Our team was assigned to partner with the D.K. Kim Foundation to create an operational plan and implementation schedule for a vocational school in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, Cambodia. In order to gain a more clear understanding of the vocational training landscape and to see the various models in action, our team traveled throughout Cambodia to the three main urban areas of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville. We conducted a couple dozen interviews and saw quite a spectrum of schools from free models to high-tuition models. One recurring theme during our conversations was the generally low confidence level and self-esteem of Cambodians. At first, it seemed that this was a major obstacle for Cambodia’s youth to overcome, but I saw a completely different side during my team’s stay at the Golden Temple Hotel in Siem Reap.
As soon as we exited the airport at Siem Reap, I honestly didn’t think I was going to enjoy my stay at the Golden Temple. The hotel sent a car to pick us up, but it was a tiny 1990-ish Toyota Corolla – four of us with suitcases were not going to fit comfortably. Okay, maybe I overreacted, but the heat messes with your brain, I tell you! In the punishing humidity, we front-loaded suitcases and backpacks and figured out a tetris-like configuration as we took a 20-minute ride to the hotel. As soon as we arrived, though, we were greeted with the warmest smiles and the common Cambodian greeting known as a sampeah – hands together in a prayer-like fashion with a slight bow of the head. I quickly got over the stifling heat and sipped on some sort of refreshing citrus drink. When we were being shown to our rooms, a couple of the ladies in traditional Khmer dress immediately picked up bags and helped us and the other men on their staff carry our things up a couple flights of stairs. This became somewhat of a comedic bit as one of the ladies would frequently ask if guests needed help carrying extra large suitcases that probably equaled her body weight and would have clearly toppled her over – quite funny to actually see.
I’m not sure if it was jetlag or just an excitement to face a new day in an unfamiliar country, but I was waking up at sunrise and getting to breakfast before 7 just about everyday. Even though breakfast didn’t formally start until 7, the staff cheerfully greeted me each morning, quickly served my mandatory cup of coffee, and whipped up a delicious meal of fresh local fruits. Based on what I had heard about Cambodians, I didn’t expect much interaction, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. They were just as curious about my life as I was about theirs, and one of my silly questions led to excited responses and a genuine eagerness to communicate. I was fascinated by their backgrounds and what led them to a position in the hospitality industry, especially since it directly related to our actual IBD project. Many came from the rural areas, which isn’t surprising as 80% of the population still live in rural environments. However, some came from the poorest areas where agriculture or fishing as an unpaid family worker was common, or even worse, human trafficking. Some were orphans, and others grew up in single-parent homes, where taking care of the younger siblings was already a full-time job. I was so surprised to hear their stories, as I was expecting personalities that were much more introverted and shy. Some spoke very little English, but everyone was very open and tried their best to convey a similar story of hard work. Here was a typical day for several of the workers with whom I spoke:
-0530 Wake up
-0700 Start Work
-1700 End Work
-1800 Start School (University)
-2200 End School; Start Studying
That’s hustle, and that’s a long day any way you look at it. I’m not sure how they pay attention in class; I know I’d be falling asleep! For the staff who attended university, there were varying majors as some were studying business while others were studying English or Chinese Literature. One thing was certain, they all had aspirations of management and many wanted to open their own business – but as I commonly hear even in the U.S., they’re still waiting for the right business idea! Although I enjoyed my entire IBD experience in Cambodia, my time getting to hear the personal stories will be the most lasting memory. And of course, since they’re all plugged into Facebook, we’ll be able to continue our conversations!