by Shoshana D. Kerewsky

Shoshana in Cambodia

Shoshana in Cambodia

Like many readers, I was deeply moved, and very distressed, when I first read the Cambodian memoir The Road of Lost Innocence by Somaly Mam. Mam’s tragic experiences as a trafficked girl inspired me to donate even more to anti-trafficking causes. I assigned her book to my students. It seemed that every new film on trafficking included a segment on Somaly and her foundation. I was inspired by her courage and tenacity. She made me a better donor, educator, and advocate for human rights.

Also like many readers, I was shocked by allegations, soon substantiated, that important parts of her story were untrue. I felt emotionally manipulated and taken advantage of. I had been lied to. Now I questioned where my all of my charitable donations went, and what I was advocating for. My first impulse was to be cynical and disgusted.

In some ways I was lucky. I had already read Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, and I, Rigoberta Menchu, both memoirs alleged to include inaccurate depictions of some events in the authors’ lives. I’d read Three Cups of Tea, and A Million Little Pieces. I’d had time to think about and learn more about these distortions. Now I had an opportunity to reflect on Somaly Mam’s possible motives.

When I’m angry at someone who has behaved like Mam, I tend to start with my negative assumptions—she’s avaricious; she’s power-hungry; she’s self-serving. I might even assume that she thinks of me and other credulous readers and donors with contempt. From there, I could make a quick jump to reducing my donations and voluntarism. It’s natural that we respond to our vulnerability with anger and a sense of betrayal when a person or cause we believe in misrepresents something important to us. Stopping here, however, may lead us to an overgeneralized mistrust that doesn’t help us to support real people with real needs. Stopping here distances us from our best natures.

Instead, we need to consider some of the reasons why memoirists (and organizations and governments) might exaggerate or lie. This helps us to become more informed and sophisticated donors with better skills for separating fact from fiction and evaluating where we want to put our money and time. Yes, some people, and some organizations and governments, lie for their own gain or protection. But not all of them, or even most of them.

It’s also true that disaster and misery sell. I’ve read a lot of memoirs from around the world. Many that are translated into English are about surviving wars, genocides, famines, droughts, and other disasters or extreme adversity. It’s no secret that publishers, and sometimes writers or media producers, may opt for a dramatic narrative over an accurate one. An “escape” that is billed as “harrowing” attracts more readers than a calm departure. To give a domestic example, James Frey first proposed A Million Little Pieces as a novel, not as a memoir. However, true-life stories are more compelling to readers, and the book was repackaged and published as a memoir.

There are other reasons that a life story might be unwittingly or intentionally distorted. A number of disaster memoirists, including Beah, have responded to assertions that they fabricated material by stating that they presented the story as best they could recall it, but that at the time they were trying to stay alive, not memorize or account for every objective fact. This may be particularly true of children giving retrospective accounts. Chun-Won Kang’s memoir The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag includes two contradictory statements about a physically arduous task the child prisoners were forced to engage in. While neither of his versions seems likely, one is simply impossible. I understand this to be an error of memory (or math), not an attempt to deceive the reader. In another story from the Khmer Rouge genocide, a then-child Cambodian memoirist recounts seeing bodies on the ground, frozen and blue, in a locale that online weather records show has never been below 70°. However, I have seen Vietnamese and Cambodian teenagers shivering, sneezing, and miserable in down jackets and mittens at 76°, so I don’t doubt that to a child, this could seem to be “freezing.” This form of unintentional inaccuracy is like me misremembering my third grade teacher’s name. It’s wrong, but unintentional.

Sometimes memoirists condense events to increase the drama or tighten the “plot” for storytelling reasons, but again, not as an attempt to mislead. More experienced writers and more scrupulous editors often include a note stating that the order of events may have been changed, for example, or that some conversations or events depicted are representative but fictional. The intention of this note is to be sure the reader knows that at points, the story takes precedent over the truth.

