Global Studies: Cambodia

Trip Update: May 14, 2024

Hello everyone! 

Arriving in the bustling city of Siem Reap after the peace and quiet of Koh Pdao village was an exciting change of pace for the group. 

On the morning of our first full day in the city we visited a land mine museum. The museum was started by a former teen soldier who has dedicated his life to removing land mines (some of which were set by his own hands) and supporting those impacted by explosions. His team has removed over 500,000 land mines from across Cambodia over the past few decades, but a lot of work remains to be done. The daily destruction wrought by the ubiquity of UXO in rural provinces, many years after the end of conflict, shocked us all. 

The group has been taking full advantage of the variety of food and opportunities for shopping in the big city. Axton and Bodhi allowed a tank of tiny ravenous fish to nibble the dead skin from their feet on one midday adventure (an experience I bravely endured for a total of 30 seconds before abruptly exiting the scene). 

Our group also had the great privilege of meeting with Sister Denise, a 70 year old Jesuit nun from Australia who manages a refugee service center from where we are accommodated. Her center is called Metta Karuna, which means Loving Kindness, and is also one of the four guiding principles of Buddhist belief. On top of being a superhero disguised as an innocent old lady, she’s also a fantastic storyteller. Axton was particularly inspired by her advice for budding advocates. 

And the temples. The temples! Obviously Angkor Watt was a highlight. Andrik managed to snap some great self portraits of himself contemplatively admiring the grandeur of the site, suitable to the reflective nature of the place. Our group was also surprised to discover that some of the smaller, less trafficked temples were equally impressive. Ben remarked that they felt closer and more real due to the encroaching jungle and the sounds of birds and insects instead of tourists. 

Another highlight from Siem Reap included a visit to PEPY, a school and vocational training center for youth empowerment. Nate was the first to volunteer to share some of the dreams and aspirations of his new Cambodian friends. 

We spent the second part of this past week in Battambang, where our students were given the responsibility of arranging transportation, budgeting for meals, booking restaurants, planning activities, and keeping us on schedule. And boy did they crush it! Gina and I thoroughly enjoyed taking a back seat while watching our confident and capable students flourish in working together towards a common goal. 

Battambang is a lively and thriving city removed from the beaten path. We wandered the “mall” where Grace found a fish-shaped ice-cream sandwich, Jason found a sweet Albino peacock shirt, and Bodhi found some pretty paper to make origami cranes. In the evening we danced jazzercise in the park with the locals where I had the pleasure of watching Sophia and Isa dance so hard that their pants literally tore at the seams. 

Thanks to our activity coordinators we participated in a traditional Khmer cooking class. Need a good chicken amok recipe? Wyatt’s your guy. I was also dazzled by Sam’s knowledge of spices and confidence with a culinary blade. 

By far the biggest highlight of our time in Battambang was a visit to Phare, a non-profit performing and visual arts vocational training school, and the birthplace of the Cambodian circus tradition. We had a tour, participated in a workshop, and watched a performance under the big top. Andrik was in awe of the student drawings exhibited, Bodhi insisted on photos of all the cool murals, and Cheyenne might be recruited to a professional juggling troupe one day! Tumbling as an adult feels delightfully silly. There’s something inherently joyful about moving your body that way. Fortunately, I was able to capture on film an attempt by Will and Sam to chain forward roll, attached wrists to ankles. Their rolling skills are decidedly… lacking. They performed a unique maneuver that can generously be described as a slow motion slump. 

The culminating evening performance at Phare was thrilling, in-your-face, fast-paced, gasp-inducing, and laugh-out-loud funny. Sienna’s eyes were sparkling by the end, and she was not the only one feeling hugely inspired by this tenacious troupe of hard working entertainers. 

Onward to our remaining few days in Cambodia, we can’t wait to see what’s in store for us in the ocean-side city of Kampot.

Trip Update: May 6, 2024

It’s hard to believe we’re already halfway through our time in Cambodia! As I write this, our group has just bid farewell to our homestay families on the island village of Koh Pdao.  

