No one could prepare us for the journey upon which we were about to embark. As young college freshmen, most of us had never been outside the country, so as our flight to Cambodia commenced, the real change began. After arriving in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, we remembered the line of poetry Mr. Kovacic, our faculty sponsor, wrote and shared with us the week before our departure: “Beginning our journey—hearts and minds open.” From then on, everyday consisted of numerous surprises and life-changing experiences.
TAMIU students gather on the bridge that crosses a moat that surrounds Angkor Wat.
Everyday something new opened our eyes a bit more. The thing we noticed the most was how this country has come so far in such a short time; technologically, economically, or politically, this country is rebuilding itself. One of the most significant and moving experiences was learning about the Khmer Rouge and the atrocities that occurred during its regime. For instance, we visited Cambodia’s Killing Fields, and as we walked through the fields, we saw human remains: bones and tattered clothing. To respect the dead, we carefully stepped around what we saw.
Then, we took in the Choeung Ek monument, a tower with glass sides that is filled with over 5,000 human skulls. Around the monument are small pits where bones can be seen. We also visited the Killing Tree, which was used by the Khmer Rouge to bash children against to kill them. All of this, we took in and stood speechless, truly realizing how despite suffering so much and experiencing such loss, the people of Cambodia have been able to rise from it all. They continue to live, working, smiling, and loving every day. The strength—physically and mentally—of Cambodia and its people astonished us.
Another memorable experience during our stay was living with a family in the countryside. Even though they have very little, they make so much out of what they do have. Most of us reflected on our lives and realized that despite having more material possessions, we don’t need half of them, such as the iPods and iPads. Even a hot shower in Cambodia is considered a luxury not to be taken lightly. As Vanessa Navarro, a fellow traveller, noted, “These people build around what they have, and their strength is admirable.”
These people can honestly say they are a family. Cambodians work together and are happy, and no matter the outcome, they are grateful. For example, the day could be as humid and hot as can be, but that does not stop them from working or performing their daily routine. Javier Mendoza, another TAMIU traveller, remarked that he felt moved by how respectful Cambodians were. “I was very impressed to find that never once was their culture or religion forced on us; we were free to explore and learn for ourselves,” he observed.
These serene and massive stone faces are typical of the Bayon Temple.
We also took part in “portable classrooms,” where we had discussions on political, economic, and ethical issues related to Cambodia. For example, we debated whether it is fair that only four people are being tried for the murders of millions of people. Another key topic of discussion was the idea of responsible giving. We had to think about the practice and how it can be successful for Cambodia. These discussions helped us to critically think about various issues and understand that there is always more than one perspective to an issue. It is up to us to decide what is morally right.
In Cambodia—in fact, all over the world—people have to make decisions and think about their impact. Is it going to be a mistake? Will it have an impact? When it comes to answering that question, most will hopefully be able to say “impact.”
Not only did we learn about the history of Cambodia, but we also learned about the people around us and our group. We all went there with no expectations, and in the end, we learned more about each other than we thought we would. This trip was more than just a learning experience; we traveled to Cambodia as one, and we became more than just friends: we became a family. When our trip ended, we knew that this was not just the end of one journey but also the beginning of another. We will continue to grow together from this incredible experience. Because of this trip, our hearts and eyes were opened to all the possibilities in our world. If the people of Cambodia can overcome the Khmer Rouge, than we can overcome anything, if we put in the effort. It is now our turn, our time, to build on our lives and make a difference.
(Editor’s Note: TAMIU students traveled to Cambodia as part of the University’s “Reading the World” Program, a study-travel opportunity shared with students from West Texas A&M University. Their travel was made possible in part by the generosity of the Lupe and Lilia Martínez Foundation of Laredo. The 15 students selected were Arturo James Crake, Marcos Roel Cruz, Karen Cristina De La Garza, Olinda Victoria Domínguez, Amanda Michelle Garza, Oscar Eduardo Leyva, María Andrea Martínez, Javier Mendoza, Vanessa M. Navarro, Phillipe Quach, Evelyn F. Richardson, Carolina Yvette Salazar, Erika Salazar, Reymundo Salinas and Luís Alberto Vela.)