Posts Tagged ‘Cambodia’

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


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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.

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By: Anna Hicks 

Siem Riep’s night market is filled with beautiful clothing pieces, paintings, home-crafted cooking ware, and numerous souvenirs fit for any occasion/person. Each of us enjoyed the calmness of this market compared to the hectic scene in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market. Bargaining was always an interesting task that usually ended in a positive outcome for both parties.

blog - night market

The jewelry was bright and silver, making great gifts for relatives back home. The infamous “swooshy” pants were a purchase each one of us made. The colorful designs of elephants, flowers, and patterns will definitely set us apart from any fashion trend in the US. The night market was a fun activity for the group to do and an experience we will not forget.

blog - night market 2

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By Kevin Wiles

A visitor’s first impression of the Ta Prohm temple complex is that of commercialism. One cannot really prevent this perception, as the drop-off point for the tuk-tuks is at a market, which appears to have been both improvised and added upon throughout the many years of tourism. The vendors are tenacious in their hawking of various wares and articles of clothing (yes, one persistent lady even had a size 4x shirt for yours truly!). This forced relationship is quickly severed as you step through the gate onto the long, sandy path to the temple itself. Here, a walk of a few hundred yards or so is disturbed only by the chords of a group of landmine survivors, playing a melodic, ancient-sounding tune on their handmade instruments.


Walking the west path to Ta Prohm, it is easy to forget the world just behind. The arching trees provide shade and a background whisper when there is a rare breeze. The first impressions of the temple are often reflective (literally) as pools of dark water, complete with cut stone stairs, greet the visitor. Previously, the temple was left in its discovered state intentionally, so as to give a view of the ruins. The temple was originally a monastery, believed to be a home to 94 monks, based upon the accommodations found within the complex. Now, recently constructed walkways built over a decaying terrace offer the first glimpse of the restoration work taking place.


The temple is laid out with 5 enclosures, the first consisting of a wall 1015 x 670 meters (yes, that is over a kilometer in length!). As tourists, we only see small portions of the outer wall up close. The focus of this temple is really two-fold — the beauty of design and restoration, and the ability of such to be rendered asunder by nature. This is the temple of the sprung and strangler fig trees, ones that are tall, strong and resplendent in their glory, both as givers and destroyers. Over the centuries, the roots of these monstrous entities have become one with the temple stones, twisting, pushing and toppling the handiwork of men. Hidden under and behind these sylvan giants are panels of intricately carved figures from the era of Jayavarman VII. Here can be found hints of the life and times of the age, including a stele (an ancient stone slab) which detailed not only the material and human resource needs of the temple, but places of respite found throughout the country and a list of hospitals (102) spread across the kingdom.

Extensive renovation and preservation is currently in progress, so not all areas of the ruins are available to sightseers. The extensive work seems to be fruitful, as rebuilt chambers and galleries are readily visible within the construction boundaries.


My impressions of this magnificent place are muted by the sheer sense of chaos which accompanies the ruins. Gauging the destruction wrought by natural forces seems so improbable when looked upon by the relative blink of the human lifetime; truly experiencing Ta Prohm requires a mindfulness which draws upon centuries, rather than the experience of a mere human lifetime. Through this, I sense a peace and solitude which beckons even across the years. Here are found chapels and sanctuaries in which prayer and meditation would have been the order of the day. The religious influences include Buddhist and Hindu, although much of the former was defaced or otherwise erased during Hindu times. The detail of the carving is breathtaking, and the fact that these edifices have survived until present day is astonishing. Every direction one looks, there are marvels to see, from the small medallions gracing the lintels to the storied panels depicting kings, princes, and devatas (deities).


Modern day influences abound amidst this peaceful destruction. A friendship can be forged with a woman who ties a brightly colored bracelet upon your wrist, a welcoming gesture often meant to bring good luck and fortune. A small donation would not be ignored, and is appreciated.


Artisans can often be found among the ruins. Often, they will be creating a miniature masterpiece in real time, which can grace your wall as a hand-made memento of your time within these ancient stones. For the traveler who bargains, haggling is almost always expected, and often will enhance the cultural experience.


Taking the time to fully appreciate the rebirth and destruction alike will augment your time in Ta Prohm. Having a basic understanding of the art and history will further enrich the experience. And by all means, support the local economy and the hard-working artists by taking home a literal representation of the beauty and historical significance of this amazing place.

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In Siem Reap, we visited the Trailblazer Foundation (http://www.thetrailblazerfoundation.org), which builds and installs inexpensive bio-sand water filters. This is not only a great organization, but an internship possibility for students in the Oregon University System through the IE3 Global Internship Program (http://ie3global.ous.edu).  

Two students share their observations of the Trailblazer Foundation below:

Colleen Lawler: Trailblazer Foundation builds water filtration systems for villages in Cambodia so the people can get fresh water. Before going, I was curious how a water filtration organization was connected to human services. When we first arrived, Scott (the co-founder) described how they make the water filter and how families’ lives are improved just by having fresh water. Scott filled us in on how many families have been helped by the Trailblazer Foundation. So many people die each year because of diseases or health issues due to unfiltered water. Once filters are installed in the villages, the indicators demonstrating quality of life rise dramatically.


