To find out who helped the country in the 1980s, just ask Cambodians in their 30s which foreign language they speak. In many cases, they will mention Russian, Polish, German or Hungarian after English or French.
During that decade, thousands of Cambodians received scholarships to study in countries that were part of the Soviet Union’s block of influence, and usually spent their first year abroad mastering the language of their host country.
Since scholarships were available in all fields—from economies and finance to journalism and engineering—there now are Cambodians in most spheres who have mastered one of the former Eastern Bloc’s languages.
Cambodians were not limited to one particular country per specialty, which has brought to each field people with diverse techniques and experience. For example, at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Faculty of Fine Arts, one professor studied in Hungary, three in Poland, three in Bulgaria and at least six in Russia, said the faculty’s vice dean, So Chenda, who spent seven years in Bulgaria studying interior design.
Cambodia of the 1980s was a country trying to recover from the Khmer Rouge nightmare. Living under an international boycott aimed at Vietnam, in constant fear of attacks by Pol Pot’s forces, they were trying to rebuild their lives in a country lacking everything essential.
For young people coming out of this devastated world, going overseas was quite a shock and, at first, basic amenities were small miracles.
“After all, we had barely emerged from the jungle,” and Khmer Rouge working camps, said one former student. He recalled laughing at a fellow student who, on his first night on foreign soil, waited for the longest time beside the bathtub for the water to cool—he had not realized there was both hot and cold water in the tub.
But people who had survived the Pol Pot era could adapt to anything without much difficulty, said Sokhany Khun, a teacher who spent one year in Russia in the mid-1980s studying Russian in order to be able teach the language in Cambodian high schools.
“For me, Russia was paradise,” said Ouk Navouth, who studied there from 1987 to 1994, returning with a master’s degree in journalism. “I wished I could have stayed there.”
Scholarships included warm clothes, room and board. But students had to take care of their own small expenses. “I had arrived with $20 in my pocket,” said Kong Vanarith, who completed his doctorate in civil engineering in Poland. “We had very little money and this seemed a lot to me.”
To earn pocket money, So Chenda worked in a compass factory during his first vacation, and Ouk Navouth on a farm. A few students in the Soviet Union quickly learned about the black market, and sold jeans brought over through the Cambodian Embassy, said a former student. “You had to be very careful not to be caught by the Russian police,” because this was considered a serious offense, he said.
Students did not have the funds to visit their families during their years abroad, and some of them missed Khmer food. Potatoes could never replace rice for a Cambodian, said a former student.
But as homesick as they might have been, the return home was not always easy—jobs for university graduates were scarce in Cambodia.
Kong Vanarith had expected the country to develop faster than it had during his 11 years in Poland. Still, he turned down a teaching position at Wroclaw Technical University to come back here. Working under contract, he now is project chief engineer for Arte Cambodia.
Ouk Navouth works for the Ministry of Information and as a freelance news cameraman.
Sokhany Khun teaches languages. She has fond memories of Moscow’s parks and subway, and especially of its people, she said, Most students made good friends during their time abroad that they wish they could afford to visit.
Today, Cuba, Russia, Poland, and other former socialist-bloc countries continue to offer scholarships to Cambodians.