A Word on the Meaning of “Free Education” And the Culture of Aid Dependency

By Fr. Albeiro Rodas
Salesian Director of the Social Communication Chapter

There is a fact that generates doubts amongst some friends when they come to know that Don Bosco Technical Schools in Cambodia charge the students with a monthly fee. “Why do you say that you are giving ‘free education’ when you charge the students?”, they murmur…

It is necessary to clarify this before it creates misunderstandings.

The Don Bosco Foundation of Cambodia is working in the Kingdom of Cambodia since 1991 – the real starting gun was given in the Khmer refugee camps in the border area with Thailand , in the 80s – to support young girls and boys and give them skills for a future job.

Since then, about 1,000 girls and boys leave the technical schools every year with a skill and better opportunities to be engaged in a developing society. Moreover, we run the Don Bosco Children Fund assisting more than 45,000 children from all the Cambodian provinces, supported by a great net of benefactors from the five continents. Those children are guaranteed meals, accommodation and tuition.

Don Bosco anywhere in the world believes that poverty can be eradicated through education. It is our daily commitment and it is our contribution to the development of Cambodia.

The Culture of Aid Dependency

There are moments where nations need an emergency to have their social dramas known to the rest of the planet. Haiti, for example, destroyed by the recent earthquake, is badly in need of aid. In Port-au-Prince our Ecole Nationale des Arts et Mestieres was completely destroyed by the January earthquake and 500 students and teachers were killed. The Wold’s solidariety machine , after some initial problems, came to the rescue of the impoverished country with full force.

After the war, Cambodia was also a devastated nation, depending 100 % in international aid. It is important that national and international organizations, private and officials, make a careful study of how such aid helped in the development of modern Cambodia and what the referse effects of this “medicine” were.

The first decade of the 21rst century has been special for Cambodia. Even if we face new social problems like inequality and the detriment of rural areas, it is also true that Cambodia is far from that devastated country of the three last decades of the 20th century.

Cambodians are ready to lead their own country and to plan their own future. International organizations must continue in their role of assistance and consultancy and – in many times – of monitoring a development that should reach every Cambodian. The nation is not that one of the 1990s when the 70% of its population was under 25 years of age. Now there are more professionals, more intellectuals, more skillful staffers.

But we have our idea of what is aid dependency, the reverse effect of the cure. International aid is good for a first approach, as is happening nowadays in Haiti or as it happened in post-war Cambodia. But it should not last for a lifetime.

Aid dependency does not help in the development of a population. It only creates a society without initiative and creativity, limited in the analysis of its own situation. Aid dependency easily degenerate in a culture of corruption and organized begging , and it favours scams , as fake orphanages etc.

We respect the many organizations which continue to support Cambodia. But we believe that educating the youth in a culture of creativity, initiative, critical thinking, is a more respectful and effective tool for the Country’s development. We believe in the inner intelligence of Cambodians. We think that the descendants of that amazing civilization which created the Angkorian temples and the glorious Khmer Empire, have the same strength and braveness , necessary to build a future great Cambodia. We do not see Cambodians as eternal-children in need; the emergency is almost over, Don Bosco wants Khmers grow with their country.

Free Education

Our students come from the most marginalized communities and rural areas in Cambodia. They come to Don Bosco because their families cannot afford to enroll them to a university. Don Bosco gives them the opportunity to learn a profession in a two years’ technical course. The students use state-of-the-art tools and infrastructures, and to many of them full boarding is also granted. Everything in Don Bosco is supported by international donors who follow strictly our projects.

The students are asked a fee that is rather symbolic (something like 40,000 Riels per month, which is around 10 US Dollars). Now well, such contribution was approved some years ago as a way to overcome the aid dependency mentality. The students must give value to what they are getting for free. Don Bosco is not a commercial institution. We are not living from the fee of students and poor youth. Such fee does not pay the total cost of every student in Don Bosco at all.

It is amazing how easily many young people from modest families in modern Cambodia can access money for their drinking parties, motorbikes , cellphones and other things , but, when it comes to education , they cry they are too poor.

The fee we apply, however, is not required. No student has been sent out of our schools because he or she could not pay the ‘fee’. When a boy or a girl declares their parents cannot pay it, our social workers visit the families and assert their situation. Then, if they are telling the truth, they are given fully free scholarship.

Our priority are the poor. Our mission is to get the poor out from poverty through their own talents, creativity, initiative. We are not going after children to give them a fish, but we teach them how to catch it.

