The first impression I had of Cambodia was what I encountered immediately upon exiting the airport in Phnom Penh – the heat. It was nearly 2AM, and it was still well over 80 degrees with high humidity. Within Phnom Penh, the streets are swarming with motorbikes, rickshaws, and tuk tuks all chaotically bobbing and weaving through the main vehicle traffic. Even in the busiest Cambodian cities, there are barely any stop lights; drivers just go whenever they see fit. Besides the traffic, other unique aspects of Cambodia are the language spoken (Khmer) and that the American dollar is accepted and preferred over the local currency (riel).

Before coming to Phnom Penh and especially Siem Reap, I did not realize how intertwined the fate of normal Cambodian people is with the success of tourism. When we were walking through a market in Phnom Penh, merchants were yelling “COVID is over” in Khmer. The pandemic left so many Cambodians unemployed, and our group of Alabama students is among the first tourists back in their country, so the locals are so hospitable and kind – even more so than Cambodians are generally. Many locals made attempts to communicate with us in English, and in return our tour guide taught us Khmer phrases to say hello and thank you. The only misunderstanding was between the words “unique” and “eunuch” – as it turns out, they are very different.

Our study abroad has taken us from pagodas and monks to garment factories and special economic zones, pottery and silversmith villages to floating villages, and the famed Angkor Wat to the River of a Thousand Lingas. It truly has been a cultural immersion in all things Cambodia, with an emphasis on business, politics, and an introduction to Buddhism in Phnom Penh, ordinary rural life of Cambodians on our overnight riverboat journey through the various villages, and ancient Cambodian culture during our time in Siem Reap. As I prepare to return home, I’m grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to experience such a vastly different culture, and I hope to incorporate the value of some of their beliefs and mindsets to improve my own life.

Phnom Penh skyline
Spirit houses in a rural Cambodian village
Tuk tuk in a port market