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S21, Boogie Boarding, Sunsets, and Mangos: Student Lead Travel in Cambodia

This week there was an overthrow of the Audrey/Greg regime as the students took the reins for "Student Directed Travel".  It didn't take us long to figure out what we wanted to do as soon as Amalia put bungalows on the beach and a National Park on the table.  So, instead of heading straight to Vietnam, we decided to extend our stay in Cambodia and chill on the beach in Sihanoukville.

As soon as we arrived at our collection of bungalows only a few steps from the ocean, there was a rush to jump into the clear cerulean blue waters.  Which ocean it was turned out to be a topic of much confusion.  It was the Gulf of Thailand, guys.  1 point for Andi.

It’s been a week full of emotional highs and lows, which is really quite a fitting way to visit a country like Cambodia, whose people have experienced some of the most horrific extremes of human capabilities and yet still find ways to smile, laugh, and welcome visitors with open arms.

We started the week in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, where we visited the S21 prison that was run by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s. Thousands of people were sent through the prison for interrogation, or before being sent to the killing fields, and only about a dozen survived. We were taken on a tour through rooms where blood stains still remain on the floors and walls from the prisoners who were tortured to death. We also saw rows of miniscule prison cells equipped with shackles to ensure prisoners couldn’t escape, and countless photographs taken by Khmer soldiers of the men, women and children who were imprisoned there, as well as photos depicting the horrendous torture they endured.

After S21, we decided to make sure our day would be as sad and terrifying as we could possibly make it and went to the killing fields. Through individual audio tours, we learned about the mass burial sites below our feet where thousands of people were murdered genocidally. Pol Pot was quoted as saying that “it’s better to kill an innocent person than let a guilty person survive.” With that slogan in mind, the Khmer Rouge brutally beat and murdered adults and children alike, and then buried them in massive pits in the ground.

On our way back to our guest house, the tuk tuk I was in took a different turn than the rest of the group. I thought for a second that we might become the inspiration for the next Taken movie, but our spirits were quickly lifted when a random motorcyclist drove up and handed each of us a mango just for kicks.

Those mangoes really turned the metaphorical emotional frown upside down because the rest of the week has been all good vibes. We spent two days at a mangrove conservation site where we kayaked, swam, watched an incredible sunset from a boat, and sang moon songs to our dearly beloved moon during a lunar eclipse. We are currently located just outside of Kampot, chilling in cabanas above a beautiful river, spending our days paddle-boarding and cooking breakfast for dinner. It’s super chai.

We departed from Sihanoukville bright and early at 6:00 AM ready for a 12 hour bus ride into Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.  Our estimated 12 hours of travel soon doubled when our bus' engine broke down and we were left sitting on the roadside with our transport kindly sending smoke signals out the back.  Being the fearless travelers we are, we organized a sit-in protest against paying for private van and we were rewarded after a few hours of stubbornness with a second bus all to ourselves!  Eventually, after a breif, unexpected overnight layover in the Cambodian border town, we arrived in Vietnam.

Now the students are all planning out our remaining days of student directed travel in the wonderful, bustling city of Ho Chi Minh.