Conference about “History of Cambodia”
Presented by Fr. François Ponchaud

The Don Bosco Children Fund (DBCF) of Cambodia is an international net of benefactors, volunteers, professionals and institutions committed to bring the children back to school. We do not want to see children wandering on the streets or beaches facing risks as sexual abuse, prostitution, exploitation, violence and drugs. Help us to bring the street children of Sihanoukville back to school. We need to feed them and sustain their families. Do not give money to children on the streets or in tourist spots. Doing it, you encourage kids and their families to beg. Please be aware: sexual exploitation of children in Cambodia is illegal, as elsewhere in the world, but it is still a big problem and has to be solved. Be part of the solution. Help us to bring children out of the streets and beaches by supporting serious programs like DBCF. We believe firmly that education, formation in values and learning skills are the best way to prevent any kind of abuse, a way to improve their lives and a contribution to a better society in Cambodia. Welcome to Cambodia! Enjoy your stay! Feel at home and help us in our mission to support children from poverty into a healthy and joyful life. Visit our offices, see our programs at Don Bosco Technical School (www.donboscosihanoukville.org) and let us have your contribution.

Enquires? Confusions? Needed of a friendly guide? Need an interpreter?

Don Bosco hotline in Sihanoukville 24h/7days: 097 96 75 042 (Khmer, English, Spanish, Italian)

150 Years of the Salesian Preventive System

In 1854 Father Bosco (a Catholic Italian priest known as Don Bosco), founded a group of religious monks dedicated to education whom he called “Salesians” in honor of 17th century French bishop Saint Francis de Sales. 150 years later, the Salesians are present in 130 nations of the world and dedicate their lives to the poorest amongst young people and offering them one of the best educative systems of modern times: the Preventive System. In 1997 the Don Bosco Foundation of Cambodia opened a technical school in Sihanoukville. It was the first free education center for young people in the south of Cambodia. Since then, more than 3 thousand boys and girls have received a technical degree certificate from Don Bosco enabling them to have a decent job in the Cambodian society. The students come from orphanages, farmers and poor families who would find difficult to support an university sholarship. The Preventive System opposes repressive methods of education. A repressive education means to establish a rule and wait to catch ( and punish) those who break it. Right discipline, kindness, sport, tradition, tolerance and responsibility are the keys of Don Bosco to reach the youth. In a Salesian school, the student learn not only how to operate a machine or to use a computer, but also how to be honest, trustworthy, clean, respectful and kind. Don Bosco is concerned with the challenges of the modern Cambodian society: we need young people loyal to their nation, family and work place. In a context of prevention we do not need persons who abandon their honest and humble job following the illusion of easy money; persons who live among a daily context of corruption and appreciate it; persons who target foreigners and look for them only for money; persons who live in a context of violence and abuse; persons who discriminate others for their religion, ideas or social condition. The preventive system teaches the students to be good workers, but especially good citizens. We invite you to visit our Don Bosco schools in Sihanoukville (www.donboscosihanoukville.org). You can include in your tour a guided visit to the Don Bosco complex in Oupram Street and let a contribution to support the education of Cambodian children and youth from poverty.

Don Bosco hotline in Sihanoukville for guides to the schools 24h/7days: 097 96 75 042 (Khmer, English, Spanish, Italian)


by François PONCHAUD, 1996

These brief notes were written in French, around 1996, during which time the author was working on the insertion of Asian refugees in France. The notes are aimed at facilitating a better understanding of the Cambodians, without any scientific pretensions. If the lack of comprehension is removed, any action undertaken on their behalf will hold them in greater respect and be more effective. The notes have been translated in English and German by diverse international bodies who judged them useful for guiding the actions of their agents.


• 1. Diversity Among South-East Asian Refugees
• 2. The Burden of the Past
• 3. Understanding comes only through the heart
• 4. Cherised Freedom
• 5. Submission and Harmony
• 6. Buddhism
• 7. The Importance of the Family
• 8. Marriage
• 9. Khmer Women
• 10. Children
• 11. Domestic Life
• 12. Politics
• 13. A few remarks on the language
• 14. Khmer Civil Status


For many French people, anyone who is Asian is “Chinese”. However, the South-East Asian refugees belong to very different cultural and human areas, which may be divided into two main categories:

1. The Chinese cultural area (also called “Yellow Asia”): Vietnamese, Hmong, Thai Nung, and Thai Dam. All speak tonal languages (the same syllable having a different meaning according to its intonation).

The Vietnamese, roughly 4,000 of them, have joined the large Vietnamese colony long established in France. They practice ancestor worship and Buddhism of the Greater Vehicle school. Eight per cent are Roman Catholics;

The Hmong, contemptuously nicknamed “Meo”, inhabited the mountainous regions of Laos. They formed the spearhead of the Lao army, and are of Lao nationality, though conscious of their superiority. The Hmong people originate from near the Baikal Lake, in Siberia, and crossed China over the last three thousand years. They live in the relief regions of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam (over 1,000m altitude).

The Thai Dam, the Thaï Tho, and the Thai Nung come from Tonkin (Viet Nam). They fought on the side of the French in the first Indo-China war, and then settled in the Vientiane Plain in 1954. They form an organized group and have Lao nationality, although some claim to be Vietnamese.

The Lao, men of the hills and plains of the Mekong river, are conscious of their worth. Their ethnic group was in power in Laos, where it numbered one million persons, as against ten million in Thailand. They practice Buddhism of the Lesser Vehicle school.

