Why is Cambodia poor?

A large percentage of Cambodia’s population lives below the poverty line. Here is a quick look at why Cambodia is poor.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Why is Cambodia poor?

There are several reasons why Cambodia is so poor – some historical and some more modern.

Historically, Cambodia has had a hard time recovering from the horrors of the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s that killed an estimated 2 million people. Pol Pot took the country back in time and tried to create a rural economy with hardly any development or modern advancements. It meant that other countries in the region were able to build their economies and focus on industries that weren’t being embraced by Cambodia.

When the Khmer Rouge was toppled, the majority of Cambodians were only trained as farmers because many of the highly-skilled workers and academics had been murdered. Without a strong educational base, it has been hard for the country to rebuild itself quickly enough to enter the modern world economically. It is has been in the past decade or so that industries like tourism have brought more international money into the economy but it has not always been invested wisely in a way that would promote growth.

If you consider modern factors, there are several things which make Cambodia poor. The first is corruption which prevents a fair distribution of wealth between the classes. The elite citizens are making the most of foreign investment from wealthier Asian countries but it is not flowing down to millions of citizens.

On a more systemic level, there has also been inadequate funding for things like education, health and transport which makes it harder for rural workers to move into other jobs or expand their businesses.

There is some positive movement, though, and the number of people living below the poverty line has halved in the past decade. However, there are still 11 million people (out of 15 million) who are classed as ‘poor’ or ‘nearly poor’. Many of the ‘nearly poor’ would fall back into poverty if they lost just 30 cents a day.

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42 thoughts on “Why is Cambodia poor?”

  1. all i can say after living in phnom penh for 3 months in 2014 the best and safest part was when the plane took off to bring me home to good old australia, 83% of cambodians can read or write or have been to school because the main man hun sen a military dictator does not want the polulation to be educated because if they do they may start asking questions on how 3 billion dollars given to cambodia(read hun sen) 3 years ago by the security council for improvements to roads and free schoolingwent missing due to accounting errors in the administation and they are still waiting while hun sen personally works on the problem, he cannot explain where the 6 million dollars per year goes given to him by australia without any follow up by our government on how the money was spent, it went into his swiss bank account, he incidentially was a known killer when he was with pol pot and killed unknown thousands, anyone thinking about going to cambodia will be lied to, your pocked picked ,they are mentally retarded and in 100 years there will be no diffrence. james

    • Thanks for the comment. I think there is an important distinction to make between the political leadership and the average person on the street in Cambodia. It’s true that the wealth at the top isn’t trickling down to most citizens as well as it should, but that doesn’t make them all criminals. The number of people in poverty has decreased in recent years (albeit slightly) and education levels are improving. Of course, that doesn’t mean there isn’t crime on the streets but the link isn’t as direct as you may be suggesting, I feel.

    • Hi ! I want to say something about that estimate 2 million people had died in ‘Khmer Rouge’, it is not CORRECT the approximately that people were kill were 3 million plus.
      By the way, I like when you guys shows about the corruption, highly skilled people were murdered, power between classes have been going on in Cambodia. However I suggest another opinion, at these day Vietnamese Hanoi, Other Vietnamese that are close to the border are move their border to us too. Not just that China that pretend to help us, but they take our nature resources such as gold, qualities of sand and they also make Cambodia society change too.

