Earlier, as I sat in a massive, luxurious hardwood chair furnished with smoothly coated dragons and serpent designs, in the lobby of the Mekong Dolphin hotel in the Kratie Province of Cambodia, I tried to gather my thoughts from the past three weeks. The princely white hotel that towers proudly over the Mekong River will be our place of residence for the majority of our first long trip away from our beautiful Center in Siem Reap. We’re exploring the north and central parts of Cambodia. Not unlike our days in Siem Reap, so much happens every single day and I’m always left trying to reflect on where I am. I keep reminding myself that I’m halfway around the world in a developing country. I make a point to appreciate where I am every single day but I can’t tell if it has sunk in yet.
As I type this, my laptop jumps off my lap every few seconds while the bus attempts to maneuver eroding roads on the riverbank of the Mekong. We are heading back to our hotel after having just found some of the incredibly endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in the immensely deep pools of the river that they call home. Never before this program have I had the experience of being an informed, conscious sightseer. Unlike the see-whatever, do-whatever regular tourists around us, we’re briefed extensively on all ecotourism projects we take part in. Learning about how extremely endangered this species is and debating the ethics of their conservation and their role as a tourist attraction beforehand really forces me to analyze the situation. As we travel around the country going on these sorts of field trips I find it impossible to not reflect upon and question my views and opinions.
We have learned about the organizational discrepancies and bureaucratic entanglement of several ecotourism projects in the last couple of weeks. I get completely taken aback by the spectacular temples of Angkor or the awesome expanse of the mighty Mekong River. But unlike most tourists, I get immersed in the stories of the people of these places. I get to explore case studies and talk to the local Cambodians involved in the issues. For instance, we talked with the boat operators of the Irrawaddy dolphin ecotourism project and learned about how they practice their livelihoods, and following this we’ll head out to explore a turtle conservation site and talk with local turtle nest protectors. It’s one adventure after another and we are fully immersed in each one. The real world is our classroom and we’re all indulging ourselves in it.