It was rather easy to generate interest to this year's study trip to Siem Reap. The powerful allure of Angkor Wat was publicity enough. What needed more thought, however, was to craft together a variety of inputs providing snippets into contemporary Cambodian society and culture in a limited space of time. For the rest of the travel itinerary, I relied on the curiosity and energy of the travelers themselves to ferret out stories consonant with their own interests.
In what ways this particular cohort of young and novice travelers have grasped Cambodian society and culture at a specific moment in time are now on courageous display in this collective blog. Unlike private diaries, they are written for an anonymous global audience and offer an eclectic mix of entries as a textual and visual record of their journey together.
A few motifs can be discerned from their respective entries. One thread deals with the tragic and long term repercussions of genocide, war, disease and poverty. Another looks at the rich heritage of ancient Cambodia and its power for both economic uplift and the commercialization of culture. Yet another thread highlights issues of democracy and economic justice in a country undergoing rapid modernization and developmental change.
This year's trip would not have been possible without the goodwill and assistance of key institutions and individuals. Firstly, to Dr Philippe Peycam, Executive Director of the Center for Khmer Studies, for readily agreeing to be the host institution and opening up the facilities of the center. My gratitude also goes to Dr Michael Sullivan (CKS), Ms Depika Sherchan (Centre on Housing Rights and Eviction), Venerable Y Nol and Mr Duong Than (Life and Hope Association), and Mr Serge Rega (National Center for Khmer Ceramics Revival) for providing their insights into Cambodian society and culture.
As only the travelers themselves would appreciate, the study trip would be that much poorer without the valuable assistance of our able student guides from the Royal University of Phnom Penh - Ms Bunneth Siek, Mr Hak Bona, Mr Kosal Din, Ms Borey Yin and Mr Thach Sorn. Much more than mere translators, they helped the Monash travelers to traverse both linguistic and cultural barriers.
Whether it was the agonizing slow speed of the internet, the scorching heat, the dusty roads, the price of souvenirs and handicraft, exotic cuisine, the architectural marvels of ancient Cambodia or the heart wrenching stories of landmine victims and forced evictions, I believe this year's study trip has generated enough talking points to last for quite a while. However, if the trip had helped the student travelers in a small way to better appreciate and empathize with some of the challenges that face Cambodians today, I believe its value lies deeper and is more lasting.
Siem Reap 2008 - the memories will live forever.