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Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat fails to stem poverty

A Catholic church is helping to relieve acute hardship in the tourist town of Siem Reap and surrounding villages

Ate Hoekstra, Siem Reap

Ate Hoekstra, Siem Reap

Published: December 27, 2018 08:19 PM GMT

Updated: December 27, 2018 09:11 PM GMT

Cambodia's famous Angkor Wat fails to stem poverty

Lav Sreylov's husband died while working in Thailand, leaving her to care for their three children. (Photo by Ate Hoeskstra)

When Por Pisey's mother fell seriously ill, her father saw no other option than to sell the family's cattle. Now there are only a few chickens and dogs walking around the yard of their small, wooden family house. Cows and buffaloes that provided income for the family are gone.

"We are so poor that selling them was the only way to be able to pay for the hospital bills," Pisey told ucanews.com.

Pisey, 22, lives and works in the town of Siem Reap in northwest Cambodia. It's known as the gateway to the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex with world heritage status that draws more than two million international tourists annually.

But despite all the tourist dollars pouring in, most people in Siem Reap and surrounding villages live in poverty. Only a small group of people benefits from the temples and the tourism industry created around them.

Sitting in front of her family's house, Pisey said that for the past four years she has worked in a hotel where she cleans rooms and helps give guests breakfast.

She works eight hours per day but her salary is only US$120 per month.

"I think I should get paid at least $150," Pisey said. "That would already make it a lot easier to take care of my family. Now all of us are poor and my mom is still in the hospital."

Poverty in Cambodia is far from new. In the 1990s, after decades of civil war, isolation and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, the Southeast Asian nation was considered as one of the world's poorest countries. Since then, the number of Cambodians officially classified as living in poverty has been significantly reduced.

In 2007, 47.8 percent of the population lived below the national poverty income line of $1.90 per day. By 2014, this number had decreased to 13.5 percent, largely thanks to Cambodia's growing economy.

But being poor is still a harsh reality for a large number of Cambodians. A recent report by United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) stated that about 40 percent of the population lives just above the poverty line, mostly in rural areas. A disappointing harvest or an unexpected loss of employment can easily put a family in debt and in deeper poverty.

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Lav Sreylov knows what it's like to be poor. Sreylov's husband died while working in Thailand, leaving her with three kids to look after. The 30-year-old waitress earns about $150 per month, including tips and bonuses.

"It's very difficult to live on such a small salary," she told ucanews.com near her house in Siem Reap. She is considering looking for a new job but does not think she will be able to obtain more highly paid work.


Scholarship for poor students

In the centre of Siem Reap, the St. John Catholic Church is trying to help poor Cambodians. Led by Father Totet Banaynal from the Philippines and parish catechist Thoem Thon, the church has several anti-poverty programs, including learning centers and the provision of rice soup to hundreds of children. The church also offers accommodation to university students from poor families.

"We are currently helping 20 students," Thon said in his office next to the church. "It's like a scholarship. The students pay $20 per month. In return we give them food, a bicycle and a safe place to sleep. We even help them with getting the university's uniform. And if the families are so poor that $20 per month is still too much, we just ask them to pay $10. Because we really want to help."

Thon believes poverty can be reduced if the country's wealth is divided in a fairer way. "A lot of money is being earned from the tickets of Angkor Wat, but we don't know where that money goes. And if you go around the temples, you will see a lot of poor children who don't go to school. That's a dangerous situation. Without going to school these kids will only get more poor in the future."

In 2017 the ticket prices for Angkor increased from $20 to $37 for a one day-ticket, from $40 to $62 for a three-day ticket and from $60 to $72 for a week-long pass. In the same year revenues increased to $108 million. For every ticket sold, $2 goes to the Kantha Bopha Children's Hospital, while another part is used for conservation of the temples. The remaining money goes to the state.

'If they would just use $20 million from the ticket sales to help the poor, that would be a big help," Thon told ucanews.com.


Widespread corruption

Experts often refer to widespread corruption as one of the main reasons that many Cambodians continue to live in poverty. According to the Corruption Index of Transparency International, Cambodia is one of the twenty most corrupt countries in the world. It has the lowest ranking in Southeast Asia and is hardly any better than countries such as Iraq, Venezuela and North Korea.

Thon doesn't shy away from speaking out against what he says in a common practice of officials taking bribes.

"There's a lot of corruption in the entire system," he said. "If we want to build something to help the poor we need permission from the authorities, but to receive that we first need to pay. If we don't pay, it will be more difficult to help the poor."

Thon sighed deeply before continuing. "We have no other choice than to carry this cross," he said. "It's not easy, but Jesus also suffered for the world."

Just outside Siem Reap, in a landscape of green rice fields, banana plantations and dusty roads, Por Pisey had a smile on her face for she may have found a way out of poverty.

Despite her low salary, she's been able to save enough money to go back to school. In January she will be the first member of her family to go to university, where she will study accounting. "I want to learn more so that I can work in a bank or for a big company after graduating. Then it should be easier to look after my family," she said.

Por Peang, her 62-year-old father, couldn't be prouder of his daughter. "I'm so happy for her," he said. "And it's so good for my family."

Additional reporting by Sineat Yon

This article was first published 13.10.2018.

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