Upon our arrival at Koh Pdao a week ago we were given a fleet of local bicycles and sent on our way to begin learning about the village. We were ceremoniously introduced to the Neak Ta, the spiritual guardian of the village. Bodhi and Jason asked some thought provoking questions about animism that helped the group connect the belief system with other indigenous cultures worldwide. 

Our days quickly fell into a routine that involved daily Khmer language lessons, interviews with local people, afternoon swims in the Mekong, and shared meals. We discovered quickly that the days begin early here, some households waking at 4:30am to take advantage of the cooler temperatures. Some interesting morning alarm clocks included eager roosters, nosy cows, kids with microphones, and loud Khmer lounge music. During our interviews with the village chief, a teacher, farmer, fisherman, soldier, doctor, and a local teenager, I was impressed with the thoughtful questions from our students. Grace asked some great big-picture questions about the effects of climate change on local agriculture, and Cheyenne shared some advice from her dad to help a teenage girl conquer her fear of practicing English (“drive fast and take chances”, in case you were curious). Will’s eagerness to be the first to ask questions, participate in activities, and volunteer to help certainly helped us through the slumps in energy we experienced due to the oppressive heat.

We also have some rising stars in Khmer language acquisition! Wyatt has the most competent grasp on numbers so far, translating 2,562 with near-perfect pronunciation. Sophia is close on his heels and quick to grasp new vocabulary. Isa mashes a bunch of sounds together in a close approximation of correct sentence length and calls it good, to the entertainment of the group. Sam, whose internal processing machine is faster than all of us, was probably mostly frustrated at our inability to catch up to him!

The daily swim in the Mekong has been a welcome reprieve where we can pretend for a while that the liquid on our bodies is not sweat for a change. The river sustains the 4,000 people living in Koh Pdao. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any of the remaining 89 Irrawaddy dolphins but we did learn a lot about illegal fishing and other preservation efforts. While little silver bellied fish flip around us Wyatt initiates a cartwheel competition with Jason and Sam, Bodhi finds cool pebbles, Nate and Andrik practice dock pull ups, Ben impresses us all with his rock skimming abilities, and the rest of us float and drift peacefully. 

On our final day in Koh Pdao our home stay families dressed us in their finest traditional Cambodian clothing for a water blessing at the Pagoda. Our chariot (tractor) arrived with Grace and Cheyenne at the helm in a blinding bedazzlement of sequins, fine embroidery, and brightly colored cloth. Sophia’s D & G pumps were a definite fashion win. We met with the head monk and made an offering to them before arranging ourselves together on the stairs outside. To the group’s surprised delight we were joyously drenched in buckets of water tossed from the monks above. 

In the evening, Sienna and Isa bravely lead the group through an SMS rendition of Party in the USA, to the delight of the local children. The tone was set for an epic dance party to begin! Everyone in the group let their hair down and embraced the opportunity to dance until dark. We learned some traditional Cambodian dances, and despite our best efforts Axton and I were unable to identify the beat and cues. We also kicked up the dust to some classics from elementary school (Cha Cha Slide anyone? Macarena perhaps?). We danced with the community until our bodies were coated head to toe in a slick layer of sweat and dust. Did I mention it’s averaged 105 degrees F everyday??! Regardless, our in-country partners remarked that they’ve never had a group who liked to dance as much as SMS!


Despite outbreaks of heat rash, sleepless nights, and rice for every meal our students comported themselves admirably. Sienna even commented that she loves these opportunities because they offer a valuable privilege check. There were exuberant bike rides, games of volleyball, trips to the market, charades and drawing, and lots of hammock time. I think I may have seen a few wet eyes as we bid farewell to our Cambodian hosts. Today we journeyed back across the Mekong and we’re on to our next adventure in Siem Reap! 


Lainey and Gina

Trip Update: April 29, 2024

After a long two days of travel, the Cambodia group arrived to a warm (hot!) welcome in the friendly city of Phnom Penh. 

