Cambodia Travelogue 3
Saturday, January 14, 2012, Sihanoukville
On Thursday after teaching class at PUC, I met for the second time with a Cambodian student group that call themselves Y.E.S. (Youth Experience Sharing). I met them for the first time last Friday (the day after I arrived in Phnom Penh) after seeing a Facebook invite from the group’s nominal leader, Ly Kheang, asking YES members to meet at the Riverside boat launch at 4:30 pm in time to board one of the nightly tour boats that makes a 45-minute loop along the Tonle Sap, one of the two rivers (along with the Mekong) that flows through Phnom Penh.
UMass Lowell’s connection with YES began a year ago, January 2011, when UMass Lowell students Tola Sok, then-president of the Cambodian American Student Association (CASA), Sarina Choun, CASA’s current president, and CASA Executive Board member, Tony Phiv, travelled to Cambodia on a parallel trip with mine to begin work on the CASA’s Project S.O.K. (Save One Khmer).
Project SOK’s mission is to provide some form of assistance to impoverished villages in rural Cambodia. In the process of networking with other student groups in the US and Cambodia, UMass Lowell’s CASA members connected with YES, so that the two groups now stay in regular contact through Facebook. (Tola added me to the YES Facebook page, so even though I had never met any of the members personally, I was able to follow their activities through the social network.)
One of my objectives for this trip is to help grow the relationship between CASA and YES and offer my support as CASA’s faculty advisor. So, on Friday (January 6), the day after I arrived in Phnom Penh, I went unannounced to Riverside at 4:30 pm per Kheang’s Facebook invite. Seeing a group of young people milling around the boat launch, I approached them and asked if they knew Ly Kheang. I was told by one of the girls (her name I found out later was Hoeung) that he was on his way, and in the meantime we briefly introduced ourselves. When I told them I was from UMass Lowell they asked if I knew Tola and with that common connection revealed, we all became fast friends. It was a wonderful example of people who might otherwise never meet connecting through personal and virtual social networks.
Moments later Kheang arrived with two students visiting from Indonesia whom Kheang knew through a regional student network concerned about environmental issues. After some more introductions we boarded the tour boat ($1 for nationals, $5 for visitors) and continued our informal meeting. We climbed the stairs to the top deck with its panoramic view of the river and cool breeze and arranged our seats in a circle. Since the Indonesian students did not speak Khmer, we used English, which all of the students spoke very well.
One of the Indonesian students, Cheya, asked about YES’s plans for “no plastic day”, a regional event scheduled for March 3 for 3 hours (3, 3, 3, very clever, I thought), and Kheang explained they were having trouble finding an achievable objective they could work towards. Plastic bags are almost indispensible at the Cambodian traditional markets where the meats and vegetables are cut and cleaned and sold on the spot, and plastic bags are used more for packaging purposes than transport. I suggested that there are a few “Lucky Supermarkets” now in Phnom Penh that resemble western groceries, large, air-conditioned, modern buildings with aisles of prepackaged food. Perhaps these markets may be a possible starting point? One of the YES members added that other stores like tailor shops or electronic stores might be other possibilities. Everyone agreed that targeting these kinds of stores may be an achievable goal for the event.
Kheang told the group that YES was approaching some organizations to sponsor the cost of tote bags to give to the people who participate in the “day without plastic”, as a first step in changing people’s shopping habits to try reusable shopping bags as a substitute for environmentally harmful plastic that often end up being burned in small trash fires on city side streets or buried in crude landfills outside the city limits.
Cheya, who is also a media and communications major, asked if YES was planning to utilize Cambodia radio and TV stations to get the word out about the event. Kheang and others smiled. As much as they would like to, advertizing on the Cambodian media poses many problems: it is costly and since most stations are controlled by the government, it might require government approval. As a small organization, YES would be hard pressed to accomplish even a modest goal by March 3.
There was a pause in the discussion, and people took a moment to take in the view of the skyline and the rising moon and darkening sky. The boat had already started back to the dock by then, and the remainder of the time was spent introducing ourselves in more detail, since getting to know each other was a main objective of the meeting and seemed to yield unexpected but valuable results. Before disembarking, Kheang asked a passenger on the boat to take a picture of our group, and we all gathered in a semi-circle on the middle of the deck as the meeting was formally documented.
The next day, Kheang posted the group photo on the YES Facebook page which Tola happened to see back in the US. He posted a comment under the picture: “Is that George Chigas, CASA’s faculty advisor, in the back row in the white shirt?” (More connections!) I also received a very kind email from Hoeung in Khmer (a show of respect and in a way acceptance) thanking me for taking the time to join their group and asking if the group could meet with me again the following week. After a few subsequent emails, we planned to meet last Thursday (January 12) at 4:30 pm after my class at PUC at the park near Independence Monument across from the Ministry of Environment.
On Thursday, I hurried back to my hotel after class, showered and walked quickly to the meeting place afraid I might be late, but when I arrived I didn’t see anyone there. A little annoyed, I called Hoeung on her cell (we had exchanged numbers by email) and she told me they were on their way. What I didn’t realize was the YES members had to ride their bicycles (not motor scooters like wealthier students) from the University about five miles away in heavy traffic. (Traffic in Cambodia requires a description of its own, a kind of free-for-all where who yields to whom is governed by the size of the vehicle, and bicycles would be at the bottom of that hierarchy!)
When Hoeung, Kheang, and the others finally arrived, we decided on a place to sit and talk. (Being the afternoon, we had to compete with the exercise groups that gather at different corners of the park each afternoon to form rows behind the group leader who demonstrates the exercise/dance moves that everyone follows to the accompaniment of loud music pumped through large speakers.) Again, the meeting was very casual with no specific agenda. But after a few minutes of conversation, I asked Kheang to tell me more about YES’s activities in 2011, since I still knew very little about the kinds of things the group did.
Kheang described a series of visits YES had made to rural high schools to talk with the students there and describe what it was like to study at university and live in the city. He explained that they wanted to act as mentors for these students and encourage them to try to go to university if possible. “If we could do it, they can do it,” he said. “We were just like them. We came from the same small, poor villages.”
As Kheang was describing one of the trips to a high school in Siem Reap where two of the YES members had gone, it occurred to me that this might be a way for our UMass Lowell students who planned to study at PUC next fall to connect with YES and participate in a service learning project as part of their coursework at PUC (with credit transfer to UMass Lowell). To end the meeting, I asked Kheang how to add my students to the YES Facebook page if they chose to, and I promised Hoeung that if we have another meeting before I leave Cambodia, I would go to see them.
George Chigas, Department of Cultural Studies