By Anna Baranova, Kendra Campbell, Chor Choch, Ashton Paetzold
Photo credit: John Lubker
“Destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.” -Henry Miller
At PEPY Tours, our goal is not only to introduce guests to the history and culture of Cambodia, but also to educate travelers about responsible tourism and inspire them to create positive changes in the places they visit as well as in their own lives. During PEPY trips, we try to introduce lessons about best practices in the development world in the hopes that participants come away with new perspectives on how to live, travel, and give responsibly.
In March, we had a special opportunity to host 30 bright, young, and eager college students from two Texas universities. For most students, it was their first time outside the country, and for many, it was their first time outside of Texas. Trip leaders felt honored to meet such a remarkable bunch of Texans, all of whom had won this trip as part of an essay competition. The competition required the participants to read a book on different social issues and write an essay relating the students’ personal feelings and experiences on the topic. The essay winners were a group of inspiring young adults from diverse backgrounds who were eager to learn as well as share their ideas, thoughts, and contagious enthusiasm.
The trip with PEPY was an eight-day whirlwind of rustic village home stays, Angkorian temples, authentic Khmer cuisine, and tragic lessons from Cambodia’s recent past. We set aside time to have regular discussions on topics such as the Khmer Rouge trials, development strategies, the environment, and poverty. This educational journey introduced topics that most students had not had the chance to really think about or experience first-hand before.
Below are personal accounts of two of the many awesome students and faculty from Texas as well as one of PEPY’s trip leaders, Chor:
“The country of Cambodia touched my heart, woke me up to the realities of poverty, and renewed my spirit of humility. I was captivated by the simple beauty that I witnessed all around me in Chambok [a small village with homestays]. Simplicity has been on my mind and heart ever since our return to the United States. It is hard to live a simple life in the US with billboards, magazines, television ads, the radio, and the internet constantly trying to sell the next best thing. In the past, I have fallen prey to the mentality that money buys happiness.
However, in Cambodia, I witnessed a different mentality. I saw many people who did not possess the material things that many people in the United States equate with happiness, yet they were still content. They achieved happiness by putting their value in relationships rather than in money. If I could take away one thing from my time in Cambodia, it would be to always count your blessings. We must remember to share our knowledge with others, and never shy away from an open door. We must also be aware that every time we spend a dollar, we are supporting the vendor from which we purchase, and are voting for more of that service.”
“I have been fortunate to lead student trips abroad many times for the purpose of learning about other cultures and to “make a difference” through some form of service. Such experiences are always educational and rewarding. Worldviews are broadened, perspective is gained, new appreciation is discovered, and dreams begin to take shape. I expected much of the same coming to Cambodia. However, it wasn’t until working with PEPY that my eyes were opened to a broader lesson on responsible service that we were missing in our previous experiences. PEPY not only shared with us the beauty, history, and culture of Cambodia, but they also helped to fill a major gap in our understanding of the impact we make, the need to learn about and practice responsible service, and the importance of education and empowerment. I felt personally challenged and truly inspired for the first time in a long time, and I took so much away from this trip. I didn’t just learn about how to more responsibly plan future learning experiences and to evaluate programs more fully. I also learned how to be a better leader with a renewed passion for investing in the lives of students, and to think more consciously about how I invest my time and what I invest in. PEPY challenged our thinking and inspired us to come alive and make a difference in our little corner of the world when we return home. It was a remarkable journey for me and our students and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience or a better team with which to share the journey.”
“I love leading trips. One of my goals is to learn from PEPY’s partners, friends, trip participants, and the people around me and share those experiences with everyone else I know.
I was so excited to be able share my experiences with the students from TAMIU & WTAMU. Spending time with them for eight days was the most unforgettable time ever in my life, because everyone was super nice, friendly, open-hearted, humble, caring, always eager to help, and flexible in any kind of situation. I am so happy to have had the chance to get to know them and show them my country.
Even as a tour guide, I am always learning new things while leading trips. At the Chambok Community Homestay Project, we met a group of people committed to creating jobs while conserving the forest in and around their community. I felt so proud of this project, because everyone worked very hard to find better opportunities to benefit their community. They chose to adapt to a different way of life to become more independent and self-sustaining. Before this community set up the homestays, people made a living by hunting animals or cutting down trees to sell. Now the people here have opened their own homestay business, in turn creating jobs for other people in the community. The Chambok community also teaches their visitors about the forest conservation and other local environmental issues. This is a huge change for a community to undertake, and I am so inspired by them for changing their ways from being the destroyers to being the protectors of their neighborhood.
I was also impressed by the work going on at Tiny Toones. Tiny Toones is an organization that reaches out to street kids living in poverty. This organization is for kids who used to beg for money, rummage through the trash for items to sell, and suffer from drug addiction. At Tiny Toones, young adults are provided with access to education, and are able to express themselves through breakdancing. It’s so impressive how this organization works with kids who were never before given a chance to share and express their thoughts, ideas, and goals. The kids at Tiny Toones want to change their life and get involved with their community but they just don’t know how. Tiny Toones helps these kids change their lives little by little by helping them find their voice and discover productive ways to express themselves.
These are just a few examples of eye-opening experiences I have had while working for PEPY Tours. I am constantly inspired by great people, students, communities, organizations and of course the PEPY team. I am so excited to lead more trips and learn more, so I can share more with people in my world.”