I’m not sure if Semester At Sea usually welcomes parents to join their student for a trip or if it was because of low student numbers but none-the-less I was the bus leader for the student/parent trip to Cambodia. I had my hesitations- how will the parents be; will they give me problems, what will the student response be... I am happy to report that it all turned out quiet well as far as the parents go.
We took a flight from Saigon to Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia where upon arrival we had to purchase visas for $20.00. Now, we were told about this fact since the day we signed up for the trip and over and over again since then but one of our students still had to stop at an ATM in the airport to get the money. For some reason the machine said it gave her the money but she did not actually get any. She immediately got on the phone with her bank…blah blah, blah, delay. Another student lost his wallet between the first airport and the second airport, he ran back to the plane and couldn’t find it…blah blah blah, another delay. His mom was on the trip so I made sure they had our itinerary and a phone number of the tour company and we left them as we were already late and chopping things from our itinerary as the moments passed. I was plenty annoyed and our trip was just beginning.
Our first stop was to an orphanage and school home to 93 children started by a SAS alumni home to 93 children. The students performed two dances for us and gave us tours of the facility.
From there we took a sunset cruise on the Mekong River I got to talk with a few of the parents and they were impressed with my experiences on and off the ship and very envious of the opportunity to work for SAS. Sailing along the river the skyline of Phnom Penh showed the changes the country has gone through over the past years with traditional Buddhist temples next the flashing lights of the casino (while it is illegal for Cambodians to gamble tourism keeps the casinos very busy according to our guide). We enjoyed a traditional Cambodian dinner before going to our hotel to relax for the rest of the evening. The student who lost his wallet never found it but luckily still had his passport so the kid and his mother made their way to the hotel and left a message for me that they would join us the next day.
The next morning started early as many had before as we prepared for a heavy morning of historical tours. The Toul Sleng Museum, a former high school which was used as the
notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. It was converted into a prison and interrogation center. The classrooms were converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes. Only 7 people survived S-21, one of whom was there while we visited.
We then went to the killing fields where the Khmer Rouge executed at least 200,000 people following the end of the Vietnam War. A 17-story memorial has been built in the center of the field where skulls of the victims can be seen. Our guide told us that as the rains occur over the years the bones and clothing of those buried are exposed. We could see partially exposed clothing in multiple areas around the fields and while I questioned if it was actually the clothing of the victims from 30 years ago it still served as a powerful visual. Many of the parents on the trip who said they were going to school during Vietnam War said they never knew about the situation going on in Cambodia.
With heavy hearts and more questions than answers we continued our day visiting the Silver Pagoda and the Royal Palace where the King of Cambodia currently lives. The grounds are pretty expansive and have about 20 different buildings in all. The architecture was beautiful and intricate. Following lunch and a little free time to explore the surrounding markets we made one last stop in Phnom Penh at the National Museum before going to the airport to fly to Siem Reap.
With a very quick flight we made it to Angkor Wat just before the sun went down.
I ran into two other staff members who were there independently and it was a nice breath of fresh air to see some friends if even for a short moment before jumping back into bus leader mode assisting a student with night blindness make his way through the quickly darkening and tricky stairwells and doorways. I have to admit my excitement for a number of the places I have visited directly comes from seeing them on The Amazing Race (an around the world scavenger hunt type reality TV show) and Angkor Wat was one of them. I was excited to further explore and learn more the next day.
We were off to dinner buffet and ‘cultural dance show’ that was a total tourist trap and reminded me of a show at Disneyland minus the casts’ ability to fake their interest in what they were doing. The food was ok and the show was less than great. Luckily after dinner we checked into a wonderful resort and spa for the evening where I got a great nights sleep.