Life in Siem Reap, Cambodia

A Minerva Fellow's 9 Months of Adventures

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It all just takes time.

Today marks exactly one month since my arrival back at Union College with my fellow Fellows (shout-out to Ian, Alagra, Sarah, Aaron, Biz, Shal, Jess, & Matt!). Throughout the past month at Union, we have: presented in a number of different classes about our experiences, participated in a Panel Discussion (where we shared our Minerva Fellowship 2012 – 2013 video:, and talked with countless friends/professors/administrative staff about our time spent in our respective countries. We have tried to promote the Minerva Fellowship program around campus and I can only hope that our efforts to spread awareness have made an impact on the community.

Throughout this past month, there have been times when I have felt very frustrated (ex: when people ask me how my ‘trip’ or ‘vacation’ was, when I am presenting to a class full of students scrolling through things on their iphones, etc). Though, it is in those moments that I have found comfort in turning to my other Fellows for support. They have been my ‘rock’ here and I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to spend this time with such inspirational individuals. I have also felt very lucky to [by a bit of a fluke] be placed to live in a campus house with three amazing girls (shout-out to Hannah, Laura, and Lauren!) during my time back at Union. They have been beyond accepting and caring and I am so grateful. 

I still can’t believe it has been 38 days since I left Siem Reap. When I look at that number, it seems so small. But, when I think about how much I was able to pack into each day in Cambodia, the 38 days might as well be infinite. I truly miss the people there and the beautiful place that I was able to call home.

I had initially intended to write another blog post about a week after my return to the States. I wanted to write about my ‘transition’ and the ‘reverse culture shock’ and my ‘next step’. Well, it has now been a month and I still don’t feel as though I can write that kind of a post. I am still transitioning. I still experience reverse culture shock at the most random times (ex: anything as big as walking down a street and acknowledging that it is free of begging children/tuk-tuk drivers/bicycles or as small as finding toilet paper next to the toilet on a regular basis). I also have no idea what my next step will be.

I thought that the idea of leaving Union without a job waiting for me would make me anxious. However, I have come to the realization that I am more comfortable this way. I still need time to process. I have spent the past month trying to share my experiences in Siem Reap with anyone who will listen (annnnd probably a lot of students who have not listened). I have also read through all of the letters that my students handed to me on my last day at The Global Child so many times that I could probably recite most of them from memory. However, there is one letter in particular that I still cannot get through without crying. I know exactly which words are coming, but the emotion behind them gets me every time. It is very special to me & I would like to share an excerpt from it with all of you:


“Amanda, the first I would like to say goodbye to you. But I never want to say goodbye to you. I want keep you to stay with me forever. But it can’t be happen. I hope I can see you one day OK. Don’t cry when you read these letters OK, because you are a beautiful girl if you cry not pretty. You are amazing teacher for me. Thank you for all everything you gave me when you still at TGC. Amanda you must promise with me and don’t say maybe to me OK, you must come back to see me again. I hope you can do it OK it my last request to you. Can you do it for us Amanda? When you leave I will miss you so much. If you miss us don’t forget look our picture before you sleep. I will miss you every day and look your picture too…”


I can hear my student’s voice in my head when I read through her letter and I still look through all of my pictures each day. Talking about Cambodia on a daily basis here at Union has been amazing and has helped me to fill this fresh, crater-sized void that I did not expect to return home with last month. I don’t know why I thought it would be easier to ‘adjust’, but I now understand that moving to that ‘next step’ will take more time.

I need time to reflect on the most meaningful moments of this experience all on my own. Time to reminisce, and be selfish, and not share my thoughts with anyone.

I need time to completely re-connect with family and friends. Time to be together in person, without static-y Skype calls and sporadic emails.

And I need time to fully understand that while the Fellowship may be over, I have not ‘lost’ anything. I have gained so much more than I will ever be able to put into words.


So, here’s to making that first step towards my ‘next chapter’. Slowly and steadily - without any kind of push or any desire to forget the ‘previous chapter’. After all, as a wise man once told me, you can always grab a bookmark and flip back through any chapter you want. 

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Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. And never want to leave.

How do I even start this blog post? Over the past few weeks, I have been feeling what seems to be millions of different emotions. I have been so happy that I have cried from laughing so unbelievably hard. I have also been so sad about leaving that I couldn’t help but smile about the fact that I’m so lucky to have something so wonderful here that I do not want to leave. Though, all in all, I have mostly been reflective (mainly because I really do not know where the time went?!).

I have been doing my best to think back and go through all of the moments that have made the past 9 ½ months such an amazing journey.

