Women in Cambodian Society
A delirium inspired by articles

by Santel Phin
Phnom Penh, Cambodia

This book is made of the tears that I could not cry, 

Of the fears hidden in my smile.
The Chinese Candies, Mian Mian

Phnom Penh! For a week now, I have been wasting my time in Cambodia. I came here because they have reserved four pages for me in The New York Times. They want me to write an article about Women in Cambodian Society. I cannot finish this damn article though. Son of a bitch! What am I going to write? This goddamn country is in a cycle of degeneration. Because of the war, the city remains only the illusion of her past beauty. And the people of the city are infected by this degeneration.

Phnom Penh is a city that has its own history, like all other things. Before the war, Phnom Penh was classified as the most beautiful city in Asia, like Paris in Europe. I look down the Mekong. It is not because of this river that I dragged myself out into this bullshit country, but the sunset on the Mekong is beautiful. Between sunset and sunrise, which do you prefer? Actually, I do not care what you think. For me, I prefer sunset. Because after sunset, it will be dark, and when it is dark, I can go see Somaly.

Somaly is a Cambodian girl. Do not have any illusions. She is not Indradevi, the wife of the last great God-King Jayavarman VII. She has not cultivated components of the Sanskrit culture or played a determining role in politics or arts. She does not know how to compose inscriptions. She does not even know how to write. She is nothing but a woman. This society is complicated to understand. Perhaps it is better if you do not try to understand. If you try, believe me, you will not find the way out. I cannot leave here. Something has resonated deeply in me. What is the difference between a woman and a cigarette? A cigarette is easier to throw away than a woman. Trying to get close to a woman is no different than being a fish caught in a net. You cannot simply walk out. Maybe I have to clean my heart, which is too sensitive to that kind of thing. It is insane. Love makes us stupid, and the stupidity makes us happy.

Before I came here, I had a vision of Khmer women completely different from what I see now. In ancient Angkorian times, women played an important role in society. They not only acted as the king's bodyguards, but they also worked as astronomers, doctors, and judges. The Princess Indradevi was considered a prolific scientist. To the period of Angkor, the Cambodian woman characterizes Cambodia. She is the cement of the society, the guardian of values, and the most representative picture of the Cambodian culture. Her opinions are listened to. She is often more active and more ambitious than her husband and gets along better in business. Her importance in economic life is considerable. The queens, princesses, and women of noble birth are cultivated components of the Sanskrit culture and play a definitive role in politics and arts. From Hyang Pavitra, spouse of Jayavarman II, first king of the unified Khmer reign, to the most known Jayarajadevi and Indradevi, wives of the last great God-King Jayavarman VII, the Ladies of Kambujadesha were "oceans of wisdom," as quoted by the inscriptions. Some of these inscriptions were even composed by the noble women themselves.

The women are not shy to express their sexuality. If a husband is called for some faraway business, it goes well for several nights. But after ten nights have passed, his wife will not forget to complain: I am not a spirit; how can I sleep alone? 

Everybody, men and women, enter naked into the basins to bathe. Only when the father, the mother, or the elderly are there in the basin, do their sons and daughters or other young people not enter. If the young people are in the basin, the old step aside. But if they are the same age, they are not shy. The women hide their sex with the left hand, while entering the water. That is all. They do the same thing down the river. Each time, a thousand women bathe naked in the river. Everybody can see them from head to feet. Even women from the noble homes participate and don't conceive any shame from it.

These days, those types of interactions do not exist anymore. Khmer traditionalists compare a Cambodian girl to white cotton wool. And it is said that when white is muddied, it can never be washed to the purity and cleanliness it once had.

As described in Khmer literature, the Khmer woman must remain virtuous to uphold the image of her family. She is required to speak softly, walk lightly, and be well mannered at all times. She is required to stay in her house and serve as the caretaker of the family and preserver of the home.

Most women, particularly rural women, cannot travel even a short distance from home, even for work, study, or socialization. The society is afraid that women might have affairs with men or lose their virginity before marriage, which is considered immoral. This restriction affects the freedom of movement and further development of women.

As a young lady, a Khmer woman must be a virgin before she marries. After marriage, she is expected to remain faithful to her husband. The saying "the cake is not bigger than the cup" drives some parents into pressuring their daughters to marry those men who bribed them. Divorce or family violence results when women are forced to live with husbands they dislike.