All these people are originally from the south of China, and migrated towards the south, pushed by diverse invasions.

2. The Austro-Asiatic cultural area, with Indian influence (also called “Brown Asia”): Khmer, Kha, Khmu, Cham:

The Kha and the Khmu were the first inhabitants of the mountain regions of Laos, where they were driven by successive invaders. They are of Lao nationality, and are animists.

The Cham are descendants of Champa (a kingdom formerly situated in central Viet Nam). Conquered by their neighbors, they fled to Cambodia. Moslems and of Cambodian nationality, they are known as “Khmer Islam”.

To this same cultural area belong the indigenous peoples of the Vietnamese plateau areas: Rhado, Jarai, Brao, Lao, Tapouan, etc.

In 1970, there were seven million Khmer in Cambodia, which covers an area of 181,000 square km. This figure includes some 400,000 Vietnamese and 500,000 Chinese who had settled in Cambodia several generations back and now claim Khmer nationality.

Of the numerous refugees of Khmer nationality, many are Chinese or half-Chinese (“Sino-Khmer”); a race of resourceful migrants, with few deep roots in Khmer soil, engaged for the most part in national and international trade, they succeeded in reaching the frontiers on 17 April 1975. But even though they usually speak the Cambodian language, the Sino-Khmer have a different mentality from pure-bred Khmer, and this should be taken into account when considering the remarks that follow. The Sino-Khmer will adapt far more easily to their new living conditions than their Khmer compatriots. Often, moreover, they come from the well-to-do classes of Cambodia and are accordingly equipped with an intellectual capital, which will make it easier for them to become integrated into our society.


The Khmer people belong to a race of brave warriors who ruled South-East Asia for many centuries. After the brilliant Angkor period (tenth-thirteenth centuries), Cambodia fell into decline and the country’s markets were looted by the invading Thai and Vietnamese from South China. In the 19th century, it was annexed outright by the Vietnamese. But whereas the Thai to some extent assimilated the cultures of the territories they invaded, the Vietnamese destroyed all before them, wiping out the conquered populations.

The Cambodian is inhibited vis-à-vis his foreign conquerors: Vietnamese, Thai., and then the French. Whiteness being the canon of Asian beauty, his brown complexion gives him a feeling of inferiority. The Chinese and Vietnamese, conscious of their worth, have no hesitation in making plain their contempt for those they nickname the “Moi” (mountain dwellers, barbarians).

This explains the lingering animosity between Khmer and the Vietnamese: it has its roots deep in the collective sub-consciousness, formed by history. Any attempt to get the two races to live together is laudable in the abstract, but unrealistic.
The Khmers are frequently heard resignedly acknowledging the defects of their people: “We Khmer are like that”, “We do not know how to organize ourselves”, “I do not want my daughter to marry a Khmer”, “The Vietnamese and the Chinese know how to shift for themselves, we do not”, etc. Together with this disillusioned resignation, moreover, there is a feeling of fierce national pride rooted in a glorious past.

These conflicting sentiments, which have been suppressed for so long, may explode with unforeseen violence if sparked off by a serious affront or a f1agrant injustice. The entire Khmer group will then feel involved and united against the offender.

The history of the Khmer people since the fourteenth century has been marked by a succession of misfortunes. It is this, perhaps, that explains a certain note of melancholy in Khmer literature and popular songs (very often, if not always, in the minor key). The laughter and gaiety of the Khmers, their eagerness to enjoy life, may be merely compensation for an underlying sadness.

One constant factor in the personality of all Asians is that of “face”- the image a person wishes to project of himself, which institutes a kind of relationship in society. Of an important man it will be said: “He has a countenance, a face”(Mean Muk mean moat). “Face” has nothing to do with the hypocrisy of someone wishing to appear what he is not, but constitutes the essence of personality, the dignity of the person.

A Khmer will save his “FACE” or conceal his private thoughts behind an enigmatic smile, a smile that does not necessarily reflect inner joy, but is the bulwark behind which he can take refuge, can hide his feelings or his inner emptiness. It is at once a means of self-defence and an expression of respect for others. The death of a loved one is announced with a smile, not because the person announcing the news feels no sorrow, but so that he can dissimulate his private thoughts and avoid embarrassing others.

Any attempt to undermine a person’s “face” is regarded as a serious injury: reproaching someone, even justifiably, in public or insulting someone in public causes that person to “lose face”, or “kills” him, as the Khmer language puts it. For words “kill” just as much as weapons. Indeed, Prince Sihanouk embarked on a war that was disastrous for himself and for his people in order to save his honor, which had been sullied. A Khmer is capable of ruining himself and losing those he loves in order to destroy someone who has “killed” him socially.

