News - May 23, 2019

Off the beaten track in Cambodia

Anne van der Heijden

Who? Merle Schots (27), MSc student of Health and Society
What? Thesis research at IRRI (International Rice Research Institute)
Where? Phnom Penh, Cambodia

‘‘The province where I did my research is full of endless rice fields and little else. Actually I don’t like rice much...

I did research on how rice farmers see their use of pesticides and their health. In the first village where I held interviews, my interpreter and I sat in the house of the head of the village. He got farmers to come and see me. It was going to be done the same way in the second village, but then it got a bit more difficult. Why that was, exactly, escaped me for a long time. I reckon it had something to do with the approaching elections. The government did not want meetings with farmers to be organized for fear that they would be influenced in their voting.


During the elections I took a week’s holiday in Vietnam. My colleagues were concerned about me because there were a lot of riots during the previous elections. In the end, the elections passed reasonably peacefully. But because I had also been invited to a wedding in Vietnam, it was good timing for that holiday anyway.

Cambodia suffered under the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge and a protracted civil war. About 25 per cent of the population were killed. Intellectuals were among the specific targets of executions, which has led to a shortage of teachers. So there are a lot of expats teaching in Cambodia now, which means a lot of children speak a little English. When I went to the market or into a shop, a child would often be conjured up from somewhere to translate for me. In daily life I didn’t notice much of the impact of the war, most people are reluctant to talk about it, and it is not something you casually ask about.


My time in Cambodia was really very nice. Because I went to villages that were not on the tourist routes, I think I got a more realistic and unique picture of the country than most people who visit Cambodia. I would have liked to stay longer, and I would love to go back one day to see how the country has developed. But I wouldn’t want to live there, because I would always remain an outsider. Even if I spoke the language fluently, I would still be that tall, blonde, foreign girl.’