The fidelity of women in marriages born outside of love is probably a crime against nature. A woman always loses in her first marriage the most beautiful days of her youth, and by the divorce, she gives society something negative to say against her. To be happy in the crime, it would be necessary not to have any remorse. I don't know if such a being can exist. Sometimes, women commit suicide or try to escape their home situation, at the risk of being trapped by sex traffickers.

Somaly is one of the victims infected by this degeneration. Most men have one moment in their life that they can make important, life-impacting decisions; it is the moment that nothing seems impossible to them. But she is a woman, and she has to face the unfair problem of a woman's condition.

Most girls from rural areas are not educated. After decades of war, people came back to work in the rice fields. When peace arrived in 1993 and the free market economy came to Cambodia, people owned their lands. When companies and foreign investment arrived, farmers sold their land to buy houses and transportation such as motorcycles and cars. After they spent all their money, they had to look for work in factories. Their salary was low because there were far more workers than jobs. Some girls were able to obtain employment in garment factories. However, more girls remained jobless, so they accepted work as beer or liquor sellers for Tiger Beer and other companies.

It was easy to make girls become prostitutes because they work at night. Since Cambodia has a conservative culture, these girls are not considered good, moral people by society. As a result, they feel hopeless about their lives. They are rejected by society and their condition gradually spirals even further downwards. The situation for women in Cambodia can be very dangerous.

Do not take fire from the inside to the outside. This means that women should not tell others about any family problems. Women are forced to keep their problems to themselves and suffer the hurt alone. Society still considers women bad if they share family problems with others. Therefore, society has the prejudice that women must not talk about their problems when they visit their neighbors or get together, even for information exchange. It is a tremendous barrier for women to socialize, learn, and exchange information.

Somaly works evenings in a nightclub. She has a lot of sweetness in her character. She said: Rich people, they can say whatever they want, because they are not in our situation. Rich women especially think they are right because they are rich and they have power. Whatever the poor think is wrong. The rich women should think again, because it is their husbands who pay the sex workers.

If marriages come from love, why does becoming husband and wife destroy love? Most of the men about 30 to 40 years old are the children and adults of the Pol Pot regime. The majority of these men still view their wives and children as their property, to be used or beaten. Education during the Pol Pot era taught students to be cruel and selfish, without gratitude, tolerance, or forgiveness; they were taught to be tricky or to steal for their own survival.

Every night, men venture out to have affairs with young, beautiful girls. If you have money, you can be like a king, changing girls every night. Phnom Penh is becoming a new port of Amsterdam.

I observe the young generation. Their mannerism is different from the old generation. Time passes and these kinds of things will change. I will leave for New York Tomorrow. I want to see Somaly for the last time. I want to say goodbye to her.


 It was the winter
 by Francis Cabrel

She said, I already walked too much,
My heart is already too heavy of secrets,
Too heavy of pains.

She said, I don't continue anymore,
What waits for me, I already lived it.
I do not need it anymore.

She said that to live was cruel
She didn't believe in the sun anymore
Nor to the silences of the churches
Even my smiles frightened her
It was the winter in the bottom of her heart.

Wind was never colder
The more violent rain than that evening
In the evening of her twenty years
In the evening where she extinguished fire
Behind the facade of her eyes
In a white lightning
She joined the sky surely
She shines next to the sun
As the new churches
But so since that evening I cry
It is that it is cold in the bottom of my heart.



1. The Cambodia Report

    Youth Resource Development Program

2. De l´amour, Stendhal

3. L´ombre blanch, Saneh Sangsuk

4. Les bonbons chinois, Mian Mian

5. The Status of Khmer Women, Elizabeth Chey


    Cambodia Human Rights Site

    Asian Human Rights Commission

7. Mémoires sur les coutumes du Cambodge

    Extraits du récit de Tcheou Ta Kouan (1296)

8. The vicious cycle of poverty and sex in Phnom Penh,

    Asia Human Rights News




10. LA FEMME KHMER, Jérôme Rouer, déc 96

11. The Ladies of Kambujadesha, Marilia Albanese


© 2003 Khmer Institute. All rights reserved.