Of someone who despises others it will be said: “He looks too readily”(meul ngiei) or “He looks disrespectfully”(meul thaok). Khmer politeness requires that a person should respect the face of another, that he should be lower than the eyes of anyone whom he respects; Khmer stoop when passing in front of persons who are seated, for it is not permitted to “look down at the other person”, or to “walk above him”(dae ksae leu).

Pointing at a person or staring at him causes that person to lose face and wipes out his existence just as much as if he had been transfixed with a sword. To call someone, even a friend, by his name (“So-and-so, come here”), is to treat him like dirt or like “a dog”, in the vernacular. In public, at least, a person’s title must be mentioned, “Mr”, “Mrs. so-and-so”.

To avoid losing face and “being shamed in front of others”, a Khmer, unlike a Vietnamese or a Chinese man, will ask a question only if he is practically certain that it will be answered in the affirmative. He dare not speak French or English, even if he knows a few words, for fear of disgracing himself or annoying the Frenchman or Englishman. Even if he knows something, though imperfectly, he will say that he does not know. A Vietnamese or a Chinese man in a similar situation will say that he knows.

Still in the context of respect for “face”, the rule of conduct in society will be “do not behave differently from others” (khos pi ke), do not push yourself forward, do not take the initiative, for fear of finding yourself alone, of disgracing yourself in front of others, being derided for possible failure, judged. Thus the individual becomes isolated in his private thoughts. Decisions are taken by consensus or in accordance with the views of anyone who has dared to expose his views in public, of anyone who is a good speaker. Even if the members of a meeting privately express their disagreement with a particular decision it is rare that many people will risk making such a person lose face, or losing their own by expressing a different view. Before speaking, moreover, it is as well to know the views of one’s opposite member; for truth is not what ³corresponds with reality”, as we in the West would define it, but above all agreement with the relationship between the speakers, what is acceptable to the persons present.

In general, it maybe said that a Khmer is afraid of others. He often begins his letters or sentences by apologizing, craving pardon for speaking or writing, as if by expressing himself he risked causing offence. He is careful to avoid hurting people and will miss an important appointment because he dare not interrupt a conversation with a person to whom he owes respect.

When greeting strangers, or heads of families whom he surrounds with a halo, he stoops and bows his head. The expression for “respecting” someone important is “praising and fearing” (kaot klach), the word “fearing” doubtless being more important than “praising”.

His heart beats fast when he has to ask something or address someone in French. He is pleasantly surprised when a Frenchman whom he does not know shows him the way and helps him: he is afraid of annoying them or disgracing himself. The Khmer are very timid.


Asians are more intuitive than discursive. Their logic is not ours. In conversation, a Khmer will long skirt the issue so as to sound out the other person, paying attention to the way he looks, to his voice. If the person is busy, his voice rough, his look angry, a Khmer will feel that he is not ready to listen to him and will leave without putting his question. But if, after long preparation, the climate is favorable, he will gradually open up. In conversation, it is necessary to guess rather than hear, to listen more with the heart than with the ear. To reveal one-self, moreover, requires time, as one does not lay bare one’s thoughts before strangers. Sometimes it will take several meetings and occasionally weeks or even years before a Khmer will finally put the question he has been desperately wanting to ask, or before a distressing problem is presented. Each in his own time.

In conversation, a Khmer is not afraid of keeping silent. Long periods can elapse without his saying anything, and without the other person saying anything either. His silence does not reflect embarrassment, but happiness at being with others. What he remembers of a meeting is more its general atmosphere than the intellectual content of the exchange of ideas.

The intuition of the Khmer can be disconcerting: a small detail to which one attached no importance, a well-meaning remark, a sudden but ill-considered movement, too harsh a tone of voice – all these are liable to be construed as unfriendly gestures. Taciturn and unaccustomed to rational criticism, the Khmers are inclined to be credulous and to follow people to whom they have given their confidence without questioning the validity of what they are told.


Another constant aspect of the Khmer personality is its basic individualism. Each individual insists on his freedom being respected, freedom being regarded as the possibility to do whatever he likes, whenever he likes. A Khmer man will not submit willingly to regulations, which in his opinion restrict his independence. If authority is of divine origin, so be it. “A Cambodian will never abandon rules” (Khmer men chaol kbuon), but authority must not be allowed to encroach on personal matters.

A Khmer has little idea of public service and the common good, of the rule of life that aims at enabling each individual to preserve his true freedom. A peasant through and through, he loves his native soil, but is not., strictly speaking, a “patriot”; he is proud of his race and feels concerned by everything that affects his kindred, but little bound by the nation’s common concerns. It is this failing, perhaps, that has contributed to the
downfall of the Khmer Republic.

Though individualists, the Khmer nevertheless fear solitude. They love noise, music, crowds; “These are the things that constitute merrymaking, that make for happiness”. It is undesirable, even in a transit centre, to allocate a room to each child. A worker will not remain alone in a studio for very long.