Water filter in village

Trailblazer not only builds water filtration systems, but also helps with water systems for gardens so that families can have fresh food. They help construct wells, provide food from food banks for needy families, bring flip-flops to children in the villages, and teach families how to grow gardens and harvest their own food.  They have even built schools and libraries. This organization has seen direct, positive results from the work they are doing.  

We were taken to one of the villages, where we met the chief and many other families whose lives have improved due to their water filtration system. When people are not concerned with how to get fresh water or food on any given day, they are able to focus on improving their lives and the lives of their families in other ways.  Scott was a wonderful host while we were at his organization, and this organization far exceeded my expectations. One of the best parts was that, through our small donation, three families were helped with a water filter that they can now buy into for under $3 and have installed on their land.

Darian Finley-Garcia: I absolutely loved the village we visited. It was very eye-opening to see another culture’s way of life, especially outside of the urban environments that we have experienced thus far. Thinking about how these people live off of minimal supplies and very little money made me realize a little about my lifestyle and how I live. I did not feel a sense of guilt, but I did feel a very strong sense of compassion and privilege. It showed me a whole new way of life that I had only previously seen in the media. In a way, this experience solidified the fact that there actually are people living in such harsh conditions and to see it with my own eyes made me take a mental step back. I was truly moved by the village and Trailblazer. It showed me that even though people talk a big game about wanting to help others in need, there are some people who actually do things to help. One water pump or filter can go a long way. “Move pebbles, not mountains.”


Mushroom farming at Trailblazer

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Our group visited Choeung Ek, also called the Killing Fields, and Toul Sleng, a former high school used as an interrogation center by the Khmer Rouge . Here are some of our reflections:

Kara Rawlings: Visiting S-21 Toul Sleng was the most emotional experience I have had while in Cambodia. Actually seeing the rooms where the prisoners were housed and tortured made it much more real for me. Imagining the pain that these innocent people had to go through was difficult for me. I had never been to a place like that, and it’s very hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that human beings, whom I believe are intrinsically good, could do something so horrific to one another. What stood out to me about the prison were all of the pictures of the prisoners. You could not see a hint of fear in any of the expressions but they had to have been terrified by what was happening to them. If I were in that situation, I can’t imagine being able to keep my emotions from showing. I learned later that it is very important to keep face in Cambodian culture, and this may be why the prisoners refused to show what they were feeling. I greatly admire that they were able to do that. Seeing all of the faces of these people who didn’t deserve anything that was happening to them made me feel sick. It frustrates me that most people in the US do not know about this tragedy, because the victims deserve to be remembered, and the suffering they had to go through should be known. 


Darian Finley-Garcia: While walking through the S-21 prison, I got a weird feeling in the bottom of my stomach because I was trying to picture what was going through the prisoners’ minds 40 years ago. I kept thinking about how close everything was and how small the cells were, and it was really hard to picture what it would look like with prisoners actually in there. It was a very eerie feeling trying to picture what things may have been like. I was very happy and excited to meet one of the survivors because it showed the strength and courageousness of these wonderful people. His ability to go back to that prison on a daily basis was unbelievably humbling and an amazing experience.

Shoshana Kerewsky: This is my third visit to S-21. On this trip I met one of the survivors, who was selling his book about the experience. There are now three monographs that include first-person narratives documenting the horrific conditions at S-21 and the brutal treatment of the prisoners. These stories personalize these experiences and help visitors stay in touch with their feelings rather than becoming overwhelmed by all the photos and shutting down emotionally. We then took tuk-tuks out to Choeung Ek. New since my last visit was the audioguide included in the admission price. It was very well-made, clear, and included both music and additional information as options. The tone of the site remains quiet and respectful, and perhaps more so with everyone plugged into an audio headset rather than chatting. In my tuk-tuk, we had a good conversation about the Holocaust Museum in DC and the Auschwitz and Birkenau exhibitions. On the way there, it was about the Anne Frank House. Unfortunately, violence against others isn’t as rare as we would hope.

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By Lizzy Schuster and Kara Rawlings

Today we visited the Senteurs d’Angkor workshop in Siem Reap.

ImageDuring the tour, we learned about the processes behind making their products. We saw them making palm leaf and palm branch boxes and learned that after gathering leaves, it takes one to two months before the dying process can begin. While each worker can make 30-40 palm leaf boxes each day, the branch boxes take more time, and each worker can normally only finish around four a day.

ImageAt the workshop, we also learned about how they make candles, spices, soaps, and teas and coffees. We enjoyed sampling the lemongrass and cinnamon coffees and bought some to bring home.

ImageOne reason this place appealed to us was because it was free to experience, and they had a tuk-tuk to bring us from their shop near the Old Market to the workshop location. It was also cool to see how the workers made the products and to be able to purchase them from the store at the end.


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