“Sobering, Enlightening, Thought Provoking & Amazing as I Hope & Feared it would be” By Dr. Denise Phan
Cambodia was just as sobering and enlightening and thought provoking and amazing as I hoped and feared it would be. Cambodia is already one of the poorest countries in the world, but the Vietnamese living inside Cambodia are some of the poorest (and some of the richest). One of the largest population of stateless people in the world are the Vietnamese migrants who have lived for many generations on floating villages on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia. (Ba or grandpa used to go up there during the famine days of world war II or during the dry season when the salt waters comes back up the Mekong delta to fish cause there was always fish up that way.) These people have no access to Cambodian social benefits because they’re not considered Cambodians, they can’t go back to VN because they don’t know anyone or have anything in Vietnam anymore. They live, get married, have children, die and are buried in the lake for many generations.
Unfortunately, the Tonle Sap lake is turning out to be an ecological disaster ever since China built the dams upriver of the Mekong about 7 years ago. The water level is about 10-15 meters lower than it normally is during the wet season, the fish are getting less and the Cambodian government are trying to relocate these fisherman onto land. Since many of these people don’t know what to do on land and because the land has no water and electricity, sooner or later, these people are back on the lake where they can actually fish and clams and sell their catch to buy rice. (It was very hard trying to give dietary advice to the diabetics and hypertensive people some of whom already had strokes , “vegetables, what vegetables ? we only have hyacinth floating on the lake ? No salt? how are we supposed to keep our fish, they spoil in hours.?” ).
We saw one village Kampong Chnang along the Mekong river that can come on land to see us and one village Kampong Luong that was right on the lake where we had to come to them.
All of us from the US and even the volunteer dentist and doctors who joined us from Vietnam have not seen this level of poverty even in Vietnam for over 20 years. Most people have never seen a doctor in their life, none of the children are vaccinated, the 11 year olds look like 6 years old, the 3 year old looks the same as the 1 year old, just walking on their feet instead of being held in mom’s arms.
Another area of extreme poverty in Cambodia is the Svay Pak area of Phnom Penh which used to be the epicenter of child prostitution in the world and also where most of the Vietnamese lives in the capital. There are still girls being rescued daily and their transition housing is always over capacity.
Since we were up early to get going about 5 am with the sunrise every morning and sometimes drives back in the rain with the sunset at 6-7 pm , I got some pictures and videos of the thousands of Cambodian garment workers coming in to work and leaving work, standing on the back of trucks sometimes without anything to hold on to . And there were hundreds of these truckloads coming and going every morning and night.
Denise Phan, MD