Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ Category

Commenting on the Body

Friday, February 8th, 2013

Furthering the topic of the Khmer culture in regards to their attitude regarding the human body, I want to explore the reasoning behind Cambodian’s frequent and seemingly blunt commentary on the physical appearance of their and other people’s bodies.

Throughout our month-long stay in Cambodia, one frequently occurring comment that Cambodians make in regards to others is: “Wow! (insert person here) is so fat!”  One time this happened, our tour guide Mot was commenting on an (admittedly humongous) baby.  The baby’s parents, the restaurant owners, smiled and laughed, even when Mot noted that the baby must take after his slightly chubby father. Commenting on a baby’s weight is a common occurrance in America; parents and family celebrate when the child is gaining weight, as it is a sign of health.  So, I did not think much of the comment, although I perceived the second comment as a bit “rude”.

Another time I saw a Khmer man comment on a body was in Sianhoukeville, when our friend Chen said, in extremely close proximity to an obese Frenchman, “WOW!  He is SO FAT! Do you see how fat he is?!”  To which Amy and I both tried to shush Chen.

Why do Cambodians respond so strongly to obesity?  One obvious explanation is that obese, or even slightly overweight Cambodians are an extremely rare sight to see.  For example, according to this website (, 0% (that’s right, ZERO, or at least less than 1) percent of Cambodian females in 2010 have a BMI greater than 30.  Overweight people are rare because poverty is rampant.  Cambodians cannot afford to gorge themselves on food like Americans can. Eating, from what I observed, is an enjoyable, celebrated ritual, to be sure.  However, buying more food than your family needs to survive is a waste of what hard-earned, little money a family has.

The second reason that Cambodians are vocal about obesity and physical appearance is that it is simply not seen as a rude thing to do.  The amount of fat one has on his body is obviously visible to the public– why NOT comment on it?  Because of someone’s hurt self esteem?

Self esteem is something Cambodians seem to have little of.  This is not to say they are not intelligent, smart, and beautiful (they SO are!), however, the Khmer people seem to think less of themselves than Americans do.  You hear the message every day in US media– “Big is Beautiful! Don’t judge a book by it’s cover!  It’s the inside, not outside, that counts!” In Khmer culture, one’s worth is not based on outward appearance, therefore, it is seen as fine to call yourself ugly.  After all, what’s it to you?  You have more important things to do than look in the mirror all day!

(In regards to Khmer men’s “self esteem”, they seemed to “put themselves down” most often with the comment “I am so lazy!” It was seen as a very funny joke!)

Every Single Khmer Woman we ran into commented on how dark their skin was compared to ours.  ”So beautiful!” they would say, running their hands over our white skin, hair, or teeth.  ”My skin so dark! So ugly!  Yours so beautiful!” Was this a means of complimenting a potential client in order for them to purchase more? Sometimes, sure.  Other times, when no money exchange was involved, it was simply a comment: You are white.  You are beautiful.  I am dark.  I am not.  This wasn’t said with sadness by any Khmer woman.  It was just an accepted “fact” to them, regardless of how true their white counterparts thought it was.  No Khmer woman accepted a “No, YOU’RE beautiful!” rebuttal from us– they laughed and shook their heads.

In summary, it is my hypothesis that Cambodians do not have as strong of a connection between outer beauty/inner self-worth as Americans do, therefore, commenting on things such as skin color, obesity, teeth, and height are seen as appropriate topics of conversation.


Cambodian citizens participating in a group dance/ aerobic workout on the streets of Phnom Penh

Cambodian citizens participating in a group dance/ aerobic workout on the streets of Phnom Penh

Is the Mekong Damned?

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

There are numerous propositions to construct dams along the Mekong river in an effort to provide sustainable hydroelectric power for the region. The dams would provide a renewable source of energy for the six countries that share the river–China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Would damming the mighty Mekong truly be “sustainable,” however?

I believe the social and environmental costs of these proposed hydropower dams would be higher than their benefits. The Mekong falls victim to dredging, drilling, blasting, pollution, and overfishing. The ecosystem is already dealing with degradation. Why threaten its delicate balance even further?

A physical barrier across any portion of the Mekong would have significant consequences. Most evidently, the river’s flow would be choked, altering, and possibly eliminating, the region’s wet and dry season cycles. A dam would block sediment and nutrient transfer, restricting alluvial deposits. The migratory and spawning paths of fish would be disrupted. Millions of people in thousands of communities depend on the river, for income, but also for sustenance. These ecological disruptions could force people to relocate. The majority of people who live along the Mekong are rural and impoverished, and the river serves as their life blood. It seems a dam would benefit the construction companies’ rich and cost the region’s poor.

What is being overlooked is the river’s benefit to the region, just the way it is. Before approval is granted to these hydroelectric companies, the impacts on the region should be deeply considered. Local communities who know the river best should be consulted. In this case, I hope it’s not the poor who, once again, lose out.