In the more problematic form of this style of autobiography, however, memoirists sometimes add fictional events in order to tell a “better,” more illustrative story. The intention is not to deceive the reader, but to tell a story that is compelling and representative. The big caveat here, though, is that in postindustrial Western cultures we place a high value on the “reportage” form of truth in which facts are to be accurate and verifiable. This is not always how “truth” is understood cross-culturally. For example, Menchu has acknowledged that she described some events in her life inaccurately because this made her story more persuasive and more characteristic of the experiences of people in her circumstances. In her biography Buddha, Karen Armstrong points out that historically, biographies of religious or political figures were not intended to present factual truth, but to tell iconic or archetypal stories attributed to those figures’ lives. The biography was not meant to report actual life events, but, for example, to teach moral precepts, demonstrate points of doctrine, or show lines of spiritual succession.

For me as a contemporary North American raised with an expectation of verifiable, supportable, evidence-based “truth” in personal accounts, this is hard to accept. Ultimately, wrestling with this concept opens me to the idea of different forms of truth as the storyteller understands it and uses it to make her argument or tell her story. It gives me a way to recognize my own values and storytelling preferences, as well as to recognize that the memoirist may have good intentions and may have a world view different from my own. For me, this is not just about cultural proficiency, but about compassion for and valuing of people who may not think and believe the way I do.

Knowing why a memoirist may, with all sincerity, misrepresent her story helps increase our understanding and broaden our perspective, but it doesn’t answer the question of what we should do in response. Fortunately, the same processes and tools that we use when first deciding to donate are useful for responding to this dilemma as well.

Performers with Disabilities, Cambodia

Performers with Disabilities, Cambodia

Starting from the emotional end, it’s important to be aware that showing a picture and a presenting a brief life story are effective techniques for soliciting donations. They associate a face with a need. This is a reasonable and humanizing fundraising approach, but as a donor, you need use your research skills as well as your heart in order to be sure that the organization is honest. When you hear a moving or inspiring story, make your preliminary decision about donating based on the representativeness of the story, not the particular, individual memoirist or poster child. Learning that the story is typical of a group of people, and that the general circumstances are reported accurately, you can feel confident that your donation responds to the verifiable needs of a real group of people. Work through reputable organizations, using online tools such as Charity Navigator and GuideStar to have a better understanding of the organization’s mission, accountability and transparency, and use of funds. A good rule of thumb is to look for organizations that have both in-country and international oversight and governance, with periodic visits to evaluate the agency’s work and legal/ethical compliance. Keep yourself up to date on the work and reputation of NGOs, governments, and spokespersons. This can be as simple as reading The New York Times or going to BBC online, or setting Google alerts for topics of interest.

To summarize: by all means be moved, and also, do your research.

Has Somaly Mam told her story for her own gain, to help others, or for some combination of these goals? I don’t know, though I hope to know more in time. What I do know is that while The Road of Lost Innocence includes some elements that are not true of Mam’s life, they are representative of the brutal experiences some girls and women have in Cambodia and the world. Trafficking is real. Coerced sex and labor are real. People’s suffering is real.

My privilege and resources are also real. I strongly encourage you be an informed and sophisticated donor. Make a difference to respond to big needs and big truths, not to the details of one person’s story.

Shoshana Kerewsky is a former Board President of Friendship with Cambodia and is Director of the Family and Human Services program at University of Oregon. 

On Tonle Sap – Copyright 2014 Don Lyon

In December 2013 and January 2014, Friendship with Cambodia led a 12-day socially responsible study tour to Cambodia for 16 people from the US and Europe.  The trip leader was Don Lyon, FWC board member, professional photographer, and owner/founder of Close-up Expeditions. CLICK HERE for Day 1.  

Day 4, January 3: Siem Reap and Tonle Sap

Bride and father

Bride and father

We were greeted on the morning of Day 4 with a great noisy commotion. Joyce investigated and found a wedding ceremony in full swing.

Leaving the hotel at 8:30am, we drove SE of Siem Reap for almost an hour in our huge bus on the narrow dirt roadway to reach the stilt village of Kompong Khleang. At this time of year Tonle Sap was beginning to recede, so the houses were high and dry, ten feet above the lake’s waters.


Stilt village of Kompong Khleang

At the height of monsoon season, though, the water regularly rises up to the floorboards. The journey through the village, with each house tethered to the road, was very interesting. As the water levels were dropping fast, many houseboats were being towed to deeper water, where their residents could fish and tend their fishponds more easily.


