Shocking Cambodia statistics: Average salaries $1/day, one-fifth of the population killed in the 70s, and more

Posted on August 4th, 2013 by BreAnn

When I was researching these statistics for Cambodia, I WAS ABSOLUTELY BLOWN AWAY! Most people in Cambodia only earn $1 per day salary, only 45% of Cambodian kids actually finish elementary school, men’s life expectancy is only 60 years old, and over one-fifth of Cambodia’s population was killed in a matter of three years (1975-78) in what is considered one of the worst genocides in world history!

When we crossed the border into Cambodia from our tour in Vietnam, the poverty was definitely apparent. But once you are in the cities, you don’t really see it as much. I also had NO CLUE about the lack of education or just how little money the people made. And in Phnom Penh, we soon found out, in great detail, just how awful the genocide from only 35 years ago was (details coming in a future post).

The statistics below are a prime example of how interesting and important it really is to research a country you are traveling to BEFORE you arrive. It is heartbreaking to me to read some of these statistics NOW, after we have already left. I think I may have looked at things quite differently if I had known some of these things.

First of all, geographically, Cambodia is part of an area of the world called “Southeast Asia,” and more specifically part of  “IndoChina,” which is comprised of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and Peninsular Malaysia. Cambodia is “sandwiched” between several other countries: Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, and Vietnam to the east.

Here are some facts about Cambodia (many surprising!):

Capital: Phnom Penh

Currency: Riel. However, Cambodia uses US currency for most items you purchase and the change is tendered in Riels.

Language: Khmer

Population: 15 million people (2010). The population is made up of the following demographics: Khmer (ethnic Cambodian people): 86%, Vietnamese: 5%, Chinese: 5%, other: 4%.

Government: The government is a constitutional monarchy operated as a representative democracy, and the Prime Minister of Cambodia is the head of government. The current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has held office since 1985!! Cambodia also has a king (currently Norodom Sihamoni), who is the head of state.

Economy: GDP: $36 billion, GDP Per capita: $2,361. Cambodia is a very poor country, with approximately one third of the population living on less than $1.00 per day.

We saw many Buddhist monks all over Cambodia

Religion: Theravada Buddhism is the official religion of Cambodia, which is practiced by more than 95 percent of the population. The only other religions recognized in Cambodia are Islam 2.1% and Christianity 1.3% (2008). Adherence to Buddhism generally is considered essential to the country’s ethnic and cultural identity.

Literacy Rate: 77.6% (2008) As a comparison, the overall world literacy rate is 84%, and the nearby countries of Vietnam and Thailand have 94% and 93% literacy rates respectively.

Climate/Seasons: Cambodia has a temperature range from 70 to 95 °F and the climate is dominated by monsoons. There are two distinct seasons: The rainy season, May to October, can see temperatures drop to 71.6 °F and is generally accompanied with high humidity. The dry season lasts from November to April when temperatures can rise up to 104 °F around April.

Foods: Rice is the staple grain, and fish from the local rivers is also an important part of the diet. The cuisine of Cambodia contains tropical fruits, soups and noodles. Key ingredients are kaffir lime, lemon grass, garlic, fish sauce, soy sauce, curry, tamarind, ginger, oyster sauce, coconut milk and black pepper.

Tuk tuk drivers make a lot of money in Cambodia, compared to other workers around the country

Work environment: In Cambodia, a person’s average income is about $750 per year. Most people only make $1/day, while tuk tuk drivers and tour guides can make up to $300/month, which is considered A LOT! Cambodia’s per capita income is rapidly increasing but is low compared to other countries in the region. Most rural households depend on agriculture and its related sub-sectors. Rice, fish, timber, garments and rubber are Cambodia’s major exports. Travel & tourism also brings in a considerable amount of revenue for the country, contributing approximately 20% to the overall GDP, and that number is continually growing. [For a thorough report on Cambodia’s tourism and the economic impact it has, click here.]