Religion has made a deep impression on the mentality of all peoples. Khmers generally claim to be Buddhists, to the point where the words “race” and “religion” merge into one. However, ancestral ANIMISM forms the basis of Cambodian religion on which Buddhism of the Lesser Vehicle came to be superimposed. Buddhism and animism have been wedded to he1p man to live: animism organizes this earthly life and gives it a mystical explanation, while Buddhism directs man’s attention towards the future and his future lives.

The Khmer universe is peopled with demons, spirits and good or bad occult forces, which preside over human destinies and which it is as well to propitiate. Illness is not merely a matter of microbes, but also the manifestation of spirits irritated by an evil act of a member of the family.
For the patient to recover, their anger must be appeased. A child who is often ill will have its name changed in order to deceive the spirit tormenting it.

On the fifth floor of the Sarcelles centre a spirit used to enter a room every night and make the person living there ill. This room was left empty (unknown to the manager). The spirit in question lived in the tall tree behind the centre: as the master of the place, he must have been irritated by the strangers who were failing to pay him homage. The patient was taken to hospital, but a “Guru” was sought who would be able to look after him more effectively than the physicians.

Thus a Khmer man does not venture just anywhere, above all not in the forest, as he does not know how to conciliate the spirits, especially if they are French.

In Cambodia, most people carried charms.

Do not treat these problems with a smile, for they express the inmost depths of the Khmer soul, which can only change through a slow process of transformation.


Gautama Siddartha of the Sakya tribe, who became the “Enlightened One”, or the “Buddha”, was born about 563 BC in India. After living in luxury at his palace and then leading a rigorous ascetic life, he discovered “the middle path”. His deep religious intuition was to discover that all is suffering, transient and illusory. Suffering is born of desire, ignorance and hatred.

His teaching invites man to make a personal effort to purify himself of all desire, the origin of suffering. The ideal is to become master of oneself; this is manifested, inter alià by gentleness and benevolence towards others. These are the cardinal virtues of the Khmer. Anyone who becomes angry, loses his self-control, loses what constitutes his very being and dignity, in short, his “face”.

The doctrine of “KARMA”, which is derived from Hinduism, has been incorporated into Buddhism and remains of great importance for the Khmer man today. According to this doctrine, every action produces an effect, good or bad, a legacy of merits or “demerits”, which affects the vital energy of a person’s being and which will be incarnated successively in new lives, until complete purification. Our present life carries the burden of everything that has affected this vital energy in generations past: we are at once those who have gone before us, yet at the same time different, with the possibility of changing our karma. This results in a certain feeling of resignation towards one’s personal fate: “We cannot do anything about it, we are paying for what we did in previous lives”, and at the same time, a keen sense of personal responsibility for one’s own actions. “No one can change another’s karma.” “Only he who eats has his hunger satisfied”, “No one can take away the demerit of another”, “Help yourself by your own efforts, without expecting anything from others or from the gods.” Man is born alone, lives and suffers alone, and dies alone.

(This sums up the doctrine of the “Lesser Vehicle”, the narrow path, of the Khmer and the Lao. The Buddha is a master who has shown the way, but cannot help man to purify himself. Buddhism of the “Greater Vehicle”, as practiced by the Chinese and the Vietnamese, retains these same fundamental doctrines, but adds intermediaries between man and the Divine, known as the Bodhisattva; they have attained enlightenment, but delay their entry into Nirvana in order to help their human brothers).

Buddhism and animism thus unite in urging man to live in harmony with the cosmos, the rhythm of the seasons, the forces of nature. Life in all its forms must be respected, the greatest “demerit” being to kill animals. This task, which is necessary for feeding the people, is left to those of another race. Religious factors, combined with pre-existing traits of character, have doubtless induced in the Khmer man feelings of submission towards the universe and towards the obstacles encountered in their path. Faced with a difficulty, a Chinese or a Vietnamese man will seek a means of overcoming it (“How Yukon moved the mountain”); a Khmer man, on the other hand will tend to put up with it, to accept the situation, pending such time as the obstacle should choose to disappear.
The Khmers are not surprised by the fantastic or the marvelous, particularly in religious matters. Encountering the European rationalistic mentality is a violent shock, and their mental universe collapses. A new personality can be built up by integrating values hitherto deemed essential with others that are discovered gradually and are vital for a harmonious life in France. Religion is expressed by rites and traditions depending on
people’s culture. Some Khmers have considered becoming Christians in order to please those who have helped them. But only in rare cases does this step come, from deep spiritual conviction.


The Khmer family is of the patriarchal type, presided over by the older members of the family (grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, elders) who have the authority of experience and wisdom and must be deferred to in important decisions. The Khmer people on the whole may even be considered as one large family. As there are no first names in the Khmer language, everyone is called and calls others according to blood relationships: the old people are called “grandfather”, “grandmother”, “uncle” or “aunt” older or younger than the parents, “elders”, while the younger ones are called “children”, “younger children”, “nephews”, “grandchildren”.

