Cambodia by cyclo
Our introduction to Cambodia takes place on a cyclo–a popular Southeast Asian bicycle. In Phnom Penh, we explore Cambodia’s rich history by cyclo, with stops at the National Museum, the Royal Palace and Wat Phnom, a Buddhist temple built in the 14 century. In the evening, we take basic Khmer language classes and then have a chance to interact with people in local markets in Khmer. As the group settles in, we invite speakers from our partner organizations to conduct seminars and lead thoughtful discussions on poverty and globalization.
From city life to wildlife
From Phnom Penh, we make our way west to the Koh Kong province and South Cardamom Mountains. Our eco-lodge provides the perfect vantage point to witness the power of sustainable eco-tourism and the economic benefit it can have on local communities. We continue our study of the Khmer language and engage in lively discussion on how the work of NGOs and MFIs in countries like Cambodia can help alleviate extreme poverty. Before heading back to the capital, we venture into the Pream Krasop Wildlife Sanctuary to experience a more natural side of Cambodia. This sanctuary is home to monkeys, bats, deer, over a thousand species of birds, and as some fishermen have attested, the occasional saltwater crocodile.
Real-world economics in action
After exploring more broad themes in finance and the global economy, we head back to Phnom Penh, which sits at the center of banking and microfinance in Cambodia, and shift focus to community-based economies. The group meets with representatives from institutional lenders and microfinance institutions (MFIs) and begins to explore the challenges of implementing loans at the community level. In classrooms, we’ll investigate different lending models and how loans, savings, and insurance products serve different needs in different communities. Then, we’ll leave Phnom Penh and see how that theory is applied in real word settings.
Now we head east to the wild mountain province of Mondulkiri, home of the ethnic minority Bunong people. This is one of the last remaining wilderness areas in all of Southeast Asia and herds of wild elephants roam its grassy landscapes. That said, they too are threatened by a shrinking habitat, as we will soon come to discover on a service assignment with the Elephant Valley Project. The Project is working to create a protected forest area for elephants, as well as the Bunong, and ensure their long-term future survival.
Making an impact
Now we know the stories of the people behind microfinance organizations. We read case studies and visit branch headquarters to understand the dynamics of funding, managing, and accountability of such programs. As part of our course objectives, we also aim to measure the social and economic impact of microfinance assistance, particularly group agricultural loans and small business loans to women, and do so by visiting with community stakeholders at the local level.
Temples and ruins
After spending three weeks crisscrossing Cambodia, we finally journey to the mystical Angkor Wat. Standing inside this temple city, the largest religious monument in the world, we feel the entire beauty of Cambodia and the strength and tenacity of its people. Next, we travel to the French-Indochinese town of Siem Reap and spend several days among famous ruins and temples. Another highlight is the opportunity to volunteer at a school and outreach program organized by the Venerable Somnieng Houern, an influential monk who is personally committed to reversing the effects of extreme poverty one child-at-a-time.
Our final days are spent reflecting on the lessons learned and the people we’ve met. People whose stories have shaped our understanding of global economics as well as Cambodia. Our last stop on the journey is the undeveloped island of Koh Rong. Just offshore from the beaches of Sihanoukville in Southern Cambodia, Koh Rong is home to miles of empty white sand beaches, tiny fishing villages, legendary seafood and a traditional Khmer island culture that’s still vibrant. We head back to Phnom Pehn to bid farewell to our new Cambodian friends and fly home with greater awareness and appreciation for our world and the people with whom we share it.