Unemployment Rate: Approximately 1%! (2012)

Education: During the Khmer Rouge regime, education was dealt a severe setback as schools were closed, and educated people and teachers were subjected to suspicion, harsh treatment, and possibly execution. At the beginning of the 1970s, more than 20,000 teachers lived in Cambodia; only about 5,000 of the teachers remained 10 years later. Soviet sources report that 90 percent of all teachers were killed under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Currently, the severe scarcity of schools and classrooms, particularly in the rural areas, limit the number of children who have access to education. Most Cambodian villages have a primary school but they are not complete and do not offer a full 1-6 grade curriculum. Cambodian kids face greater difficulty in the pursuit of a higher level of education, as secondary schools are built in less than 10% of the villages. Only 5.4% of Cambodian villages have a lower secondary school and only 2% of them have an upper secondary school.

Due to poverty, children in Cambodia are forced to give up the chance of receiving education to work and supplement the family’s income. The opportunity cost of sending their children to school are very high in some families, making it almost impossible for the children in the families to receive education. Based on the data from the International Labor Organization, close to 20% of children ages 5–9 are employed as child labor. The figures then rise to 47% for children between age 10-14 and 34% for ages 15–17.

Formal administrative data suggests that only a mere 43 percent has actually completed primary education.

Life expectancy: 62.5 years old: 60 years for males and 65 years for females (2010)

Drinking/Smoking age: There is no legal drinking age or smoking age in Cambodia.

Driving: People drive on the RIGHT side of the road, just like the US. Most cars have the drivers wheel on the left side of the car, however, you will see some cars with steering wheels on the RIGHT side!—as Cambodia shares a border with Thailand, where people drive on the other side of the road and car. The legal driving age is 18.


Interesting Cambodia facts:

  • When referring to people from Cambodia, you do not say they are “Cambodian,” you instead say they are Khmer (kah-mair.) This term, Khmer, also refers to the language they speak.
  • Would you like a crunchy snack?

    You will often see people on the streets in Cambodia selling fried cockroaches, grasshoppers, locusts, spiders, and baby roasted chickens as food.

  • Only about 45% of Cambodian kids finish elementary school. The figure is much lower for children who live in rural villages.
  • Half of Cambodia’s current population is younger than 15 years old.
  • Traditionally, birthdays are not celebrated in Cambodia. Older people might not even know their birthdays.
  • UNICEF has designated Cambodia the third most landmined country in the world, attributing over 60,000 civilian deaths and thousands more maimed or injured since 1970 because of the unexploded land mines left behind in rural areas. The majority of the victims are children herding animals or playing in the fields
  • During the genocide in the 1970s, approximately two million people were killed! Visiting the “killing fields” in Cambodia for us was a very somber experience.

    During the four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge, one-fifth of Cambodia’s population was killed. They were mostly educated people, priests, and monks. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot wanted all educated Cambodians dead so that nobody would oppose their rule.

  • Angelina Jolie adopted a boy, who she named Maddox, from a small town in Cambodia in 2002. Brad Pitt later legally adopted Maddox as well, and they changed his last name to Jolie-Pitt. The couple would go on to pour millions of dollars into Cambodia: An estimated 5000 people living in 10 villages owe their livelihoods (or at least part of them) to the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, or MJP as it is known, created by Angelina in 2003.  The foundation has made a lasting difference to some of the world’s poorest people.


What is most surprising to you from these statistics?  Has anything specific in this post affected you in any way?  Let us know by commenting below!



2 responses to “Shocking Cambodia statistics: Average salaries $1/day, one-fifth of the population killed in the 70s, and more”

  1. Jenn Yamamoto says:

    Nice to see that you noted Jolie’s experience. I read her book “Notes from My Travels” after my short mission to East Africa back in 2003 and related very much to having the initial culture-shock with how the 3rd world was living. Maddox was a lucky kid to be adopted by Jolie!

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