Roger Garms, our board Secretary, has made over a dozen trips to Cambodia for the Cambodian School Project.  Here is background that Roger finds important for understanding Cambodia, our work, and why we do it.
Cambodia’s Geography and Population

Cambodia is roughly the size of Wisconsin, the state where the Cambodian School Project was founded in the United States.  Most of Cambodia’s land mass consists of a low and seasonally wet central plain. This plain contains Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, the Tonle Sap. 

Cambodia borders Laos to the north, Thailand to the north and west, Vietnam to the east and south, and the Gulf of Thailand to the south. The Dangret and Cardamon mountains border Thailand; the Mekong River flows into Cambodia from Laos and continues on to Vietnam.
Cambodia’s population, at 15 million people, is three times that of Wisconsin.  About 80% of Cambodians live in the countryside and half of Cambodians are living in poverty.  Siem Reap Province, where we have built our schools, has 900,000 residents and Siem Reap City, where our technical school graduates typically find jobs, has 250,000 of this total.   

Cambodian life is powerfully influenced by topography and weather.  Fed by monsoon rains and the flooding Mekong, in the rainy season the Tonle Sap expands to 5 times its dry season size.  Water covers the rice fields for miles around, irrigating and bringing rich sediment to the paddy rice fields.  This flooding is why we have to haul in fill before building schools in the flood plain - we want them above water in rainy season.
When the rains stop, the water that filled the rice fields slowly drains through the canals and streams back to the Tonle Sap and the Mekong.  This natural irrigation system allowed Neolithic farmers to domesticate rice Thousands of years later rice is still grown in the same way, with a feeling of connection to ancestors and their way of life. Cambodia’s annual religious rituals and its classical dance revolve around the blessings of water and the fertility it brings. 

Siem Reap (Siemreab on our map) is just north of the Tonle Sap.  In the 9th to 14th centuries, it was the home of the world’s largest pre-industrial city and seat of the Khmer empire .The city now each year hosts nearly 4 million visitors who come to see the beautiful temples at Angkor, certainly one of the wonders of the ancient world.
The country is rapidly modernizing but little investment is being made in the countryside.  This is particularly true in education, and poor school attendance is the biggest educational problem.  Many poor farmers have sold their land to foreign speculators, leaving little for their large families to inherit.  Without land or basic literacy, poor farm children have little chance to participate in Cambodia’s modernizing economy.  This is why we focus on educating poor farm girls and boys.

People have inhabited this part of the world for millenia.  Leang Speu cave, 40 miles from our first school, comtained artifacts some 8,000 years old.  Settlers here had abundant water -  the key to rice cropping - and a bounty of edible fish.  Fields of cultivated rice still surround our schools.  Here you see a brother and sister, students at our Poum Steung (River Village) School.  They are in the family boat, gathering food in much the same way their ancestors have done for thousands of years.  

The earliest Neolithic civilization we know of in Cambodia was at a trading village at Oc Eo (now in Vietnam).  Roman coins have been found there.  This village became the capitol of the first Cambodian state, called Funan by the Chinese.  The Khmer state grew as trade in tropical spices developed, the delicacies much prized by Europe and South Asia.  In the first century CE, merchants and traders from Europe to China traded in Funan for cardamom from the mountains and white and black pepper from Kampot, still prized by chefs in France.   
Funan gave way to Zhenla, an inland kingdom north of Oc Eo in what is now southern Laos.  A deepening understanding of water control allowed the Khmer to grow great quantities of rice, and their population expanded.  Neighboring kingdoms were conquered.  By the 7th century, the Khmer were settling north of the Tonle Sap, digging canals and reservoirs.  From the 9th to the 14th centuries, dozens of magnificent stone temples were built near here.  This area the size of Manhattan became home to nearly a million Khmer.  The Angkor Wat temple, shown here, was built in the 12th century.  The site is a metaphor for the imagined Khmer world.  The five central towers represent the mountains where the God-king communed with the Gods and from which he ruled the earth.  The oceans are represented by the great barays, huge reservoirs around the temple holding the water that would irrigate the fields during the dry season.  Eventually the Khmer ruled the Annamese Peninsula, which is now known as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. 
Over time the expansive vigor of empire eroded and rival kingdoms became stronger.  By the early 15th century the empire was no more.  Old enemies nibbled away at the borders.  By the 19th century the country had lost the Mekong delta to Vietnam on the east and Angkor Wat to Thailand on the west.  The French were establishing colonies in Southeasst  Asia at that time, and Leggio Norodom, a clever Khmer king, convinced them to make Cambodia a protectorate.  Not only did they do so, the French forced Thailand to return Angkor.  Another clever king, Norodom Sihanouk, was able to get independence back from the French in 1954.  The early French interests in Cambodia were colonial – trade and religion.  But later, French scientists would be the first Europeans to study and begin to preserve the monumental temples as works of art. 

