The Elephants Are Gone

Most of the region where Cambodia sits is economically poor, Cambodia is the poorest of them all.  The workforce is poorly educated too.  By tenth grade all but 13 percent of the students have dropped out. Cambodian locals do not have light or life in their eyes. They may smile, but it is only one of simple existence.

A recent study demonstrated that due to the war of the 1970’s, symptoms of PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder) and the illnesses associated with it are being passed down from one generation to the next. Hope is distant and forgotten.

The sad thing is, most of the world does not care.

Once, Cambodia boasted the largest city in the world. By the fourteenth century, Angkor reached a population around 1 million. The people and their rulers were grand and majestic. One account from a Chinese chronicler who visited in 1295 and 1296 tells of the grandeur of the king, Indravarman III, in this account:

All of his soldiers were gathered in front of him, with people bearing banners, musicians and drummers following behind…the next contingent was made up of three to five hundred women of the palace, carrying huge candles, alight even though it was daylight. Following them came carts drawn by goats, deer, and horses, all of them decorated with gold. Next in line, riding on elephants, were the ministers and officials and relatives of the king.  Their red parasols, too many to count, were visible from far away. Next came the king’s wives and concubines and their servants, some in litters and carts, others on horses or elephants, with well over a hundred gold-filigree parasols. Last came the King, standing on an elephant, the gold sword in his hand and the tusks of his elephant encased in gold. He had more than twenty white parasols, their handles all made of gold. Surrounding him on all sides were elephants very large in numbers.

No one knows exactly why, theories abound, but the empire rapidly declined and disappeared. Joel Brinkley, in his book, Cambodia’s Curse, said, “Yet as the Angkor empire died, Cambodia lost its soul.” Sad.

He continues, “Through the Angkor empire and into the twentieth century, Cambodia had not a single school.”  Let that sink in. He says, it is “not surprising that most Cambodians lack ambition or any hope for a better life.”

In the mid to late 1970’s, 2 million Cambodians died at the hand of the Khmer Rouge. Another 650,000 died after the fall of the Khmer Rouge due to disease like malaria, typhoid, cholera, and a host of other illnesses spread throughout the dismal refugee camps.

Today, thirty-nine years after the war which devastated this land, the country appears to be booming.  Skyscrapers are growing at the speed of a midwest cornfield. Seven years ago when I first began to travel here, there were few.  Today they reach skyward on nearly every corner in the capital city of Phnom Penh.  But the benefits from this foreign-infused-prosperity does not reach down to the earthen poor. According a Phnom Penh Post headline dated October 19, 2017, “The urban poor are losing out in the growing capital city.”  The wealth boom only lines the pockets of the rich. Most of the urban dwellers, in fact 60% of them, earn less than $75 per month.

A casual walk down the city street reveals the people, in the shadows of the skyscrapers, doing things the way they did centuries ago; washing clothes in pots, roasting coffee beans over charcoal in crude drums, sweeping with backbending reed brooms. There are tools and machines to perform these and other tasks, but Cambodians resist change.  In rural areas, rice is planted the same way it was 1,000 years ago, yielding only one crop per year when technology exists to increase annual rice crops to three.

Throw into this mix deportees from the United States and it gets even worse. Not only have these guys inherited PTSD, they are sent thousands of miles from home and dropped off in a place they have never been. They cannot read or write the language.

In order to work they must have a government issued I.D.  In the United States all one needs to do is go to his local DMV in the city where he resides and purchase an I.D.  In Cambodia, like everything else, the system is antiquated and difficult to navigate.

To get a Cambodian I.D. citizens have to find a family member in their family’s hometown and get placed on their “Family book.”  U.S. immigration drops the deportees off in Phnom Penh, but many of their families were from Battambang, six hours away.  With no money or job, it is nearly impossible to get there, let alone find a long-lost distant family member.  One young man I spoke with today does not have his I.D.  I asked him where his family was and he told me, “They are all dead”.  What is a man like this supposed to do? But this is the way everything is in Cambodia, difficult.

The deportees are banished to a place which has no means to care for them.  Depression causes them to turn to drugs, alcohol, some even suicide.  Many are lost on the streets. One such young man, hooked on meth, was described by Hope Now staff member Mout, as “Homeless with no one to love him.”

The elephants are gone, but Hope Now is here, at the foot of the skyscrapers, helping these men.  Our budget is small, but we do what we can to change one life at time. Thanks for your support and prayers.

sources:  Cambodia’s Curse:The Modern History of a Troubled Land. Public Affairs. 2011 by Joel Brinkley.
Phnom Penh Post. October 19, 2017


  1. Roger, thank you for the history surrounding this land where these men have been excilled to. I am so saddened by the circumstances it is hard to find words but I am in prayer for this forgotten land and it’s people and for your faithfulness in going to meet with the Hope Now Team there.

    Liked by 1 person

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