Now, I wouldn’t be me if I did not include a quote here, so here goes:


I remember reading this quote last year on Shelby Cutter’s blog (shout out to Shelby, one of the 4th generation Ecuador Fellows!) and thinking that it was extremely powerful. It is very true that I will miss the people that I love in Cambodia more than I can explain, but it is also true that I will miss the person that they have helped me to become here.

With that being said, I am now at a loss for words. Prior to writing this post, I had written out about six pages in a word document, attempting to get across my thoughts and feelings about all things Cambodia. Well, six pages later, I was emotionally drained and still feeling as though I had not fully gotten my point across. Thus, I am going to save that document and hope that it makes more sense to me at some later date.

It all comes down to this: I have no idea how to begin to express how grateful I am for the experiences that I have had here, so I am just going to do my best to make a few lists that might explain how I am feeling right now.


My top 5 ‘thank you’ shout-outs to people back home:

1. To Union College: I am indebted to you for this opportunity. The Minerva Fellowship Program has changed my life and enabled me to reach out to others in such a special way. Thank you, Tom McEvoy & Hal Fried! Also, a big thank you to Judy Wheeler!

2. To Michael Rappaport and Michael Epstein: I would not be here without your support and sponsorship. Thank you so much again, for everything.

3. To my family: You never fail to make every obstacle look ten times smaller and every celebration feel ten times bigger. I love you all so much.

4. To Will: Thank you for being there to support me through everything and for literally coming here to be a part of my Cambodian experience. You are wonderful.

5. To my friends that have reached out on a regular basis: Thank you so much for your messages, pictures, and more. Thank you for making me feel like home wasn’t so far away – it meant so much more than you know.


Now, onto discussing the incredible people here

The top 3 things I have tried to teach my students (aside from English, Debate, Art, Health, etc):

1. Never stop pushing for the things that you believe in. Also, follow through with your education – knowledge truly is powerful and will help you to reach your goals in the future. Stay clever, Grade 7 ;)

2. It is okay to try really hard and ‘fail’. It is not okay to not try.

3. Confidence is beautiful – always be proud of who you are.


The top 3 things my students have taught me:

1. Teaching is not all about following the books. Life lessons are equally, if not more important… and those come from the heart.

2. It is impossible to be in a bad mood when you have adorable children smiling at you and joking around. It is also impossible to stay angry at those adorable, smiling children when they do not finish their work… and they know it. They are so smart. 

3. We truly do not need ‘things’ to make us happy. Some of my favorite teaching AND non-teaching moments involve: sitting on a circle on the floor and saying silly words that rhyme with one another, running around in circles and laughing until we couldn’t breathe, jumping around in the rain, and telling stories after we have been away from each other for a day (or even a week!).

No material possessions. All human relationships. All unforgettable memories.  


The top 10 things that I will miss about Cambodia (I could probably make a list of 100, but I won’t put any of you through that):

1. Perfect sunsets on a daily basis.

2. Friendly faces everywhere you go (literally, I can’t ride my bike for 5 minutes without having someone smile at me or say hello as they pass by).

3. Loud wedding or funeral music playing on a regular basis, at all hours of the day and night. And the sound of tuk-tuks whizzing by.

4. Genuinely looking forward to freezing cold showers (no hot water) because it consistently feels like it is about 1,000 degrees outside.

5. Everyone coming together to repeatedly talk about how ridiculously hot it is during the dry season and how ridiculously wet it is during the rainy season. Laughing through the sweat and/or water-logged clothing.

6. A delicious assortment of food and fruit shakes (even if I resorted to eating a lot more Western food after awhile) for extremely low prices. Fried rice, and lok-lak, and curry, oh my!

7. Riding my bicycle everywhere. Who ever thought I would say that?

8. Amazing and supportive ex-pats/volunteers that became great friends and understand Cambodia better than anyone. They were always there to offer a helping hand, to enjoy meals together, and on some special occasions: to dance the night away.

9. Joe to Go/Beau Fou. The staff, the food, the atmosphere. It is a wonderful place.

10. The Global Child. Above all else, TGC has been my Cambodian experience. I will miss it more than anything.


Let me elaborate…


The top 10 things that I will miss about spending time at TGC School (again, I could probably list 100):

1. Asking students how they are, watching them make serious faces & hearing them say “Ohhh Amanda, I am not good today” (because they think it is funny), and then standing by as they break down giggling, because they ARE happy after all.