In the 1960s, the war in Vietnam spread to Cambodia.  The North Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia to protect the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and the Viet Cong trained Cambodian communist guerilla soldiers, the Khmer Rouge.  The United States bombed the countryside trying to suppress this growing communist presence.  This had an opposite effect, as Communist guerillas recruited more of the bombed.  The U.S. left Southeast Asia in 1975, and the Khmer Rouge quickly took over Cambodia.  They ruled for the next 4 years.
These communist rulers, responding to a radical reading of Marxism, displaced most of the population from cities and villages to rural slave labor camps.  Most of the middle class were killed as class enemies.  The camps were brutal and many slave laborers were murdered, sent to the killing fields.  Food ran short and the slaves began to starve.  There were no doctors and no medicine.  Some 2 million of the 7 million in the population died.  Finally, in 1979, the Khmer Rouge were defeated by the Vietnamese and driven into the mountains.  Guerilla war continued until 1993, when the United Nations brokered an end to the civil war and conducted elections.  Civil unrest ended and it has been safe to travel and live there ever since.
The Present

Urban Cambodia is clearly better off now than when we started our project in 2000.  Many hotels have been built and many businesses have been started in Siem Reap.  There is little to curb the profit motive, however, and it is difficult to control development or to reduce corruption.  The poor lack access to these new resources.  Here you see a new hotel in Siem Reap.  All too often, such beautiful new buildings hide the desperate poverty of the unskilled workers in the hotels.
Traditional Cambodians have remarkable social assets which partially offset their difficult circumstance.  They share, they know how to make do, they are used to hard work and many of them have strong family support.  With literacy and education, children from our school villages will be better able to use these social resources to be able to survive economically and support their families.    
Below to the left is a school we replaced at Srai Pou Village.  No classes were held here in the rainy season – one look at the roof tells you why.  There was no government money available for school construction and local resources were too slight to build a new school.  Thanks to an anonymous donor and to our ongoing support, the students at Srei Pou now can go to school even in the rainy season.
The Future

Jayavarman VII (1125-1218), was the greatest of the Khmer kings.  He built the temples at the Bayon and Angkor Thom.  Here you see the entrance to Angkor Thom.  These stone gods of the Hindu creation story are creating life by using the Naga serpent to stir up the sea of milk.  Jayavarman built hospitals, roads and reservoirs as well as temples.  He was much renowned for his humanitarian ideas and actions.  Modern Cambodia needs such humanitarian ideas and humane development.  Thanks to the United Nations and the efforts of countless Cambodians, the Cambodian holocaust has been followed by peace and an opportunity for prosperity.  We hope in our small way to follow the example set by the great Jayavarman and further this recovery.
It is not just income that is at stake in poor rural villages. Climate change is bringing more frequent floods and droughts, meaning the poorest families can face having no food now and no seed crop for the next year. Poverty makes families and children vulnerable to exploitation.  The inability to feed one’s family forces people to take desperate measures.  These rural poor are among the most vulnerable and least likely to be able to take advantage of the social changes that modernization will bring.  Our organization strives to educate the poor farm girls and boys in our seven elementary schools.  We make sure the young men and women in our technical school are trained and placed in good new jobs, that they get a start on a life of self-sufficiency and success.  We help our schools’ communities in times of natural disaster. We improve our schools and support our teachers, building a culture of hope as well as providing the tools for education.
Literacy and technical skills will help our students to participate in a changing world that will leave the uneducated rural poor behind.  Education and employment will make them less vulnerable to exploitation.  We hope that as they take their place as adults, these students will not only prosper but will help put Cambodia on a humane and prosperous course, a course like that set a thousand years ago by Jayavarman VII.