The first full day in the city saw us passing under leaves as big as elephant ears, fragrant frangipani, and tangled masses of electrical wiring to receive a water blessing from a local monk at a nearby Buddhist temple. In the afternoon students engaged in a scavenger hunt at the nearby market where they had to find the answers to such questions as “what does Tiger Balm smell like?”, and “how much for a sofa?” Sophia and Wyatt made their way to victory in record time! 

The following day, our local instructors led an icebreaker game where we were asked to imagine that each of the 5 fingers on one hand could shoot out a liquid of our choosing. Some unique responses came from Grace (Laundry’s ranch dressing), Jason (scrambled eggs), Ben (gasoline AND diesel), and Sam (liquid gold). The important business conducted, they then shared language skills, a history lesson, and a powerful documentary following the upheaval of music during the Khmer Rouge era. Throughout the lessons, leaders were impressed with Will’s thorough demonstration of the correct way to use a “squatty potty” in preparation for our homestay, supported by corrections and recommendations from Sienna. We likewise appreciated Isa’s engaged body language, Grace’s thoughtful curiosity, and Jason’s insightful reflections of the political upheaval of recent history. 

In the afternoon, the group took advantage of some independent exploration time to revisit the market. A bold trio took the opportunity to have their eyebrows tinted pink by a market vendor! Will, Sophia and Isa sported this new look for a total of 24 hours before the shock of their own reflections was too much and they reverted back to natural eyebrow coloring. The corner supermarket has also been a big hit. Bodhi was excited to find a box of instant Matcha Lattes to bring to our homestay, Will and Wyatt tried every sugary soda for sale, and Sam enjoyed 2 L of strawberry milk. 

Our third full day in Phnom Penh began when a ran into Nate on the stairwell doing his morning workout routine, followed by a visit with a local writer and activist who started her own publishing company to support the production and distribution of books written in Khmer. Bodhi was particularly inspired by the beautiful cover art from some of the fantasy novels, and many students purchased a copy of the author’s biography. 

We traversed the city in multiple tuk-tuk rides, and I was fortunate enough to share a couple of long, sweaty, squashy journeys with Will, Sam, Wyatt and Jason who loudly proclaimed their admiration of all the vehicles around us, from the beaten up Tacomas and leaking mopeds, to the luxury Maseratis and Lamborghinis. Ben’s dad joke humor rose to the surface when we passed the “Woory” bank, to the appreciation of those nearby. On another such cross-city journey, Cheyenne and Isa planned a joint birthday party for their cats, and Sienna and Grace discussed the weighty issues of gossip and female relationships. 

Shared meals have been full of great food, Sienna’s beautiful giggle, spice challenges (Sophia and Sam are winning), new flavor experiences and lots of laughter. Ben tried a mango smoothie for the first time and Axton bravely sampled the cold, juicy dough ball served for dessert one evening. 

In the afternoon of our final day in Phnom Penh our group visited the S21 museum, a former school turned prison and torture centre during the Khmer Rouge occupation of the city. It’s difficult to adequately describe the emotional impact of this experience, but we were honored to have the privilege of sharing it together. 

Our day ended with a group debrief during a sunset boat ride on the Mekong River. The mood of the group slowly lifted with the breeze of the river as we took in the views of the Royal Palace, the families swimming, and teenagers playing volleyball on the shore under the shadow of the multiple new skyscrapers under construction. Jason, Nate, and Wyatt even got to steer the boat for a brief time. We were glad to have Andrik on board to document all the sights with his fancy camera. 

Lastly, Wyatt’s 18th birthday was celebrated after a long bus journey to a new city, Kratie, where a beautiful cake, funny stories, and meaningful memories were shared about him by all. 

We embark on our homestay journey tomorrow morning with equal mixes of trepidation and excitement. Stay tuned for further updates from Cambodia! 

-Gina and Lainey

Spring Bash

May 10, 2024

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