Living Mission — Change comes to Cambodia

Father Charles Dittmeier

Change in a developed society can proceed at a measured pace as city planners and corporate executives project future needs and trends, as researchers develop new techniques and materials, as consumer populations gradually increase their available income and purchasing power.

Change in a less developed country can be much slower. There, although other countries may already have innovations, in the less developed country it takes time to create political stability, to establish wise and efficient leadership, to train the skilled workers that are needed, to produce an economy strong enough to build factories and buy raw materials. But when those conditions are met, then the emerging society can quickly adapt the practices and technologies already in place in other countries.

When I look around at Cambodia today, it is quite different from when I arrived 23 years ago.

Some of the changes are not earth-shaking. Today there are shops dedicated only to the needs of babies. Now there are optical shops for people to get glasses. More and more people are starting to wear shoes rather than sandals and flip-flops. There are now even stores selling sport fishing tackle for people who might have more leisure time.

Other changes show real progress and development in society. In a culture where everyone has black hair, there are fewer children with brown hair caused by malnutrition. Today’s children weigh more and are taller because of improved nutrition and the availability of food. 

More houses are built of concrete rather than bamboo slats. Now there are a few hospitals that offer MRIs and CT scans with modern medical equipment. There are now three international airports.

Transportation is one area that has seen a tremendous amount of change. When I arrived, most people walked to their destinations, fortunate families owned a bicycle and people with money had a small 95-cc Honda. Motorcycle taxis were available to ferry people around the city but you were exposed to the sun and rain on the back of the moto and needed to know exactly where you wanted to go — and Khmer language — so you could direct the driver.

Cyclos and tuk-tuks were also available. Cyclos are human-powered three-wheelers with a bench seat on the front end of a bicycle frame. They were great for returning from the neighborhood market with all the purchases.

Tuk-tuks are semi-wagons with one or two bench seats, pulled by a motorcycle. The whole family could travel together. All of these modes of transportation were cheap and available everywhere.

Now larger individually owned motorcycles remain the most common form of transportation for most of the population, but an innovation of the last four or five years is the motorized tuk-tuk, imported from India. Rather than being pulled by a motorcycle, it has its own motorcycle engine in a three-wheel body with a single bench seat for two or three people.

It is also covered to protect passengers from the sun and rain, but its greatest feature is the ability to summon a motorized tuk-tuk on a smartphone app. You can enter your destination address so you don’t need to know Khmer to direct the driver, and — maybe best of all — it computes the fare in advance so there is no need to haggle with the driver over how much to pay. They are also safer than riding on the back of a motorcycle.

Transportation still has a long way to go in Cambodia — the streets still flood, trains to the two destinations travel at 18 MPH — but getting around is certainly much easier than it was in the past.

Father Charles Dittmeier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville, is the co-director of the Maryknoll Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh and pastor of the English-speaking parish. Follow his journey at

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