"Teacher, Why did you go to Bangkok," asked one of our private students.
"To get some books," I said.
"But teacher, why didn't you get the books from Cambodia."
"Because Cambodia doesn't have the ones that I want," I answered.
"Why!" she demanded.
"I think because Cambodia is small and Thailand and Bangkok have a lot of people."
Our student bristled at that reply.
"Teacher, I think Cambodia is big and has a lot of people just like Thailand!" she said.
Thailand does, of course, have many more people than Cambodia, but a true view of the outside world doesn't seem to be taught in Cambodian schools. Neither does it in Thai schools; I've encountered this weird lack of knowledge about the populations of other countries in Thailand many times before, too.
Interested in her response, I wrote up some countries- Cambodia, Thailand, the U.S.A, New Zealand, China, the U.K and Vietnam, and asked my student to estimate their populations.
She was bang on for Cambodia (13 million). And she knew about New Zealand (4 million) as we had talked about this in a previous lesson. She estimated the population of Thailand at just 14-15 million though, and her eyes bulged when I told her the true number- more than 60 million.
She guessed that the U.S.A would be home to around 20 million people and so she was stunned when I told her that she was somewhat short of the mark and in fact there were more than 300 million Americans. Her guess of the population of China almost left me speechless- about 22 million she said- and she just gaped when I informed her that there were 1.3 billion Chinese. Neighbouring Vietnam had about 18 million people she reckoned- it has more than 80 million- and the U.K had, she thought, 25 million citizens. That's far short of the true number- 62 million.
Now, this student is no dummy: she is in her first year of university study and she's quite bright. She was having trouble digesting this new information, though. Her problem seemed to be that she equated a country's population with its prestige and the knowledge that Cambodia was something of a world pip-squeak in terms of people had seriously dented her pride.
It's odd however, that after centuries of fearing and loathing the Vietnamese and the Thai because of the number of times that those countries have invaded Cambodia, students wouldn't at least know that their neighbours had significantly larger populations.
More scary though, is that with all the sabre-rattling going on at the Thailand-Cambodian border- and most of that is coming from Phnom Penh- Cambodians are seemingly oblivious to the wildly different strengths of the nations. Population isn't always an indication of military might of course, but it often is and besides its unlikely that many Cambodians would know that Thailand is estimated to have the 29 strongest military force in the world.