By: Matt Branch

Posted: May 24, 2016
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Staff Post

Final Impressions of SFS Cambodia


What did you like most about the SFS experience?
The SFS experience makes it possible to really immerse yourself in the culture of the country you’re living in. You can’t spend your time in the Cambodia program and not feel like you’re experiencing what Cambodia is really about. We saw all sides of the country – the urban, the rural, the deforested and the lush jungles. We traveled on water and land but it didn’t feel like we were just watching the country roll by – we were actually a part of the country and the community and it makes the program 100 times better.

You’ve been in the country for a full semester – tell us your impressions of it now.
When I first got here I only had Siem Reap and the heat to base my impression of Cambodia on. But after a month of traveling in the country, we were exposed to so much more and to such different places. Siem Reap is bustling but with a small town feel, Kampot moves along at its own pace, Phnom Penh is overwhelming and exhilarating. The only constant I’ve found is the people – no matter where we went, we felt welcome. Even if we had just crashed a wedding or danced our way into a village’s New Year’s celebration, the Cambodian people are quick to offer you a smile or, in our case, a bowl of freshly made rice noodles. I’ve definitely made a connection to the people I’ve met and the places I’ve been, and that will certainly make a lasting impression on me.

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?
I’m not sure we can really call our field station remote since we live in a city… The Firefly is a guesthouse that has been converted for takeover by thirteen students, and you really can’t call the living “tough.” It’s a little funny to think of the SFS programs across the globe and what their field stations are like, because ours is definitely more of a hotel than a station. The most we’ve had to rough it is when we occasionally run out of water and have to take bucket showers — then we can almost imagine we’re living in the backcountry!

What ended up being your biggest challenge this semester both academically and culturally?
My biggest challenge academically is time management, especially right now while we are writing up our Directed Research. I’ve always been a bit of a procrastinator and the freedom granted us to write our DR is a bit overwhelming. I think (or I hope) that this process will teach me to be better at managing my time since there’s nothing fun about panicking over due dates.

My biggest challenge culturally was the lack of a personal bubble. Cambodians are very upfront about most things which is, in my opinion, fantastic, but that definitely carries over into actions. At first it was frustrating to be unable to walk down the street without ten people yelling “Tuk tuk, lady?” Eventually you learn to give a smile and say “No thank you” and continue walking. But, one of the things I’m still trying to handle is how you absolutely cannot go shopping without having someone follow behind your every move. I’m an anxious shopper, and an eager employee asking if you want pants or a shirt or five coconut bowls definitely does not make me want to buy things. Not that that’s really stopped me, since I might need an extra suitcase to bring home souvenirs.

What is the best memory you have from the semester? Give some highlights.
My best memory actually happened the week of data collection for our Directed Research. We were interviewing villagers in the village of Ta Penh and the village chief invited us to their Khmer New Year festival. Having already experienced Khmer New Year in the city, I was really excited to see what it was like in the village. When we arrived on the day of the festival, loud dance music was already blasting and it was made clear that we would have to start dancing if we wanted to get anything done. The day was spent dancing, conducting a few interviews, dancing some more, playing tug of war, listening to traditional music, and, of course, getting water and baby powder dumped on our faces. None of us wanted to leave, but each subsequent trip to Ta Penh made us feel like we had a deeper connection with the villagers. Dancing knows no language barriers!

Give three adjectives that best describe how you are feeling right now.
Altered, aware, sentimental.

→ River Ecosystems and Environmental Ethics in Cambodia

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