open air design with a large courtyard in the middle. The school day exists in two sessions, the 7 am to 11 am or the 1 pm to the 5 pm. Although the school is free, most children end up having to pay their teachers a fee. Teachers salaries are very low and they often charge students money for class in order to make ends meet. In addition to the poor conditions of the classrooms and low salaries, teachers are not always qualified to teach and sometimes do not even show up for class.
While researching I was able to find sithi.org, an organization that documents human rights violations in Cambodia. On their website, they have created a map that displays all documented cases from 1993 until today. These violations, and the many more that go undocumented, are the reasons that Vuta and other Cambodians want to see significant change in the way their government takes care of its people.
Despite these major challenges, Vuta is overall happy with the direction his country is headed in since the genocide of the Khmer Rouge. I attempted to ask him what he thought about his Prime Minister Hun Sen, but for reasons of his being uncomfortable or a limitation of language vocabulary, we were unable to discuss it further. He was able to tell me that he sees a good future for his country and its people.
When I asked him about what he sees for his future he smiled, “I would like to own my own stall in the market”. I asked him if he was a good cook and he replied that he was a great cook of Khmer food. He would like to cook many fish dishes.