      • Here we go again… Cambodian people with their loads of excuses… I’ve been living in the country for about 18 months, working on development projects (infrastructure).
        Even if you should take James White’s comment with a grain of salt (as I can clearly see he experienced the real Cambodia and didn’t like it too much. Understandable), stop blaming the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Thai, the “barang” or whatever is handy and ready to be blamed. Hold yourself accountable for own actions (or lack of action thereof). Do you know why your own resources are being sold to foreign nations? Well, because you sell everything you own for a quick buck! That goes from the uneducated tuk tuk driver to the somewhat educated Okhna! There isn’t any kind of long term planning in your day to day life! Where are all the Cambodian forests? Gone! Where is the wildlife? Gone! You destroyed your own country for a few dollars. Pathetic.
        Ok… Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge, and bla bla bla. What is this? A victimization championship? I’m not downplaying the effects of a genocide, but come on now.. Get back on your damn feet and think for yourself! Although Vietnam wasn’t the victim of a genocide, they suffered just as much as you did (and probably even more). Guess what? They are far more advanced and educated than you, Cambodian people! Now you’ll tell me that Vietnamese people stole your land? They didn’t! Your former kings gave the land in exchange for Vietnamese women… Hell, your current queen is Vietnamese! That’s saying something!
        Cambodian people are very proud and cannot process constructive criticism. I guess it’s part of the whole nonsense called “saving face”. To every single Cambodian out there, Cambodia is the greatest nation on earth and one should not, under any circumstances, point out any of the ills that are crippling the country. The very reason that’s preventing this country from moving forward is the backward mentality of the average citizen. Mixed with the greediness of the “nouveaux riches” and the idea that more money begets more respect, Cambodia is doomed to be and remain a stabilitocracy.
        I don’t wish Cambodia to remain the poor, polluted, and resource-depleted country that it is. But if you guys refuse to take up arms to obtain what you deserve (basic healthcare, education, and freedom of movement), you will be at the same development stage in 50 years.
        Trust me, it’s a sound advice.. Instead of buying brand-new American SUVs through a micro-finance institution (oh yea, over half of the Cambodian population is crumbling under consumer debt), organize yourself. Send your brightest kids abroad to study. Lobby for better education. Do something. Foreign help will only last so long.
        As for myself, my patience is running out. Tired of fishing for the moon in the water. You can’t help people if they don’t want to be helped.

        • Hello… I’ve just done some research related to the poverty of my country. Well, I’m so appreciated with your comment toward Cambodia which make a cambodian like me feel so shame of myself. The biggest problem of this country is not the leader or so but all cambodian. They need to get good education to change their vision and develop their country, not just sitting and blame the world.

        • You son of a bitch Veitnam stole cambodia land you dissapointment ass hole go study about history about why cambodian land is poor. Veitnam was the first to start the war to cambodia what the shit are you talking about hoe. have a terrible day you bitch

        • son of a mother F%cker, Veitnam stole cambodia land you dissapointment a#s hole go study about history about why cambodian land is poor. Veitnam was the first to start the war to cambodia what the shit are you talking about hoe. have a terrible day you b*tch

        • why are you even complaning about cambodia when you dont even live here for 2 years yet. and in po put how do you get back on your damn feet when they litterly kill you if you talk back. and what do you mean the vietnamese didn’t steal our land, they did steal our land and you dont even know the full history of our country. maybe you should go back in time and go to the pol put khmer rough. and try to get back on your damn feet, you are going to get totoured and killed.

  2. Actually there is a girl in my university that’s from Cambodia.She is sponsored and says she wants to become an ambassador and in her people don’t usually go to universities girls hardly get the chance.

  3. Thank you for your intro to Cambodia. This seems to be a common occurrence in third world countries. I lived in Samoa for two years and it appears money also went sideways there too. Not necessarily into the government’s personal pockets, because I found their PM Tuilaepa (call me Tui, he would say) a genuine man who lived in a regular home on a road that had the poor living right next door. Money was given by a conservation group offshore to retrain the bowl carvers from a remote village so they would stop milling the endangered Ifalele tree for their carvings,which was their only income. However, they remain to this day still felling the rare trees sand the money has probably been used on infrastructure.

    Cambodian people that I have met on the streets and in the villages are hard working courageous people. Our church from New Zealand funds dormitories for safe housing for students wanting to attend university, either from the streets of PP or who come in from the villages.

    The next generation is being trained to Transform Cambodia, and they are positive fir a fresh beginning.

  4. I have been helping a young man with money for food and some medical expenses to get through High School. He will be attending University in PP soon and needs a place to stay. I will help him with School expenses if you can help with a place to stay 🙂

  5. Thank you so much! Although I am sure majority of your readers are of adult age, i am happy to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this article and found it as an excellent educational resource as a student myself. Thanks!

    • Oh, I’m so pleased to hear that!! I assume that most of the people using my site to plan their travels are adults. But I try to make my stories informative and inspirational, so I’m really pleased to hear that students like yourself find them useful as well. Good luck with your studies!!

