This is a guest blog post written by Claire Bennett, Ayana Journeys / PEPY Tours trip leader.
Earlier this month I had the privilege of leading a group of students from Hicks Honors College at the University of North Florida (UNF) in a whirlwind trip around Cambodia. We had twenty students, five locations and less than two weeks, and our mission was to learn about social enterprise in Cambodia. Shepherding the journey were two of the Hicks professors, Dr Michelman and ‘The General’, along with myself and my inspirational co-leader Untac.
We started in the bustling metropolis of Phnom Penh, where one of the first visits was to the Khmer Rogue prison camp, S21. This might seem like a strange place for our tour to have started – the war and killings of Cambodia’s brutal recent past, when our trip focuses on current day movements for social change. We asked the group – why did we come here first? “For context…to see where they have come from…to understand the battles that have been faced.” All of this, plus to see that even the bleakest darkness is temporary; hope will always rise from the ashes.
“I learned so much about ancient, recent and current Cambodian history. I feel I have an incredibly deeper understanding of the country, and the world at large.” – Riley
From Phnom Penh we journeyed to Kampot, where we were welcomed in three languages by our hosts at Epic Arts – English, Khmer, and Sign language. They asked us if we were ready to dance. We thought we were, until we saw how gracefully and beautifully they could dance and then we weren’t so sure.
“We got to connect with so many people through dance, music and ASL. My eyes were opened to the common threads of the human experience.”– Kaitlynn
We spent a morning at Trapsaeng Sanke Ecotourism Project, travelling to the river mouth on a boat and talking about the important ecosystem of mangroves. The students knew what he was talking about – when our guide told us about how mangrove habitats were threatened by economic interests, there were exclamations from the group: “That happens in Florida too!” We were inspired by the story of the small community of farmers and fishermen standing up against for their livelihoods and environment.
“It is such a wonderful reminder of home, and the absolute passion that the community had was eye-opening.” – Kayla
After a day on the bus we arrived in Battambang – the culture and arts capital of Cambodia, the “rice bowl” of the country, and, as we were reliably informed by Untac, “the home of the best-looking people too!” We found our wings on bicycles, and were taken across the countryside with the inspiring local social enterprise Soksabike. We stopped by at local families to learn about their traditional crafts and livelihood activities – drying bananas, making wine, and fermenting fish!
“I was able to get a closer look at the city of Battambang and the daily lives of Cambodia, while simultaneously supporting them and having fun on a bicycle.” – David
The next day we were on the road again, heading towards a forgotten Angkorian ruin called Banteay Chhmar. The rural community based around the temple kindly opened up their homes to us for a night and showed us exquisite hospitality. After a few hours of using our broken Khmer language skills, and pictures, and body language, to bond with our families, we went for a sunset walk around the breathtaking temple, and then were treated to a magical picnic among the ruins as night fell. We were serenaded by musicians playing traditional instruments, and it didn’t take long for our group to turn the evening into a Cambodian dance party!
“Experiencing the homestay and traditional music showed me the ‘real’ culture of Cambodia and made me step outside of my comfort zone. The stay made me understand and empathise, rather than pity.” – Amanda
Our final destination was Siem Reap. We stayed in the luscious garden setting of an inter-faith reflection centre, humbly living among such inspiring people as had won the Nobel Peace prize. We got to visit, explore and eat at a whole range of social enterprises, including successful visits that were entirely self-led by the students. On our last full day in Cambodia we woke up when it was still dark, in order to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat – a once in a lifetime experience.
Our final discussions summed up what we’d learned about social enterprise over the course of the trip.
“I learned the relevance of social enterprises and learning service. I think when I go back I’ll think more critically about the help someone needs before assuming what help they need.” – Lexi
Our deep discussions and heated debates over the trip had covered a range of topics – the intricacies of international aid, the importance of learning before helping, and politics in both Cambodia and the US. However, at the end of the trip, the thing we all kept circling back to was how much we had learned about ourselves.
“My life is changed because of the experience I had in Cambodia, largely because of who Cambodians are, and who our trip leaders were and what they were able to offer and challenge us with.” – Bella
UNF students: Cambodia will miss you dearly. Use the lessons you have learned here wisely. We have no doubt that you will go on to achieve great things in your future.