Tour group on the Tonle Sap

The lad piloting our 30 foot riverboat tied up to a tree and cut the engines, while Bun and I explained the fascinating eco-system of the Tonle Sap. This lake fills up each rainy season with the backwater of the Mekong River then drains slowly until reduced to a third of its former size. It is estimated that nearly 80% of the protein consumed in Cambodia comes from this lake and that fish up and down the Mekong all the way to China are born and nurtured here. Unfortunately, both Vietnam and China plan to dam the Mekong, destroying this timeless natural phenomenon so crucial to Cambodia.


“Every dollar makes a difference”

By 11:30am, we were back on dry land. As we tried to extricate our full-size coach from this tiny crowded space, everyone was so good-natured about the inconveniences we caused. We were back in Siem Reap at about 12:30pm, and we lunched at Common Grounds, which provides training and supports various community welfare projects, including an orphanage. We spoke with Matt, a pleasant young man from Atlanta who came over to Cambodia for his wife’s senior project. The couple stayed on to manage the restaurant and oversee the projects.

Silk to be spun

Silk to be spun

He was a fount of information about current situations, and we could have talked all day, but Artisan’s d’Angkor and their hungry silk worms were waiting.

Turning silk into thread

Our guide at Artisan’s d’Angkor walked us through every stage of working with silk from growing the mulberry leaves to raising the worms to dying and weaving the silk threads. The organization trains and employs people in a craft that was all but wiped out by the Khmer Rouge.

By 4:30pm, we were back at our hotel, and everyone headed in separate directions to explore, shop, and dine on their own. Connie and I went down to the Old Market for some browsing before having a pedicure by hungry but gentle fish—ooh, that tickles!

Thanks again to Don Lyon and Close-up Expeditions! Feel free to check out more on the Close-up Expeditions Facebook page. 

Images and journal c. 2014 Don Lyon

Images and journal c. 2014 Don Lyon


January 2: Banteay Srei

We were on the bus by 7:30am and headed to Banteay Srei (above). It is known as the Citadel of the Women because of its diminutive size and exquisite red sandstone carvings. It’s hard to imagine that before restoration by a French archeological team in the 1920’s, it was just a pile of fallen stones. Just a few years ago, this area was off limits to tourists due to landmines.

Red sandstone wall carving

Red sandstone wall carving

We were among the first tourists to arrive, so our tourguide Bun was able to provide some historical detail uninterrupted by other groups. Stories from the Ramayana are carved into the alcoves over the structures called Libraries.

Ex-child soldier Aki Ra

Museum founder and ex child soldier Aki Ra

The next stop was Aki Ra’s Landmine Museum. During the Khmer Rouge and Civil War periods, Aki Ra was a child soldier planting mines. Now, he and his wife devote their lives to clearing mines and providing a home for children who have lost limbs. The electricity was off, so there was no video, but former GI and Vietnam vet Bill Morse was there to lead a discussion of America’s contribution to the carnage. He and his wife have moved to Siem Reap and volunteer here.

Tapping the sugar palm trees to make jaggary

Tapping the sugar palm trees to make jaggary

Next, we stopped at the sugar palm plantations along the road where we saw how palm sap was boiled down to make jaggary, a type of unrefined cane sugar. A passing cyclist demonstrated how the fruit at the top of the tree was tapped for the sap. We stopped for lunch at the Peace Café. This ex-pat hangout has great vegetarian food, and several backpackers were eating there, too. Yoga, meditation, language courses and more are offered here.

We drove the 1.5 hours back to the hotel, at 3:30pm, ten of us headed for Angkor Thom.  The rest of the group remained behind to rest or explore on their own. We walked the short distance along the crumbling embankments and city walls to the Victory Gate and imagined life in 12th century Cambodia, where daily life and religious practice were so intertwined that each gate to the city had ceremonial functions. Great stone heads looking in every direction dominate both gates.