2. Never knowing what to expect when I walk into a classroom. Sometimes I would find Teary crawling across the floor, sometimes Lida would be standing on my desk ready to break out into a full-out dance routine, sometimes Kanya would have moved her desk into the corner because she ‘wanted space for her thoughts’ (she always took the phrase very literally), and sometimes Srey Am would be coloring in pictures she had drawn of strawberries (this one was actually more of an ‘all the time’ kind of thing).

3. Hearing the students say “Gooooood afternoon, teacher. Thannnnnk you, teacher” before every class began and “Goooooodbye, teacher. See you nexxxxxxt time!” after every class finished.

4. Knowing that any amount of time spent in the Teacher’s Room would be full of: lots of questions from the other staff members, smiles across the room with Chhaylon, jokes about absolutely anything with Sopha, long conversations about America and other assorted places with Chanthy, and all-understanding glances across the room at Ian. Also, knowing that meetings with Dara in the Office downstairs would always leave me with something profound to think about for the next few days.

5. Watching the students run around during their 10-minute ‘break time’ in between each class. This time always involves a lot of silly fighting, poking, talking in the computer room, girls braiding each other’s hair, catching up on homework that should have been done the night before, and completely letting loose before everyone has to attempt to sit still for another 50 minutes.

6. Seeing students and staff at their ‘best’ and ‘worst’, even if they would never want to think about it that way. As I have voiced before in my blog posts, it is extremely important to ‘save face’ here. However, I can take comfort in knowing that I have seen some of these wonderful people ‘lose face’ and I now understand them more and feel even closer to them for it.

7. Making peace with the fact that the printer in the Teacher’s Room will rarely ever work. Also, accepting that the electricity may go off for hours or days at a time for absolutely no reason (or because a truck crashed and took down 11 electricity poles… one or the other).

8. Laughing with Sopha every time he said that he had ‘heard a rumor’ and knowing that he was about to say something along the lines of ‘I heard a rumor that you will stay two more years’ and ‘Oh, I stole your passport, sorrrrrrry’.

9. Understanding that, while all of the students may jokingly poke and try to ‘fight me’, it is out of love and it is a completely mutual feeling. I don’t know if I will never be able to have someone kick at my feet again or poke my side repeatedly without viewing it as an ‘I’ll miss you’.

10. Feeling like TGC was a home away from home and feeling so lucky to be welcomed and accepted as part of TGC’s family.


I do not know how I am going to say ‘goodbye’ to everyone on Friday. As I said in one of my earlier posts: I do not want to believe that it will be goodbye forever – it just can’t be. But still, I cannot imagine not seeing my students’ smiling faces every day. I literally get anxious when I am away from them for a week. How am I supposed to hug them, send them off on their bicycles to head home for the night, and not be able to say “see ya tomorrow!”. All week, my stomach has been turning at the thought of leaving. I have not been able to bring myself to pack, because that will make it all feel too real. To be honest, every time I try to start packing, I just end up looking at my 3,000+ photos and crying. I know that I will always have those memories, but I do not want to accept that this experience is coming to an end.

Don’t get me wrong – I am extremely excited to see my family and friends back home. I could not have done this without them (thank you so much to everyone who has kept in touch, read through my novel-like blog posts, and gone above and beyond to offer support!) . Many people have been sending sweet messages and letting me know that they will be there for me through this emotional roller coaster and that means the world to me. Also, many of them have also been asking lots of thoughtful questions about whether or not I feel as though I have ‘made a difference’ here at TGC. When I reflect back on the past 9 ½ months, it is hard to come up with a solid answer for that question because it almost requires making the experience quantifiable.

So, I think I will just end with this:

I know that I was able to make people happy – we were able to make each other happy. I was able to help other people realize their true potential and work towards a better future. In that nature, I was able to provide them with an emergency medical fund so that they will always have the care that they deserve and the opportunity to keep working towards that future. In turn, they have given me so much more than they will ever know. They have helped me to grow and opened my eyes to so many new perspectives. I will never be able to thank them enough or get across just how much they mean to me.

I will be taking their kind words, their smiles, their quirks, and their life lessons with me.

And a piece of my heart will always be in Siem Reap.  



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4 days.

3 provinces.

2 hours on the bus… times 12? Yes, at least 24 hours worth of bus trips.



Over the past 4 days: TGC staff, students, and volunteers visited Kampong Speu, Kampot, and Kep (3 southern Cambodian provinces). We stayed in homestays at the Chambok Reserve, saw the breathtaking Bokor Mountain, swam off the coast of Rabbit Island (before spending the night in bungalows on the island!), and so much more!!!

