EDUCATE: My SEA Journey in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Friday, January 6, 2017

Upon landing in Siem Reap and logging onto WiFi, I learned that I actually placed 10th out of 80 women in the Singapore 10K. I know it’s a smaller race than any I’ve done in Chicago, but I’m still very happy with myself! My spirits started high as I quickly fell in love with Cambodia.


Our Sokha Resort was completely a resort — greeted by men in traditional Khmer dress, taller than tall ceilings, and lavish decorations all over. After quickly settling in, I ran to the Night Market around the corner. While there used to be one solitary night market open until 2am, now, most markets become “night markets” at dusk and stay open even later. I bought two adorable shawls/scarves that became my best friend since we had to cover our shoulders for temples and I brought zero short sleeves.

Afterwards, the group headed to Pub Street for some drinks via Tuk Tuk. I did not expect New Orleans on Spring Break meets Cambodia. It was absolute insanity — makeshift bars out of carts lining the street offering dollar Jaeger Bombs and tequila shots, scruffy backpackers dancing shoeless in the street, and Top 40 Pop EDM competing between clubs on opposite sides of the street. I loved it. At Red Piano, I tried a Caiproska and discovered a new favorite drink despite the absolute lack of Southeast Asian influence. We also sampled Beef Lok Lak and garlic bread while counting the lizards on the wall. A short Tuk Tuk ride home at only $1 per person, we were in bed relatively early and ready for a big day.


Saturday, January 7, 2016

I was excited to run outdoors again, so I explored a nearby park but naturally ended up near water, running down the river. While very much a developing area, Cambodia has a special level of charm — Buddhist statues and construction at almost every corner. After running, I was stretching and doing some core work in the hotel gym. While laying on my back, I somehow ended up amidst a private group fitness class of two elderly women. The instructor offered no introduction or explanation, so suddenly I seemed stuck in the middle of a couple flailing women who didn’t seem to care that the were a couple feet from my head. It was another experience that left me feeling as if I was the comedic relief in a sitcom.


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Our day was spent exploring the Angkorian temple ruins. We visited two smaller temples and the biggest Angkor Wat, which was runner-up for a Wonder of the World. We climbed many, many stairs that day and got stuck in a couple rain showers, but absolutely everything about the ruins was enchanting. Unlike Tulum or Chichen Itza, in my opinion, the temples were much more extravagantly detailed and interesting. Snuggled in a jungle, it’s difficult to imagine such grand kingdoms being hidden away by massive trees. The trees actually ended up ruining one of the temples because it was that big. Buddhist and Hindu, the art on the wall told many stories explaining the culture and history.

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It was a long and tiring day, but we got to cool off at our resort’s expectedly lavish pool. We felt like we were at Atlantis. After a quick shower, we met with Carrie, a former student from this trip that ended up moving to Cambodia. She thought she would work with NGOs, but she ended up in Phnom Penh as director of the undergraduate business program at a university. She shared her journey and it was really inspiring, especially since I am considering spending some longer periods of time in Southeast Asia in the future.

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That night, as we all promised each other, we engaged in some “tomfoolery.” We ate dinner at Cambodia Soup on Pub Street. I tried Khmer Amok with fish, which became my favorite Cambodian food by far. With curry, cauliflower, greens, eggs, and rice, it’s delicious with lots of traditional spices. I also got vodka redbulls for a dollar — even cheaper than the bars in Jacksonville!

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We drank again at Red Piano, but we ended up circulating the clubs and bars along Pub Street. With no ID checks and minimal security, there were many teenagers and small children among some locals but mainly Western backpackers. Many people danced in the street, and it was madness, but oh, so fun. It was weirdest night I’ve had in awhile, but ending the night laying on a beanbag chair on the rooftop of a club with a live band was perfect.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The next morning, we took to the outskirts to see more traditional, local markets. Our shoes got very muddy and we learned why all Southeast Asian homes forbid shoes. We saw a pig’s head, fish that weren’t quite dead, (possibly) counterfeit medicine, and fresh clams. We tried sweet sticky rice, which tastes nearly identical to a KIND bar. We saw a small pharmacy and learned about the issues with the counterfeit pharmaceutical industry. While a pair of knockoff Nikes seems minimal to overall revenues of a Fortune 500 company, counterfeit pharma is much more dangerous. No one is quite certain what pills they are receiving, and they can often be deadly. There is little regulation or certainty regarding medicine. Siem Reap is still developing, but the local markets are still a traditional economy, and this was only the beginning.

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Our drive continued and we stopped at the Floating Villages. These homes are built on tall stilts to protect from rising water levels. When they are lower, people keep livestock below. We got to tour a modest home. After removing our shoes, we walked through a very small home that was all wood (and unstable) with simple floor mats and hardly any furniture. While electricity was introduced four years ago, this is still only used for lights and some fans. It is not used for cooking or plumbing. 

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The children always have a special effect on my heart. Maybe it’s having so many nieces and nephews, but I love to watch them. They are all so friendly, and they all constantly wave, even if we’re driving by in our bus. It reminds me of when my sister and I were children playing in our backyard and would wave at the airplanes flying overhead (for those who don’t know, growing up I lived right by the small Jacksonville airport on the outskirts of a farm town). We always hoped they would see us, simply so they could smile and feel like someone was watching. We figured they probably couldn’t see us, but we did it regardless. These children, with reason, probably feel as if they are looking at another world and can only possibly dream of what it’s like on the other side. Optimistic and hopeful, their cheer never fades.