Ankor Thom

Ankor Thom

Bun told us about the Elephant Terrace and the towers across the field. They served as a jail but also supported tightropes where acrobats entertained royal audiences. Bun took us through The Bayon for 45 minutes, showing us the bas-reliefs and telling their stories. We especially enjoyed the tales of everyday life depicted on the south side. He described the great heads as Buddha representations. Other sources note that they were supposed to be representations a respected Bodhisattva, though everyone realized that they were the face of Jayavarman VII, builder of Angkor Thom. We made a short stop at the western entrance to Angkor Wat to see the overview with moat, then headed back to the hotel for dinner.

Friends Restaurant

Friends Marum

At 7pm we departed for dinner at Friends Marum, one of the five Friends training restaurants in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. It’s a lovely place with young people enrolled in 8-, 11-, and 20-month programs to learn about the hospitality industry. The food was Khmer-based and very imaginative. The mushroom amok and green papaya salad were well worth returning for. Friends Restaurant sells an excellent cookbook. ~


c. 2014 Don Lyon

Angkor Wat, west entrance – All photos c. 2014 Don Lyon

In December 2013 and January 2014, Friendship with Cambodia led a 12-day socially responsible study tour to Cambodia for 16 people from the US and Europe.  The trip leader was Don Lyon, FWC board member, professional photographer, and owner/founder of Close-up Expeditions. CLICK HERE for Day 1.  


Day 2, January 1: New Year’s Day at Angkor Temples and Ruins


We had breakfast at 6:30am then departed at 7:30am for Ta Prohm. Our timing was perfect. Bun led us into the South entrance of Ta Prohm. It was delightfully empty so that we really felt like explorers, embracing the huge tree roots that seemed to ooze among the carved stones.

Sharon reflects at Ta Nei

Sharon reflects at Ta Nei

We went through the labyrinth to exit at the East Entrance. We then drove to the small and well-hidden Ta Nei Temple from 9:45 to 10:45am. The quiet, remote site brought to mind Henri Mouhot, who is credited with bringing Angkor to the attention of Europe. He published a book of beautiful, detailed drawings of the temples in 1863.

Khmer Boy at Banteay Kdei

Khmer Boy at Banteay Kdei

Then we headed to the lesser-visited and very atmospheric Banteay Kdei. Lunch was at the excellent, friendly, and efficient Joe to Go, also a training restaurant operated by Global Child. From 1:30 to 3:30pm, we were on our own to explore or rest. This early in January, the weather is relatively cool and pleasant. At 3:30pm, we left for Angkor Wat, the best known of all the temples. We stopped first for an overview of the main entrance. Then we drove around to the backside. Sharon read her poem about her experience at Ta Prohm, as well as several Haikus that captured the spell of Angkor. Bun provided background info.

Bun telling about the reliefs

Our guide Bun telling stories in Angkor’s bas reliefs

We learned that Angkor Wat was never abandoned. It was thriving monastery when Henri Mouholt visited. We examined the southeast section of bas-reliefs which depict the 32 stages of hell. Then we headed to the east section to see the stupendous bas-reliefs of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, the story of creation and how the gods achieved immortality. We climbed increasingly higher levels in the stone towers which represent the sacred mountains surrounding Mt. Meru (the tallest tower). At the Middle Level, we stood at the center of Angkor Wat, which symbolizes the center of the universe. We also saw bas-reliefs of the Ramayana story of the Battle of Lanka, where the monkey troops help Rama defeat the 20 armed Ravana and rescue Sita.

Buddha face in tree

After a quick break at the hotel, we drove to La Noria hotel to watch a cultural program. It was presented by orphans and deaf students from the NGO Krousar Thmey, one of FWC’s partner organizations with excellent programs all over Cambodia.

Both the dinner and performance presented by this small, socially responsible hotel were excellent.~


Thanks again to Don Lyon and Close-up Expeditions! Feel free to check out more on the Close-up Expeditions Facebook page. 

c.2014 Don Lyon photography

All Photos courtesy of Don Lyon 2014

In December 2013 and January 2014, Friendship with Cambodia led an 12-day socially responsible study tour to Cambodia for 16 people from the US and Europe.  The trip leader was Don Lyon, FWC board member, professional photographer, and owner/founder of Close-up Expeditions.