The family, like society, is organized on strict hierarchical lines and elders must be respected. One person with a good job in France gave up his work because his younger brother was earning more than he was, and his honor as the elder brother was therefore at stake. Lack of respect towards an older person is a serious failing. One of the duties of children is to show gratitude to their elders: during the New Year festival (13 April) or
on All Souls’ Day (end of September), everyone must go and greet his parents or grandparents and give them a present. Anyone leaving on a journey must bring back something for the family: “What have you brought back?” will be the greeting on his return. A present is a mark of the love he bears his family. One of the most serious reproaches that can be made against a person is to accuse him of ingratitude (“acataniou”), of failing to remember his parents’ merits.

FAMILY TIES ARE ALL-COMPELLING: nothing can be refused a brother, sister, or even a distant cousin. Financial or other aid is compulsory within the family.

Do not be surprised to see distant relations crowding round a member of the family who has a dwelling or who has succeeded in life.

It is through the family that Khmers feel their attachment to their native land. Most Khmer refugees are cut off from their families: at best, they have brought their wives and children, but not their close and distant relations. The absence of these relations physically robs them of all strength to work. Not infrequently, a Khmer will lose his zest for life if he has had no news of his family. Some have returned to Cambodia, not for
ideological reasons, but solely to rejoin their families.


For traditional marriages, the opinion of the elders was law: it was usually they who decreed the unions of their children or grandchildren. Thus marriage often took the form of an inter-family arrangement, to which the parties concerned usually agreed. The newly-formed couple would then become another nucleus in the family as a whole but, at least in the countryside, they would live with the boy’s parents and would have to defer to them for certain decisions. The dowry paid by the boy’s family to the girl’s family was regarded as payment for the girl’s keep up to the age of marriage. Once married, the girl became part of her husband’s family, so that her parents’ bargaining to ensure a good marriage for her was prompted by parental love. In a traditional society, marriage was not the consecration of love, but its beginning.

Marital fidelity was the rule in the countryside, due to social pressure. In the towns it was less so. Monogamy was usual, but polygamy was not prohibited by law, only by the state of a man’s finances. Culpability for sexual offences consisted more in the violation of justice (failing to give a prostitute her due, loving the wife of another, having relations with a young girl who belongs to her parents), more than in lack of respect for the individual (considering the other person as an object of pleasure, betraying one’s spouse). A young girl had a duty to remain a virgin, out of “gratitude” to her parents.

On coming into contact with industrialized society they have difficulty in finding their bearings, for they have lost their parents and the old people who were their points of reference.


Khmer women are usually very reserved. Etiquette demands that they should be entirely devoted to their husbands, that they should not say or do anything that is likely to upset him. To signify “Yes”, women say “Master”. At mealtimes, the master of the house eats with the guests; his wife and children eat afterwards. In relations between the sexes discretion is the rule: a handshake corresponds to a proposal, to look at a woman for any length of time is supposed to make her pregnant; by touching a woman’s hand, even involuntarily, a monk will lose all the merits acquired in a previous life. The Khmers never shake hands in public, not even the married ones; still less do they exchange kisses.

It would be useful for nursing staff to know that a Khmer woman strongly objects to undressing in front of a doctor. The presence of another woman can help.

In general, Khmer women have received little schooling. As children, they had to look after the younger members of the family instead of going to school. As young girls, they had little possibility of training in schools, but learned everything from tradition.


Khmer children are the real masters of the family and do whatever they please. From birth, they live glued to their mothers who, as soon as they cry, have to carry them on the hip and give them the breast, sometimes up to the age of two-and-a-half and more. They have never been subject to any discipline, but when the exasperated parents do correct them they go much too far. Children go to school, if they feel like it and stop going when no longer interested. Often the parents will say: “He doesn’t want to go to school any more.”

A Khmer child, particularly in the countryside, was free and independent and would be educated by osmosis. The patriarchal society would instill in it the rules of life, politeness, a scale of values, respect for old people, for the family and for monks, filial gratitude, mutual assistance, etc. These rules disintegrate on coming into contact with European society, which has “profaned” all these values. Contact with school is a rude shock for Khmer children.

The Khmers do not kiss. Do not be surprised if a Khmer child does not kiss his parents or his adoptive parents before going to bed. Nor do husband and wife, on parting or meeting again, express their affection by a kiss.

The Khmers do not like anyone to touch their head, even as a sign of friendship. Such a gesture is taken as a serious insult. On the other hand, men often stroll about holding each other by the little finger or stroking each other’s buttocks as a sign of familiarity.


The dwelling of a Khmer peasant is made of wood or straw and is built on piles. Inside, it consists of one large central room, which is used as a living room, for receiving guests, and for eating and sleeping. One or two smaller rooms are formed in the comers of this large room by wooden partitions and serve as bedrooms for the parents and the young girls.
Outside, a small veranda houses a stove and primitive cooking range.