The short video that I have shared will give you all a glimpse at the students’ reactions on top of Bokor Mountain!

They are running around trying to “catch the clouds”.

I have no words - just smiles.

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Life and guitar strings…

A little over a week ago, I had a meeting with TGC Principal Dara about my latest teaching evaluation (every 3 months, Dara must observe one of each of the teachers’ classes and submit a report to the Ministry of Education). After we had finished talking about my evaluation, we moved on to discussing a particular students’ recent disregard for TGC’s rules and regulations. While I could delve into more specifics, that is not the point of any of this AND the important thing is that she is safe and currently back on track with things at school.

What I do want to delve into is something that stuck with me from my conversation with Dara. As we were sharing our ideas on the matter, he paused and said that he had something important to emphasize.

“Amanda - do you know why we have so many problems with our students and the rules? Well, the rules are like guitar strings: if you make them too tight, they will break. But, if you make them too loose, you cannot hear the sweet sound.”

Well, I don’t know about you guys, but I thought this quote was really something special. Not to mention, it is very applicable.

TGC has a lot of rules – there is no denying it. Sometimes the younger students get frustrated with these restrictions. Sometimes the older students get even more frustrated. However, it is these rules that keep the students safe and these rules that enable TGC to operate as smoothly as possible. Now, in terms of the quote: I think that the guitar strings are tight. However, I do not think they are at the point of breaking. I also think that we have several moments a day filled with ‘sweet sound’ and laughter.

Hearing this quote actually made me think back to a thought-provoking discussion from one of my High School English classes. Our teacher had asked us if we would rather live a ‘life with really high highs and really low lows’ or a ‘life full of in betweens’. To my surprise, the majority of the class chose a ‘life full of in betweens’. I remember having trouble wrapping my head around why people would sacrifice all of those really high highs. I even remember voicing the fact that we wouldn’t appreciate all of the great things that happen nearly as much if we did not have those really tough moments to ground us and make us stronger.

Well, 5 years later, I think I have a bit of a better handle on why people chose a ‘life full of in betweens’. In theory, we all want to climb to the highest mountain and see the most beautiful sunset. We all want exciting and fulfilling lives. But, more importantly, the majority of us are even more focused on looking for a sense of stability. We are looking for something that will make us feel comfortable – something that we can rely on. We are looking for a guitar string that is loose enough to play some sweet music, but not tight enough to break in the middle of the song. This is not to say that we do not want to experience the ‘high highs’ and ‘low lows’. What I have come to realize is that those feelings and moments begin to mesh in to become the ‘in betweens’; this is how we find our balance in daily life.

As I reflect on these moments that have made my Cambodian adventure so special (thus far), I cannot help but reflect on the fact that today is April 1st. When I thought about ‘leaving in April 2013’ back at the beginning of the Fellowship in 2012, it seemed so incredibly far away – almost surreal, to be honest. But now, the fact that I will be leaving in a few weeks is so real that it has begun to seep into many aspects of my daily life.

It. is. terrifying.

Just today, three separate Joe to Go staff members reminded me that we “had to have dinner dates before I leave them forever”.

Ugh. I hope it is not forever.

Cambodia has become such a special part of my life. I’d like to think that I am going to make it back here for a visit at some point in the near future. Throughout the past 8 ½ months, I have had many ‘high highs’ and ‘low lows’ – balancing out to all of those essential ‘in betweens’. I cannot wait to see what this last incredible month has in store for me. I have no doubt it will be filled with sweet songs, special moments, and very few broken guitar strings. 

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Just wanted to share an assortment of photos from the past few weeks :)…

Picture #1: My bike on the path to Lolei! This was taken about a month ago & was the longest bike ride I have done thus far! About 30 km!

Picture #2: Chhaylon (fellow TGC staff member) & I standing in front of the entrance to Vinida’s daughter’s birthday party (Vinida is the biology teacher at TGC!). It was such a beautiful celebration & I felt honored to be there with her family and friends.

Picture #3: Wellll, what can I say, sometimes things get a little crazy during dance class…

Picture #4: Ian (my fellow fellow!) and I demonstrating our team’s super strength at the soccer pitch. Our girls will play in the Finals next Sunday!

Picture #5 and #6: Young Chi & Lida face off during Karate class, while wearing some of their new equipment. Amazing!!!

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Dance like no one is watching…? And giggle like no one is listening…?  Absolutely, go for it!

As our former dance teacher has recently stopped working at TGC, I have had the pleasure of taking over to cover the 2 dances classes (1 for the younger kids, 1 for the older kids) for the past few weeks.

