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A unique South-East Asia experience – Cambodia, the land of Khmer people

By Hajnal Kiss

Hajnal is a 32-year-old woman from Budapest, Hungary, who was an exchange student for the winter term at the McGill School of Business. She heard the talk I gave to Karl Moore’s class see the link above “how can I become involved.” Her primer on Cambodia, written with a warmth and compassion that reminds me of the late Ryszard Kapuscinski, is the first of what will hopefully be many Dispatches by McGill students who have been doing fantastic work at DFVW. Hajnal has returned to Budapest and has promised to send us more Dispatches on the Roma (gypsies) and other cultural and environmental subjects in Hungary. –Alex Shoumatoff

“Knowing others is Intelligent;
Knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is power;
Mastering yourself is true strength.”

When I left Europe at the beginning of July 2007, I did not know that I would be much richer in about three months. What happened? I‘ve travelled to the beautiful country of Cambodia where history and nature are still closer to human beings. I have met wonderful people and through them I have met myself. That part of myself I have always wished to have but did not have before. That was possible in only such a country of contradictions: love and hate, life and death, glorious past and tragic present.
The Khmer Kingdoms of Cambodia flourished in the 12th century. The temples of Angkor were the perfect example for the glorious past that was followed by the invasion of neighbouring countries, Thailand and Vietnam. From the 15th century the Empire broke down. Tragic present started with the hellish years of Khmer Rouge that left the people shocked, suffering inside. Pol Pot’s name (originally called Saloth Sar) was associated with endless personal and family tragedies. Pol Pot won a scholarship in 1949 and travelled to Paris. There he became enthralled by writings on Marxism and revolutionary socialism. With other young Cambodians studying in Paris (so-called ‘Paris student group’) they established the Khmer Rouge which was a communist party. In 17th April 1975 Pol Pot started ‘Year Zero’ “purifying” Cambodian society from capitalism, Western culture, religion and all foreign influences. Foreigners were expelled, embassies closed, and the currency abolished. Markets, schools, newspapers, religious practices and private property were outlawed. Pol Pot’s Genocide killed around 1.5 million in agricultural collectives (so called killing fields) from 1975-1978. (
Facing tragic present of Cambodia we can start to find out more about Khmer people, to understand their culture: the three most important words for them are Family that solves problems still collectively, Food that means mainly rice and Faith that means religion, mainly Buddhism. But what kind of people are Khmers? According to Sar Sarun, the professor of Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences, University of Phnom Penh the ten most important elements of Khmer mentality are:


At all levels of organization within Khmer society, ranging from family life to national government, the accepted leader or decision-maker is a woman.
‘Hidden strength’ kept the nation from perishing despite repeated attacks from the outside world. The Khmer spirit and identity are tightly intertwined with Khmer culture and civilization.


Khmer people originally belonged to an ethnic family known as the Mon-Khmer, which inhabited the entire peninsula of Indochina. At that time the region was called Sovanna Phum (‘Golden Country’), and shared a border with China. The people of the Golden Country had no concerns other than the gold trade. This is what gave rise to their boastful attitude, and to the development of a high level of pride.


From the beginning, Khmer society relied almost exclusively on agriculture, and took it as an important source of cultural identity. All aspects of Khmer education have their “roots” in agriculture. Khmers have a strong tendency to use agricultural metaphors in explanations.
Relative indifference to laws and regulations. The Khmer territory seldom faces natural disasters, aside from minor floods that occur every few decade. Based on this, Khmer people are less aware of nature and also insensitive for social and legal rules.


Khmer people live in the tropics; they tend to avoid physical exertion. The Khmer artistic spirit is low in energy. Khmer sentimental music makes people sleepy. Khmer people move slowly.
To be confused about commitments. Khmer people live in a country in which the various seasons are not clear-cut: the rainy season and the dry season, as well as the cold season, start and end at fuzzy dates, known to no one.

Ambivalent extremism

Khmer extremist thinking is not always oriented in one particular direction. When Khmers come to like something, they go out of their way to stick to it. But when they start to dislike it, they go far in the opposite direction: the more loving, the more hating. When they believe people, them believe them a hundred and twenty percent. But if they stop believing, they stop forever.


Faithfulness to one’s word is among the principal Khmer virtues. Examination of Khmer literature indicates that this has been true for a very long time. Some believe that it resulted from contact with Hinduism, for Hindu Brahmans were considered the agents of God.

Chastity and purity

Indeed, the Khmer essence is a devotion to chastity, especially in women. Khmer women work incredibly hard to preserve their chastity, including, of course, their physical purity, or virginity. Correspondingly, Khmer men are inclined to accept as “queen” of their heart only a woman of fairly complete chastity, for which bodily purity is a necessary. (resource:

And how Cambodia looks like today? Controversial and surprising. Sunshine and monsoon rain, complexity and modesty, poverty and wealth are neighbours. Streets are busy, often happens that somebody by bike or motorcycle is travelling over against you. If you are lucky, you can see 5 people sitting on one motorcycle: one is driving, one is getting an intravenous medicine, one is holding the liquid in hand, usually there is one or two child in the line and finally one is signalling the direction to stay on the safe side. There is no public transportation, but still all the existing places can be reached based on a negotiation with local drivers who have free time to give you a lift. Usually you do not need to search for them; they surround you within a minute if you stop. Moreover, you do not need to stop. It is enough to think about getting a ride and your dream comes true in a minute. Privacy does not exist on the street. If you start to walk alone, within two seconds you will be addressed by a nice young student who is happy to practise English. Of course you face with the tragedy of his/her family soon. An endless story may start. But this is how you make friendship and find out a little bit more about the personal lives of Cambodians. Still the poorest children with less English know all countries capitals.

I took part in a project in Cambodia, Phnom Penh at the National Institute of Public Health. As an intern I did monitoring on Clients’ Rights and Providers’ Rights. I was responsible for designing and conducting of pre- and post-test before and after awareness raising workshops in 2 provinces (Kampong Thom and Kampot). I was also responsible for the progress and evaluation of Focus Group Discussions and Exit Interviews. During these interviews I had opportunity to talk to the local people chosen randomly. I could learn about their culture, way of thinking and tradition. Despite facing very difficult circumstances they are still happy and love their own life. The situation within the health sector is far from being perfect, but they carry those problems as heroes.

I realized how important it is to reaffirm fundamental human rights in health care; in particular to protect the dignity and integrity of the individual and promote respect for the client. Empathy and sustained beneficial relationships between clients and health care providers have to be promoted; active client participation has to be encouraged in the health care system including the most vulnerable, such as women, children, psychiatric clients, disabled and the elderly. This is true everywhere, but especially; it seemed to me, in Kampong Thom and Kampot where I was involved in the project.

Cambodia is a country with extremely colourful traditions, cultures, and nature. It still resists globalization in some respects, but with the opening up of the political circumstances, tradition is starting to vanish. I hope with this slideshow you will understand more about it.

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