The furniture is very basic: often there is no cupboard and clothes are hung on the partitions. Do not be surprised if the tidiness of rooms inhabited the Khmers leaves something to be desired: they have to learn to fold their clothes, for they have never done so. Nor indeed have they ever had so many clothes.

Rural dwellings have no doors inside, so do not be surprised if they leave doors open in Phnom Penh.

Meals are taken on a mat, but everyone eats whenever he is hungry, especially the children. The basic food of the Cambodians is rice: 400-800 grams per day for a manual worker. Other “dishes” accompany the rice, but they do not constitute the main part of the meal. Children are taught to eat little of these dishes and a lot of rice.

The Khmers sleep either on a mat spread out on the floor or on a wooden bed, usually without a mattress. They sleep rolled up in the blanket, “on top of” the bed, with a bolster between the legs to ensure that fresh air circulates. At night, a small oil lamp is lit as they are afraid of the dark.

In Cambodia, all the children slept side by side.

Each day, even several times a day, the Khmer took a shower, a habit that was necessary because of the climate.

Traditional family medicine comprises diagnosis and appropriate remedies. When a person feels unwell, a “wind” is said to have entered his body. To make it leave, the “wind” is “scratched” by rubbing the body with a coin, after smearing a little oil on the skin. This has the same effect as a revulsive or a cupping glass, but is more painful. The veins of the neck and the forehead are also pulled; this certainly results in decongestion. Some foods provide “heat”, others “cold”. Some Khmers are reluctant to allow an X-ray scan, as they have been told that they cause cancer or eat away the inside of the body. Some are afraid of the doctor as they do not understand everything he does.

12. WORK

Previously, Cambodia was a land of plenty. Never, under normal conditions, did the people suffer famine. Their needs were limited, as the sun made up for a good deal. The main requirement was food: “to work” was “to seek food”. Once this need had been met, there was no reason to go on tiring oneself unnecessarily. People worked only when they had to.

Workers were not annoyed to see people living without working: they were the lucky ones. There is no shame in not working, in being unemployed, or in being kept by others. One member of a family could, by his labor, feed the entire family. The peasant worked hard to till, plant out and harvest, and would then take a rest. The prestige conferred by knowledge made it difficult for a person who had studied to turn his hand to manual work

However, it must be remembered that provision for the future is characteristic of our Cartesian universe; a Khmer will tend to seek work and accommodation only when desperate.

Aid is necessary, but will quickly be considered a prerogative unless care is taken. A person receiving aid feels abandoned when aid ceases.

Many employees work hard “to please their employer”, who must be aware of this situation so as not to abuse it. On the other hand, an unkind remark, ridicule, or a rough but not necessarily unfriendly word on the part of a foreman will give offence and the Khmer will leave without any hope of his returning.

Some ways of doing things are not self-evident to everyone: skilled carpenters will frequently place locks the wrong way ‘round, a case is liable to be put down upside down, etc.

An element of instability among Khmer workers is explained by the wanderlust felt by people from a country where needs were few. However, if the atmosphere of the workshop and the neighborhood is agreeable, they will have no desire to seek new pastures.


The majority of Khmers do not have any political awareness.


The Khmer language is an a-tonic language (like French), of Austro-Asiatic origin, which has been enriched over the centuries by Indian contributions, by Pâli (the unwritten Buddhist religious language), and Sanskrit. The Khmer language is classified as one of the Indo-European languages: “head” is “KeBaL”, a word reminiscent of the Greek “KePHalè:”, or the Latin “CaPuT”, “God” is “TeVoDa”, recalling the Greek “THéVoS” and the Latin “DeVus”.

Scientific words of modern origin (and ideological words used by the new regime) are derived from Sanskrit, in accordance with the principles that governed the formation of French scientific words: “Bike” is “Kong”, “Bicycle” is “Tvé” (bi, two) – Chakra (cycle) -Yieng (vehicle). Only people who are versed in the Khmerisation directives (after 1965) are familiar with this vocabulary, which is modeled on French but is totally alien to the
original Khmer language.

The Khmer language is written with letters of South Indian origin. It comprises 33 consonants, which have an “ar” or an “or” sound. They do not need vowels to be pronounced or have a meaning: “Ka”, the first letter, means “neck”. There are six autonomous vowels, which are pronounced without being linked to consonants and have a meaning by themselves. A series of 12 vowels is combined with consonants: they are placed before the consonants they affect, after them on both sides of them (before and after), above, below, or above and below. The vowels have a different sound depending on whether they affect consonants having an “ar” or an “or” sound. Some are short, others long, and many are diphthongs. The final syllables are closed (ending in a consonant, an aspirate, or an “s”), or long, but are never unvoiced.

This explains the difficulty which the Khmers have in pronouncing unvoiced syllables in French “pas” for poste, “sak” very short, with the “k” remaining at the back of the throat, for sac.

In view of the number of vowels, the Khmer language is very rich in sounds, but does not possess any letter corresponding to “j”, “ch” or “g”, which are generally pronounced “s”. Similarly, it does not have a French “u”, only a long “uu”, the “u” being pronounced “yui”. “An” and “uu” are often confused. It is only by daily exercises that the muscles of the tongue and palate can be trained.

