At the beginning of the fall semester, we asked student Anna Chahuneau about her first impressions of Cambodia. Now, as the semester comes to a close, she shared her thoughts with us again.
What did you like most about the SFS experience?
I was most grateful for the opportunity to do hands-on research in a country as unique and vibrant as Cambodia. Our last month was spent in the Cambodian highlands, studying both the history and folklore of a Bunong indigenous community, and the behavior of semi-captive elephants kept in a sanctuary called the Elephant Valley Project. My research focused on gathering historical accounts from the Bunong people and I now understand that nowhere else but with The School for Field Studies, would I have been able to conduct this type of original research project at an undergraduate level. Not only did this experience teach me valuable research skills, but it also gave me the opportunity to contribute to an effort of cultural preservation, undertaken by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Ministry of the Environment.
You’ve been in the country for a full semester – tell us your impressions of it now.
Cambodia is, for lack of better terminology, chaotically beautiful. Both the people and the landscapes I have encountered on this journey were exceptional. There are things and places in the world that cannot be done justice with words, and Cambodia would be one of these places. There is an outstanding amount of beauty and resilience in the country, but there is also a lot of pain, and both have worked to make this experience unique and hard to translate into words. If you would really like to know what Cambodia is like and have the means to come and visit, then you would do best to come find out for yourself.
What is life at the field station really like? What are the best and the most challenging parts of living at a remote field station?
The Siem Reap field station is the least remote of all SFS Centers, and I have therefore not experienced any challenge in relation to remoteness. Siem Reap is a vibrant and exciting city, and from the Center, we are in close proximity to amenities such as cafes and shops. Siem Reap is in fact far less remote than my current university. However, living in an underdeveloped nation has come with certain challenges, but by no means were they insurmountable. If anything, the language barrier may have proven to be the hardest aspect of living in Cambodia.
What ended up being your biggest challenge this semester both academically and culturally?
My biggest challenge was, without a doubt, coming to the realization that climate change is not a future threat, but rather a present one. In all of my previous Biology or Environmental Science classes we have discussed climate change as a distant concept, but thanks to the curriculum we have here, I have come to realize that people all around the world are already suffering from its effects.
What is the best memory you have from the semester? Give some highlights.
My best memory is from a hike that our group took into the jungle at the Jahoo Gibbon Camp. Because most of my childhood was spent in Paris, where trees are fabricated witnesses and the grass only grows between pavement cracks, walking into an authentic lush forest was a new and unique experience. As much as it pains me to accept it, before coming to Cambodia, I did not understand the implications behind the words forest or jungle. The Cambodian jungle is loud and thick but it is also beautiful and messy, with giant palm trees growing out of streams, and srolaos crossing branches. Walking in the middle of this green madness, I felt something I had never felt before.
Give three adjectives that best describe how you are feeling right now.
Nostalgic, appreciative, open-minded
Hiking through a highland Bunong farm
One of the inspiring Bunong women we met during our trip to Mondulkiri
Visiting the elephants at Elephant Valley Project
Mid-hike photoshoot while hiking through the forest looking for gibbons and langurs
The village chief and his grandkids in Jrei village. Photo courtesy of Peter Wedell