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After enduring sub-optimal bathrooms, we took a boat ride to tour more Floating Villages from the water. Our tour guide, Bun Tinh, shared more details on his experience surviving the genocide under Khmer Rouge. He began tearing up on several occasions as it is very difficult for him to speak on the matter since he was merely a teenager when he had to endure years of misery including four years of not being allowed to eat. Year Zero ended up producing an opposite effect on kingdom by forcing the people to start fresh in an economy. While rapidly developing now, much of the country is still living in extreme poverty. It will only take time for overall conditions to improve, but we can only hope that it does at a pace that prevents total inequality among the classes.

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After a lunch at an NGO restaurant that offered free condoms and local artisan-supported souvenirs, we explored our final temple in the rain. Known as the Tomb Raider or Angelina Jolie Temple, Ta Prohm was much smaller than the rest of the Angkor ruins but much more mystifying. Maybe it was the way the rain left a fresh dew on the remains, the rainbow appearance, or the lack of crowds, but this seemed to be everyone’s favorite temple visit. Although I don’t recall the Tomb Raider movie, growing up I have fond memories playing the PlayStation game at the Jacksonville Country Club Clubhouse, so thank goodness it was wet or else I probably would have tried creating an obstacle course among the stones.

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That evening, we attended a traditional Khmer dinner and dance performance. Unfortunately, the dinner itself was intended for Westerners with a Caesar salad, tomato soup, steak, and tiramisu. While the food itself wasn’t authentic (the Passionfruit Mojito, however, was delicious), the dance performance was great and fun to see. The hand flexibility blew my mind and reminded me of the ballerinas with natural foot arches. If not, then I just really have inflexible hands.

We ended our night again near Pub Street, however, this time to explore the largest Night Market. I stocked up on all things elephants for souvenirs. Even though our plans changed and we weren’t able to ride elephants, I still got to see many and hope to one day soon! A classmate and I decided to take advantage of the ultra-cheap spas and got $3 massages. It’s absurdly cheap, but we also got what we paid for and it was nothing like my massage in Ho Chi Minh City. We were taken to a small room off the street with just a large fan and two mattress pads. We didn’t have to undress and got a massage right there beside each other. They asked if it was alright if a man gave me my massage, which it was, but it’s also weird to think a very small Cambodian man was massaging my butt while I was wearing a dress. I can’t make this shit up.

Monday, January 9, 2017

On my sunrise run, I explored north of our resort and got to see many young students on their way to school. Most rode their bikes but some walked, all in long, navy pants or skirts with  white button up shirts. I learned that the only honking is when passing, which there was a lot of. There is so much trash, and it seems that no one really cares. It’s been a common subject among us that one of the main challenges with climate change and environmental sustainability is going to be convincing populations that the world is worth giving a damn about. Although short-term effects may not be as apparent, they’re becoming increasingly noticeable and long-term effects will be worse than we realize. This is an issue around the world, but developing economies have the potential to change these attitudes early on as the market progresses.

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For our final day in Siem Reap, we first visited EGBOK (Everything’s Gonna Be Okay), an NGO (non-government organization — think a non-profit that’s not sponsored by the government, which is especially important in socialist countries) that is based on hospitality education and training. As a Cornell student, Founder Ben Justus visited Cambodia and realized some extreme issues with the people but saw potential and opportunity, especially for the youths.

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By providing hospitality training for the booming tourism industry, there is a 100% graduation rate and clear progress of transferable life skills being communicated with family members still in the countryside villages. The return on investment is high and it was inspiring to see how what seems to be a simple education can be life-changing. My favorite part was seeing the social worker’s office wall. At the beginning of each school year, he offers students the chance to write down or draw their dream for the year. Each dream is hung up in his office to serve as a constant reminder, and at the end of the program, the papers will be returned to them to prove that they can accomplish their dreams. As he pointed out, many small villagers don’t realize that change is even possible, so dreams are nonexistent. Encouragement, no matter how small, can change a student’s entire experience.

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We also visited the Artisans of Siem Reap and got to see how many of the souvenirs are crafted. It was incredible to see the processes and the detail that goes into every product. Everything is of such high quality, and I hope that this quality begins to infiltrate the markets and show that cheap souvenirs are not always sustainable. Alas, I buy the cheap souvenirs myself, so I understand.

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We then visited a Buddhist monastery which was a Killing Fields site. Our tour guide continued to share his remarkable story of survival. Everything he’s said is so difficult to imagine, and he doesn’t like to recall these memories or talk about them. We asked if he’s considered writing a book, but most survivors simply want to move on. While understandable, it is difficult when genocides continue to happen, like Aleppo right now, and not much seems to change. It’s frustrating and also heartbreaking.

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Small children were all over begging, Many young kids were hugging onto our legs and pulling our heart strings. One even snatched the water bottle out of a classmates hand and proceeded to chug it. I think it’s most sad that these students are not attending school and are instead being encouraged to beg by their parents or caretakers. Like a young boy with a deformed head sitting in a box with a sign that says, “Please donate for head surgery,” these children are being exploited. While heartbreaking, there are much better ways to benefit the youth, such as donating to institutions or NGOs.

The most profound statement by our tour guide was about the importance of education. He pointed out that while religion is important, education should always be the priority. Religion is often an institute for learning, but the world needs understanding through learning other perspectives and cultures. Speed is the world’s biggest challenge and greatest innovation. He encouraged us to take advantage of the speed to see and understand the world. Only through this can we understand people and actually change the world for the better.

As a non-religious person with a public school upbringing at a Catholic University, I have come to love and appreciate the Jesuit education. At the end of the day, I have my personal faith guided by individual morality, and I know that it’s not different from many other religions. I personally support Jesuit pedagogy, but I do think that any religious education is increasingly valuable by encouraging education period and providing a lens to see the world.

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We headed to the airport and experienced another long delay. I was very sad to leave Siem Reap, but I know that I will be returning to the Kingdom of Wonder.

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‘Til next time,

++ Mary K

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