The group traveled from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh to Kampot Province.  They visited FWC’s humanitarian projects, including our sponsored students and women’s self-help groups, and toured  many cultural and historic sites in Cambodia including Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields.

The trip was designed to use tourist dollars to help local people.  Participants ate in restaurants that are training programs for former street children and stayed in hotels that employ disadvantaged youth.   They shopped in boutiques run by NGOs helping women living in slums, landmine survivors and trafficking survivors.   They met local people and came home saying “It was the best trip I’ve ever taken.”

Join them on a virtual tour of Cambodia…


Day 1, December 31: Friendship with Cambodia study tour begins

Photo 2014 Don Lyon

FWC Tour Group

Everyone arrived and checked into the Frangipani Green Garden Hotel. We gathered after breakfast at 8am for orientation and introductions. Kao Bunthoeun, our Cambodia guide, introduced himself, and at 9am we were on the bus headed to Wat Bo, the major Buddhist temple and monastery in Siem Reap.

Photo 2014 Don Lyon

Fresco detail

Bun, as he asked us to call him, showed us the old 16th century temple with frescos of the Reamker, Cambodia’s

2014 Don Lyon

Blessing thread ceremony

interpretation of the Ramayana Hindu myths, dating from the 19th century. Then an 89-year-old monk performed a blessing thread ceremony for us, tying a red yarn around people’s right wrist and saying a blessing of safe travel for them.

Being far from home, this was a comforting gesture.

2014 Don Lyon

We saw how the monastery cooked its food in fire pits and huge caldrons.

Bun pointed out other aspects of monastery life that were new to us. We then had a short city tour with a stop at Wat Thmei which has become a memorial site for about 5000 people killed by the Khmer Rouge, their bodies dumped in one of the hundreds of “killing fields” in Cambodia. Bun and I talked first about the events of that era to prepare people for the grisly showcase of skulls and thighbones. The destruction of civil society in the 1970’s Vietnam-American War, when the US was carpet-bombing Cambodia, encouraged the development of the Khmer Rouge and set the stage for the genocide and dysfunctional society that Cambodia was now emerging from.

We next visited Sala Bai, a training school for restaurant skills, such as cooking, front desk, waiting tables, etc. The name means Rice Bowl. Sala Bai trains poor rural kids, mostly female, for some of the steadiest jobs available in this still emerging economy, namely those in the tourism industry. Sala Bai offers a one-year course with internships. Two students showed us around and talked about their own lives.

Photo 2014 Don Lyon

Spring rolls

Lunch at Sala Bai was fried spring rolls, minced pork and eggplant, and tapioca for desert. The food was elegant and delicious.

Photo 2014 Don Lyon

Lunch at Sali Bai

From 1:30 to 3pm we returned to the hotel for a brief rest period. New Year’s Festivities, including loud karaoke, were in full swing at the school across the street.


At 3pm, we drove to Angkor Children’s Hospital to meet the PR Director, Arun. She showed a short video and told the story about Kenro Izu, a Japanese photographer who was so moved by the plight of Cambodia’s children during his visits in the 1990’s that he set out to raise the funds to build and staff this modern new facility. The video explained that most of infant deaths are due to diarrhea, measles, and other easily preventable and treatable causes. Arun also showed us around the grounds.

At 4:30pm, we drove to the Apsara Ticket Office, administrators of the Angkor Ruins, to purchase our passes for the next two days of visits. From 5:30 to 7pm, we relaxed and regrouped before our New Year’s dinner at Frangipani Villas, the elegant big sister hotel to our small, simple place.

Photo 2014 Don Lyon

It was quite delicious and opulent. Then we tuk-tuked back to Frangipani Green for a good night’s sleep. ~

Travel journal kept by Don Lyon. All photos copyright Don Lyon 2014. 

The University of Oregon’s Family and Human Services Student Group has returned from Cambodia. In this post, they share more reflections about their experiences on the trip, answering these questions:

What did you learn about Cambodia and Cambodians that surprised, interested, or pleased you?

What did you learn about yourself by participating in this trip?

If someone were planning a trip to Cambodia, what one activity or place would you recommend they visit and why?


