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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Thank You Cambodia & Hello Thailand

As we leave the Thai border to head towards Ubon, Gai’s hometown, I reflect on my month in Cambodia. These past few weeks have challenged me in ways I have never been before–I explored a whole lot in both a physical and a metaphorical way. So I thought it would be fitting to summarize my time here by sharing a few experiences and what I learned from them.

CIA Agents?

During out homestay on the island, we met with the village chief second-in-charges along with two clerks for a Q&A. After discussing and finding out that domestic violence and gender roles played a significant role on the island, we moved toward a different topic: politics. One student a seemingly harmless question on what the election process is like on this island. But as soon as she asked, the dams opened and it flooded. The clerks and male chief bantered, asking Thavry–our lovely in-country instructor and translator–if we had the proper documentation to be there. They wondered why we were here and if we were CIA agents. We then scurried out, thanking the officials and left before causing any more commotion. At first, I was bewildered by sensitivity of the officials. How on earth did they think that 13 students, between the ages of 17 and 20, could possibly be CIA agents? However, after some pondering and asking Thavry a few questions, I realized that this reaction was part of the aftershock of the Khmer Rouge. The middle-aged officials built walls up to protect themselves and their country; they were paranoid that us Americans would harm them again just like we did in the 70’s and immediately got defensive when posed with politics. In America, I never think twice about speaking my mind about politics. I can openly disagree and dislike my political leaders without having to worry about my safety. It was a mistake to take this for granted–so many people don’t have the freedom of speech in their countries. While Cambodia is not as strict as Laos, Thailand, or China about freedom of speech–especially in terms of politics–Khmers and foreigners do not have liberty to speak their minds.

Turn Down for (Angkor) Wat

We biked at 4am towards Angkor Wat in time to see the sunrise. After weaving through tourists and finding a relatively calm place to sit, several servers bombarded us with questions if we wanted any coffee while we waited and to visit their restaurant for breakfast. One guy, a server from 007 (most restaurants are named after celebrities. Justin Bieber, Tom Hanks, and Selena Gomez are some to name a few) really surprised me with his creativity. Every time any word had “wat” or resembled the sound of “wat,” he would raise his pitch and his voice. For example, he showed us a photo of the sunrise the previous day and said “Angkor WAT is beautiful over the WAT-er. Please come to 007 once you are done. Do you know WAT you would want to eat?” The menu contained foods priced all at $5, whether it was French fries, noodles, or fried rice with meat. The Wat was so catered tourists, inflating the prices (fried rice is usually around 2-3 USD) and so many Western and Asian tourists roamed around to the point where it felt overwhelming. Even in Siem Reap, I realized this was the case. So many people spoke English, prices were inflated, and stores resembled a lot of typical western stores. There were nice gelaterias that could be mistaken for one in Rome, a Starbucks and a Pizza Hut. I wondered, how many of these places can local Khmers afford? Has consumerism and tourism overtaken a once peaceful and calm place? In my mind, it had. But I wonder if the tourists visiting ever wondered the same questions, or were they too intrigued by elephant pants and taking selfies to ever notice. It’s so easy to fall into the comforts of where we come from and visit those places that we can easily access in America. I’m not saying that in order to be a good traveler to avoid them at all costs, but I do believe that people should be more critical and question why they are going to such places. Is it for their comfort? How is it affecting the locals by going to chains or such Western places? Where are these elephant pants and cheap things coming from (hint: it’s most likely factory made in China)?

100 Ways to Consume Potatoes

On the 6-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, a few friends and I challenged ourselves to a game of how many different ways we can come up with to consume potatoes. Potatoes Au gratin, potato leek soup, baked potato, stuffed potato, crinkly fries, green curry, tornado potatoes, curly fries… I think we managed to come up with 100 unique ways to consume potatoes, and I’m both shocked and proud that we managed to do so. The lesson I learned here is that potatoes are very important in our lives and thus must be the reason why we have so many different ways to prepare them. In addition, I have realized that I have become immune to long car rides, especially when such important topics are discussed.