Yes, we have covered some jazz, hip-hop, and ballet basics during these classes. BUT, at the students’ request, we have also spent a considerable amount of time learning: the cha cha slide, the macarena, the waka waka dance, and… as you see above… the cotton eye joe! These classes have been SO much fun & I hope that you enjoy watching the short video clip of some of the older students!

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TGC = Take. Good. Care.

When I began working at TGC in July 2012, I knew that I wanted to do some kind of fundraiser during my time here that would have a lasting impact for the organization.

The problem was: I wasn’t sure where to start. At the time, I did not know enough information about the school and its budget in order to identify a crucial ‘need’ that must be addressed.

However, after many months here, I have found that a ‘need’ HAS been identified.

While my parents were visiting in December, we had several great talks about medical concerns here in Cambodia (these talks maaaay have come up due to the fact that this was our first reunion after my lovely stint with Dengue Fever in September? Just my best guess ;). BUT, putting that aside, they were really eye-opening discussions & I was so appreciative of my parents’ input - thank you guys!!).

The bottom line was this: TGC has a small monthly budget set aside for routine medical visits, but no additional budget for emergency medical situations.

This made me nervous.

Unfortunately, emergency medical issues are unexpected, yet tend to be more common than our scheduled routine visits. I actually think that this notion is pretty universal (when was the last time that anyone planned to catch the flu? Or break an ankle? Or get into a bike/moto/car accident?).

It is amazing that TGC has the medical budget for routine visits and is a testament to their desire to provide the best overall care for its students. I truly think that this is incredible and definitely not something that you will find at every school here in Cambodia. However, the fact that TGC has had to consistently pull money from other areas of the budget when unexpected medical emergencies occur (in order to continue to provide care for the students) is not something that I would like for them to have to continue doing in the future.

Thus, I have started a fundraiser to create an Emergency Medical Fund for TGC. While I could babble on about this some more here, I think that you will find most of what I would say is right there on the website in my fundraising mission statement (so I will spare all of you having to read everything twice!).

Though, before I end this post, I would like to leave everyone with one short quote to think about:


“I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.” 
- Lilly Tomlin 


I wanted to leave you all with this quote because I think that it is missing something.

It does not share that this statement goes both ways.

My students have never failed to give me something to take home to think about each night. They make me smile when I am having a tough day, they make me see things in a new light when I am being close-minded or learning about new cultural norms, they ask brilliant questions… only to provide their own brilliant answers (after thinking out loud, many of them jump up and yell out that they are clever and that they have known the answer all along).

I have said it before and I will say it again: I may be a ‘teacher’, but I am always learning from my students. They inspire me and have given me so much more than they will ever know.

This is one of the ways that I will try to give back.

This is one of the ways that I can try to ensure that they will always be healthy enough to continue their education and strive for a better future.

This is one of the ways that I will try to ‘Take Good Care’ of my students… while I am here AND after I have left.

It would mean the world to me if you would check out my ‘Take Good Care’ website to read a little bit more about my Emergency Medical Fund for TGC:  Thank you :)

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Concordy article link!

Sue’saday! [Hello!] Here is just a quick update to share the link to my Concordy article with all of you - please click above to check it out whenever you have a free minute or two!

Each of the fellows has the opportunity to write a short article (must be around 250 words) for Union’s student newspaper (the Concordiensis - aka Concordy) while they are in their respective locations. I gave it my best shot, but 250 words is just not nearly enough space to sum up this amazing experience. HOWEVER, if you are reading this description about the article, then you already know that… because you have been keeping up with my blog! YAY! As many of you may have seen, my blog truly is my best attempt at giving you all a walk in my shoes. I can only hope that you will continue to avidly explore with me during my last 2 months in Kampuchea :).

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About two weeks ago, TGC students took part in two workshops to help build the giant Cobra puppet that you see above. On Saturday night (February 23rd), the students were able to proudly carry their puppet through the streets of Siem Reap, along with several other NGO students. The whole event was extremely special and unlike anything I have ever seen before.

Note: The first five pictures that you see above were taken during ‘puppet preparation workshops’ and the last five pictures are from the Parade day.

For more information about the event, feel free to check out The Giant Puppet Project website:

Also, this short video (approximately one minute long) might give you a better feel for what the whole Parade looked like from a spectator’s point of view! : I hadn’t actually seen the whole parade (as I was walking in the middle of it with the students, Ian, and Carolyn), so watching this video also allowed meeee to take everything in all at once :).

Hope you all enjoy!!