Darian Finley Garcia (junior): I learned that Cambodians are some of the nicest, most pleasant-to-be-around people that I have ever encountered in my life. Even though they endure severe poverty and harsh living conditions, they still have smiles on their faces, and they still work hard to make their families happy. That is one of the most admirable things one can possibly do. I absolutely loved the people we met along the trip.


Street scene, Siem Reap

I learned that I don’t have to change myself in order to make a change. Many people would go on trips such as this one and come back and say, “I am changed and I am going to start living my life differently.” But to be honest, I don’t have to do that.  I was privileged enough to be born into a working class family and have never had to worry about food or clothes or shelter. That is privilege, and I do not have to change that to make a difference in the world. I learned that I always have to keep this experience in my mind in order to serve other people and places similar to Cambodia, and I love that I learned that.

Honestly, I would recommend just exploring. I personally think some of my best experiences in Cambodia were those that were not planned on a schedule. This is because I got to do a lot more self reflection in situations like that. When we had free time and were able to just walk around and explore, that is when I learned the most about the people and myself. It was really refreshing, and it was a very important experience to me. So I would say, just adventure, and explore, and get out of your comfort zone!


Mini-cupcakes at Blossom

Grace-Ellen Mahoney (senior): My favorite part of traveling to Cambodia was the people. Never before have I met such friendly, kind, and genuinely happy people. It was wonderful getting to know Cambodians and learning about their lives. Through traveling to Cambodia, I developed an interest in learning more about sex trafficking and the role that it plays in daily life in developing countries, such as Cambodia. I developed an interest in researching sex trafficking independently, and learning about what I can do as an American to help stop sex trafficking from my own country. I would recommend that people visit all of the main attractions (Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh, etc.), but also take time to explore these places by foot, talk to as many people as possible, and learn as much about the culture and daily lives of Cambodian citizens. It’s truly special!

Shoshana Kerewsky (trip leader, former FWC board president):  When I’ve traveled to Cambodia in the past, I’ve had a more “official” role in relation to the people I met. I’ve visited as a member of a delegation of psychologists, a participant in a group from FWC learning about socially responsible travel and visiting NGOs, an instructor and consultant, a researcher, and a representative of FWC and the university making contacts. My greatest delight on this trip was in watching my students and Cambodians together and seeing the pleasure they all had simply in meeting and talking (or just smiling). I was happy that there were easy ways to connect across our cultures in such an immediate and human way. On a personal note, I was very happy finally to meet the student whom my partner and I sponsor through FWC.


Foot massage

I am not terribly good at cultivating a cool heart. I wake up at night before a trip, dreaming about food poisoning and missed buses. I can spend an hour thinking about whether to pack a pair of socks. I run through scenarios where someone is injured and needs medical attention that can’t easily be obtained. There are ways in which this pre-trip worry is okay with me, but I also want to relax and not feel responsible for everything that might possibly happen. We faced some challenges on the trip. I learned a lot by seeing how my students dealt with unexpected events and adversity. Snow kept Kevin from meeting us in Seattle for our international flight, which was annoying, but not a problem. He joined us the next day. One person forgot the photos for her visa. Life didn’t end; she was able to have her photo taken at Cambodian immigration. We found that one of our hotels had Khmer-style bathrooms, which meant a ¾ wall and no door. Everyone managed this with pragmatism and grace. I’m sure there was some anxiety or displeasure below the surface—I certainly wasn’t happy about it. But I watched my students take it in stride, and when I learned that I’d be using a pit latrine outside and sleeping on the floor in a community center on an upcoming service trip to another country, I thought that I ought to show at least as much ability to accommodate the inevitable as my students did in Cambodia. Our trip had other snags and problems at times, but I trusted my students and learned from them. My great thanks to all of you.

In addition to the recommendations others have made (and all of which I agree with), I recommend getting a really long foot massage at one of the open-air massage shops in the Siem Reap Angkor Night Market after dark. Go with friends and enjoy a glass of tea while getting a Khmer-style or reflexology massage while the commerce of the busy and colorful market continues around you. Snatches of Khmer, jazz, and old rock music drift in and out with the evening breeze, and the stars slowly appear overhead.


