Cambodia – the beginning

I anticipated this tripĀ  for the past 6-7 months, since I heard about the opportunity at the Gigot Center at Notre Dame offering a social internship with one of the partner organizations in multiple countries (South Africa, Cambodia, Haiti, Kenya, and Jamaica). A few of my classmates had an amazing experience last summer, and I thought it could be a great way to finish my Notre Dame MBA adventure.

It is my second week in Cambodia, and so far my stay has been full of interesting experiences, extensive travel, and gradual adjustment. Hence, my well overdue fist post. My main purpose for the trip is to help a Cambodian-American social enterprise, PEPY Tours, discover and design a new business segment and revise and structure the company’s internal policies. It is not an impossible task for an MBA and I am excited and eager to help, though I suspect I also have a great deal to learn from PEPY, Cambodia, and its people during my short 10 week stay. PEPY has a very interesting, yet not an uncommon story. It started when back in 2006 an ND grad went on a bike tour across Cambodia to fund-raise money to build a school, solve a problem of poor/insufficient education in Cambodia, and continue saving the world. Since then, the organization went through a series of metamorphoses: from building schools and offering volunteer trips to building teachers’ capacity, empowering and supporting Cambodian youth, and offering educational adventures tours while strongly advocating for responsible tourism. During the past 6 years PEPY greatly matured and became two organizations: an NGO (supporting education), and a social enterprise (tour operator that inspires responsible travel). I am working with a for-profit arm of PEPY, a very inspiring and enthusiastic group of people.

I’m stationed in Siem Reap, the most visited town by tourists due to Angkor Wat, the biggest religious monument and so-called the 8th Wonder of the World. Fortunately for me, it is a low&wet season, and the town is not overflown with thousands of tourists who usually stay no more than 2 days in Siem Reap. I have to admit I was ready to a much more rural and less developed (in a western sense) environment. It still has only a few main streets and can be crossed over in less than 20 min, and a 2 min bike ride from my office reveals more common rural sites. Riddled with budgets guest houses and 4-5 star hotels, Siem Reap is not only a mecca for tourists but also for hundreds of international NGOs who collectively are trying to make Cambodia a better place to live. The question however is for who? The expat community in Cambodia lives quite comfortably, saving the world, opening new businesses, and enjoying low-cost luxuries (posh restaurants. trendy cafes, and spacious housing) that are not affordable to the Cambodian population. Everything in this town is geared for tourists and westerners, and while it is true that it creates more local jobs, the money doesn’t stay in the region making it one of the poorest provinces in the country. Cambodians understand this trend, a young waiter in our guest house who is a university student studying English shared with us his dream of opening a nice restaurant in Siem Reap serving foreigners. I can’t complain much, my student budget is sufficient to enjoy the summer and explore the country. However, I am trying to be more cognizant to support locally owned businesses – an already noticeable influence on me by PEPY Tours’ strong advocacy for responsible tourism. I greatly enjoy my Khmer food (it deserves a separate post) lunches in a local cafe around the corner from our office and we live in a Cambodian family owned guest house.

More posts to come soon!

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