  6. Thank you for this introduction. I am currently a 4th year college student and we were asked to research about the economy of a certain country and I picked Cambodia because I was interested in this country when I was young. I was able to see a video about the country and was interested about it ever since. Now, I have been given the opportunity to research about this country and give my reaction or opinion about Cambodia’s economy.

  7. Great website but I’d like to know more about how you can stop poverty and how the country would look without poverty existing and any goals Cambodian government has come up with to make Poverty extinct.

    • I second Mariyam Ather’s comment. I’ve been told for years now that I must visit Cambodia. I must see Ankor Wat and go to the fishing village. No one ever mentions how ridiculously expensive tourism is here yet how extremely poor the locals are. I am not shocked at the amount of money made in tourism in this country but instead I am very shocked at the fact that the locals don’t seem to profit in any way from this tourism. My heart is broken because I want to visit certain places, but I know the locals will not get even a fraction of my money spent. My travel in Cambodia has been put at a standstill. What is being done to remedy the desperate state of affairs in Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn??

      • Hi Kisheea. When you visit Cambodia, you can help locals in a few ways:
        1. Patronise local restaurants for your meals. Don’t be afraid of not knowing what to order. Show them a phrase from Google Translate, e.g. chicken rice, or a picture. Many have menus in English, as well as in Khmer. Tip the waiter or waitress if he or she has served you well. The food is safe, cheap, and you are giving your money to the locals.
        2. Make friends with your tuk tuk driver. Tip him or pay for his meals if you like his services. Some will invite you home if you ask about their family. Spend time with them, or buy a small gift.
        3. Ask the locals (e.g. your tuk tuk driver) to suggest where you can get your stuff locally (e.g. buying a T-shirt). Buy local produce if possible.
        4. Don’t buy from children or give money to them. In time they will learn that staying in school is best. I tell them to go to school, period.
        5. You can usually find a local who wants to learn English from you. I spend time teaching them English and Mandarin (my mother tongue). They are eager to learn and improve. Invest in their future. Money solves acute problems, but education is long-term help.

        The situation is not as desperate you think. Help the Cambodians help themselves. One step at a time – they have been through some pretty rough times.

  8. @ Michael. The reasons for Cambodia’s poverty are a fascinating question. We could write tomes about it. But I am bit over the never-ending “Khmer Rouge killed all the teachers” when blaming the poor state of eduation. The KR were ousted nearly 40 years ago now, and Cambodia is surely into its second generation of teachers after that. Education has not been well resourced, and the sector has been very corrupt as all government has been. I agree the failure to colect and distribute public monies well has caused a tiered society and there has nto been enough money to fund education, health, industries, training etc, while much of it is squandered by a corrupt elite. @ James White. You migh twant to tighten up on the figures and facts. Your comemnts are based on actual facts, but you are being a “bit” loose looke. @ Penh. Classic Cambodian blaming all the ills of the place on the Vietnamese.

  9. Hey just wondering if ther are anymore articles about cambodia if so could you give me a link in the comments please thanks micheal.

  10. When was this published? I am a student, and I need the exact date in order to use this site for my paper. It would be awesome if I could have it. Thanks!

  11. Your family is poor because you are a bad father. Your country is poor because you had a bad leader. As you knew how Pol Pot made us super poor from 1975 to 1979. And I know, you know what kind of our leader today is. We need a good leader to repair the moral broken people which we now lose hope that we could have him.

  12. Thanks for the short input on what is going on in Cambodia. As I’ve been visiting here for a week now one thing I have seen for sure Cambodian people are kind and respectful! I’ve visited many countries and this one made me feel welcomed the most.
    Also to those people who are quick to judge and come to conclusions about poor or underdeveloped countries, it’s clearly white privileged talking! Even the most developed modern counties can’t solve their problems overnight! You cannot understand anyone if you haven’t lived their life! Stop harassing them and being disrespectful!
    I really hope Cambodia find its path to growth because I see greatness in the heart of its people.
    Politic is a nasty game!

  13. Though I have not visited this Country, after coming across comments of various people from deferent countries, I got an imaginary picturesque in my mind as follows:- The Cambodians may be poor economically but they are very respectful towards other countrymen which is a very big mountain quality in them. Therefore I respect them. I pray almighty to give them all enough resources to improve their Nation…….K Y DASU, Indian.


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