Angkor Wat at sunrise

By Shoshana Kerewsky and the FHS Cambodia Group

On behalf of the University of Oregon’s Family and Human Services student group, I would like to thank Bhavia (Executive Director), Erin (Office Manager), and Friendship with Cambodia for allowing us to share our trip through FWC’s blog. I would also like to thank FWC and its partners’ assistance in planning this trip. Eric Skaar of IE3 and Lauren Lindstrom of the University of Oregon’s College of Education also played instrumental roles. We would also like to thank Lisa Fortin, Krissy Hemphill, Surendra Subramani, Kelly Warren, and everyone else who helped, accommodated, made suggestions, pointed out problems, and worked with us to make this trip happen. We are profoundly grateful to our families, friends, and strangers who made donations toward this trip that, along with our own contributions, paid for donations to the agencies and programs that educated us and defrayed some of our expenses.

In Cambodia, Kevin and I shared an enjoyable lunch and discussion about trip planning and fostering meaningful experiences with Drs. John Miller and Jason Platt. To Ms. Kosal, Mr. Arun, Ms. Hema, Scott, Melissa, Hayley, and the many other educational/NGO partners who helped us, and our new Cambodian friends: Aw kuhn!

At the end of the academic quarter following our trip, I asked the participants to reflect on the experience with the following questions:

What did you learn about Cambodia and Cambodians that surprised, interested, or pleased you? What did you learn about yourself by participating in this trip? If someone were planning a trip to Cambodia, what one activity or place would you recommend they visit and why?

Participants’ responses are below, with one exception: An important outcome of this trip for Tess Bergin was to change her major from Family and Human Services to Journalism. She has a passionate conviction that the best way she can help is to write about Cambodia and help Cambodians have a voice through media access. Good luck, Tess! We miss you and wish you well.


Tess at the Somaly Mam Foundation

Colleen Lawler (Graduated): I found Cambodians to be some of the friendliest people I have encountered while traveling. They were very welcoming and kind. Professionally, I learned a lot about what it is like to work with people from different cultural backgrounds and that I really enjoy helping international agencies. I would recommend that visitors to Cambodia tour Angkor Wat—it is a must-see. I also really enjoyed Siem Reap and think it is a nice place to stay while on a visit. If someone is more interested in learning about the genocide in Cambodia, Phnom Penh is more likely to be a better fit. It depends on what someone is seeking out of their visit.

Kara Rawlings (Junior): At the beginning of the trip, I wondered how the Cambodian people would act towards Americans. I was surprised by how friendly and gracious every person with whom I interacted in Cambodia was. There was never a time where I felt unsafe or frightened because of a person’s actions towards me. A few of us in the group even commented on how much safer we felt walking around at night in Cambodia than in Eugene. I loved being able to smile at a stranger on the street and have them give me a huge smile right back.

My trip to Cambodia was the first big, international trip I have taken. Before going on the trip, I worried about how I would handle being away from home. During this time, I learned that it was very possible for me to spend time without my friends and family and be successful. It taught me that further international study abroad experiences are something that I really want to do. If someone were planning a trip to Cambodia, I would be sure to tell them to visit the Phnom Chisor temple. This was one of my favorite experiences of the trip. I enjoyed it so much because it was a place that was not crowded with people and had beautiful scenery. While I was there, I was able to have time to myself and enjoy everything that was around me.


Phnom Chisor

Kevin Wiles (Assistant Trip Leader): When we travel outside of our usual domains, it allows us to experience cultures and their inhabitants on a personal level. The use of media to describe how the smells, textures, and sounds, which are a part of daily living in these locales, proves inadequate, once your own senses are used. Such is the impression I have of travel to Cambodia. I cannot begin to explain how walking on a path of hand-hewn stone transports me back more than a millennium.  I am walking in the footsteps of holy men and monarchs alike, climbing stairs worn smooth by the passage of time, mankind, and the relentless elemental forces. When I take a picture of a woman riding by on a scooter, or a man sleeping in the shade of his tuk-tuk, I am reminded that I am a stranger here; however, the sense that I am invited as a part of a larger family does not escape me wherever I go. I was invited to share an hour-long ride in a tuk-tuk with a young woman who wanted Shoshana and me to meet her family. The hospitality was unparalleled—we were welcomed with food, water, and a place of honor to sit. We witnessed a family’s pride for their young granddaughter and the love of a mother overcoming the challenges posed for a child born with an extra 21st chromosome.