The Khmer language favors harmony, the alternation of long and short, and a lavish form of expression. A Khmer will often “listen to himself speaking”, and the language of someone who speaks well is said to be “harmonious”. A Khmer will generally read a text aloud to “hear” what he reads. Since Cambodian words are written without any intervening spaces, reading is slow and cannot be done “diagonally”.

Asian languages, particularly the Khmer language, have a very simple syntax. There are no tenses or conjugations, there is no gender or number and there are no articles or pronouns: To indicate the plural, a determinative is added: “Bread three pieces”;

A determinative word is also added for the gender: “oxen female three heads”;

For the tenses, adverbs (yesterday, today, tomorrow) or particles (“with”= the future, “to obtain” = the past) are added. For pronouns, appellatives are used: each person describes his position in relation to the other, often humbling himself and sometimes humbling the other person to show contempt or anger.

“I” (“me”, “my”) is translated by “servant” in conversation with a stranger by “sole of the feet – servant” to honor someone important by “servant have compassion” when addressing a monk; by “servant bearing divine adoration on his head under the finest dust of the august feet of the Lord and Master” when addressing Sihanouk; by “elder” or “eldest one” when addressing younger people, one’s fiancée or one’s wife by “child”, “grandchild”, “nephew”, when speaking to parents, grandparents, uncles and older people; and by “Agn” when angry, when insulting others – who are then called “Aeng” – or when addressing children.

In this connection, care must be taken with the use of the familiar form of address tu (you): a Khmer will attach an “Ang-Aeng” meaning to an “I-you” relationship, when the person addressed is relegated to a lower level than that of the person speaking, even to the point of contempt. Even friends rarely use the familiar form of address in public.

The Khmer language is very specific and descriptive: “go and fetch that for me” is “go take object there carry come me”. For a European person, a sentence expresses an idea, which then leads on to another. For a Khmer redundancies and repetitions in another form enable the person addressed to grasp the idea expressed.

Sentences have only one clause: relative clauses and conjunctions (because, so that, for, by, etc.) have only come into use recently, modeled on the French language. The Khmer sentence is a spatial and temporal juxtaposition and is not put together in accordance with Cartesian logic. Moreover, everything in the sentence must be explicit, without any abstract idea: “What do you want: bread or rice?” will not be immediately understood. It will be necessary to explain first what is being discussed: “Bread or rice, which do you want?”

The Khmer language does not, strictly speaking, have any word meaning “Yes”. The expression used may be translated literally as “sole of the feet” for men, and “Master” for women. It is more a form of politeness than acquiescence, implying “Yes, I am listening”. The person speaking may, moreover, insert these words in the course of his speech, rather like “Isn’t it?”. This expression may be coupled with the word “No” (te) to express a polite negation.

To express real acquiescence, a Khmer will repeat an important word in the question or part of the sentence: “Do you want to go to the market?” “Yes, I want to”. Or “Yes, No” for a negative reply (Bat tay).

Often the Khmers reply “Yes” to a negative question to which we are used to answering “No”. “Aren’t you ill? Yes” actually means “No”. Very often the Khmer reply haphazardly “Yes” or “No” because they have not understood the question at all; but they cannot show that they have not understood without losing face and causing the speaker to lose face as well.

In conversation it is important to articulate very clearly and speak very slowly. If writing, write almost in schoolboy fashion, or print.


Civil status is a European invention. A Khmer usually has only one name: his own, which serves as a surname and first name, and which fixes his place in society (e.g. “Sophal”,”Sihanouk”). If sufficiently familiar with someone, one may call him by his name: “Phal” for “Sophal”, corresponding to the familiar mode of address.

Since the colonial era, the habit has grown for civil status purposes of placing one’s grandfather’s name in front of one’s own name, so that it has become the clan or family name: “So Sophal”, “So”, being the name of the grandfather, and hence the family surname. As a rule, surnames and first names are euphonic: “Sonn Sann, Doul Dim, Somuth Sybo, So Samrith, Norodom Sihanouk”, etc. Brothers and sisters have first names in which there is a common element: thus “So Sophal” will have brothers and sisters called “Sophaly, Sophala. Sophea. Sotheary” A boy and girl may have the same “first name”.

A woman keeps her maiden name, which is in fact her only name, all her life. Miss Sarun would have been known by that name all her life if she had remained in Cambodia. For European people, Miss Sarun, married to So Sophal, becomes “Mrs. So” and takes the name of her husband’s grandfather! This was necessary for French administrative purposes, but it is as well to be aware of the Khmer custom.

In Cambodia, moreover, it was easy to change one’s name whenever circumstances required: since a civil registry certificate was required on starting school, it was then that the certificate was made out, with names and dates that did not always correspond to the person’s real age and name.

5 May 1996

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