Visiting a family

The sights and sounds are trivial to the experience when compared to the human interactions. The benefit of traveling with a socially conscious mindset is that the person-to-person contacts are considered a vital component, and it moves the experience beyond the commercialized expectations of the average tourist. When we are able to see that our lives on a rudimentary scale are not so different from each other is when we can connect and truly see what is before us. When we are willing to take the step and move out of our boundaries is when we are actually traveling. I remember the saddest I felt on this trip was when I was coming back home—I was having lunch in Korea with a group of travelers who were returning from a river cruise down the Mekong. They were not talking about the places they had seen or they people they visited; instead, they were bemoaning the fact that there were no “American” items on the menu at the restaurant, and that not having a fork was “uncivilized.” I was sad indeed, but the upside was that I had plenty to eat that day!

If you are contemplating a trip, take the time to reflect on the reasons, then leap into the unknown. After all, what is there to lose? If you are lucky, maybe you will gain more than you spend. Pay attention to the little things, those things that are passed over because they are ordinary — the smile of a child whom you see riding on a scooter with the other four members of her family, the small crowd gathered around the new water filtration device in their village, or even the man sitting on the sidewalk repairing a tire with a homemade vulcanization kit. All of these are worth seeing, and most certainly not something you will encounter at home. What do you have to lose? You never know. You might even get a good lunch, compliments of those who are less willing to live a little!

Lizzy Schuster (Senior): One of the things I appreciated the most about going to Cambodia was experiencing a new culture among other Family and Human services majors from the UO. This was an important part of the trip because I was able to process the cultural differences with other people who were having similar experiences. Additionally, the other students helped expose me to their views about the NGOs and cultural sites we visited.

Over the next week, I will finish up my course work at the University of Oregon and graduate with an undergraduate degree. Going to Cambodia increased my interest in applying for Peace Corps post-graduation. During my time in Cambodia, I learned about the importance of exposing yourself to another culture, especially cultures that need assistance in supporting their population. In our visit to the University in Phnom Penh and meetings with Cambodian students, I was able to communicate with individuals my age and see how their experiences growing up were similar or different to my own. Additionally, I discovered my interest in having these conversations and learning about ideas that are different from my own, whether reflected in religion, culture, or everyday lives.

One of my favorite organizations we visited was called the Trailblazer Foundation. This organization works with the villages to provide clean water to individuals who would otherwise not be able to have access to clean drinking water. If anyone is planning a visit to Cambodia, this is an organization I would recommend to demonstrate a great non-profit and the support it gives to the people of Cambodia.


Trailblazer water filters

Anna Hicks (Junior): While in Cambodia, I was amazed by how friendly everyone was. Compared to other places I’ve traveled, the people in Cambodia were very genuine and kind. Every person I spoke to was very curious about my life in the United States. I really appreciated that because it made me happy knowing Cambodians wanted to learn about US culture as much as I wanted to learn about theirs. I learned that the material things in my life shouldn’t matter so much. The amazing people in Cambodia lived off almost nothing and still maintained happy, content lives. This was extremely eye-opening for me and will stick with me forever. Seeing how little some of the people in Cambodia had, I realized that you really don’t need a lot to be happy. I also realized that despite prior fears I had of traveling to a developing country, I now feel more confident about things that are outside my comfort zone. I was definitely nervous about the trip, but I’m so thankful that I participated because I think it was a perfect time in my life to do it. At some point, I want to go back to Cambodia. I also learned that even though Cambodia is a completely different place from the US, we all share the common desire to be happy and live the best lives we can.

I would definitely recommend that visitors to Cambodia experience the Killing Fields. I think that was one of the most powerful moments of the trip and something people should experience, because it is something very prominent in Cambodia to this day.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 122 other followers