Cambodian crossroads

03 January 2018 | Education
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Atop Phnom Chisor Hill

From 10 to 23 December, 16 NUS students embarked on the inaugural NUS Study Trips for Engagement and EnRichment (STEER) Cambodia programme, which took them on a learning journey from Phnom Penh to Tonlé Sap and Siem Reap in a quest to discover the rich historical, cultural, legal, economic and business aspects of the Khmer society.

The students were first introduced to the background and intricacies of the Khmer civilisation through interactive lectures at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and the Royal University of Law and Economics, bolstered by vibrant conversations with local students and faculty members.

My favorite part was interacting with officials from various organisations through which we were able to learn how policies and theories we had learnt in the classroom were being applied in the real world, and how policies in Cambodia differed from those in Singapore.

They also met with officials from government agencies, multinational corporations and non-governmental organisations (NGO) such as global anti-corruption coalition Transparency International and humanitarian aid group World Vision. Representatives from environmental NGO Conservation International introduced them to local farmers living along the Tonlé Sap Lake, offering the students an insight into the daily lives of the villagers as well as a rare opportunity to try their hand at skewering fish.

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Learning about the way of life of Cambodian farmers


Through various museum visits, the group delved deeper into the religious and historical aspects of Cambodia. A trip to the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap offered a glimpse into the building of the Khmer Empire along with its customs and beliefs across different time periods, while the Empire’s glorious past was further seen through ancient structures such as Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s largest religious monument. Subsequent visits to the Cambodian Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum uncovered the nation’s darker, not so distant history when the Khmer Rouge regime slaughtered a quarter of the population during the late 1970s. Many students were particularly inspired by the hardy spirits of the Cambodians despite this recent scar on the psyche of its people.

“Learning about the rich history of Cambodia, both ancient and modern, was truly a humbling and unique experience,” remarked Year 3 NUS Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) student Toby Tan.

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Toby (right) and Year 4 NUS Business student Celine Foo (wearing blue scarf) at Angkor Wat


Participants also had the chance to work their muscles by scaling the Phnom Chisor Hill and the Udong Mountain, which rewarded them with a stunning bird’s eye view of the vast fields, ruins and monuments of Cambodia. They also savoured authentic Khmer dishes such as Fish Amok, Prahok and Mee Cha, the richly flavoured delicacies delivering an exciting new taste to many who were sampling Cambodian food for the first time.

Meaningful interactions with everyday individuals, from rice farmers to monks and children playing in the streets, highlighted the resilience of the Cambodian spirit and the desire to strive for a better life. Said Year 2 FASS student Valerie Tan, “The Cambodian people are so friendly and welcoming to visitors, without asking for anything in return.” 

Overall, the two-week STEER Cambodia programme offered NUS students a glimpse into the wonders of the Southeast Asian country and its people — its past, present and future.

"My favorite part was interacting with officials from various organisations through which we were able to learn how policies and theories we had learnt in the classroom were being applied in the real world, and how policies in Cambodia differed from those in Singapore. I also treasure the many friendships forged and the opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone, by eating fried spiders and crickets for instance!” said Year 2 FASS student Charissa Wong of the experience.

Inaugurated in 2010, the NUS STEER programme aims to familiarise students with the multifaceted environment of emerging markets through classroom-based learning and experiential site visits and has since expanded to cover countries across Asia, Central and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Southern Africa.

By FASS students Charissa, Charlene Chua (Year 2) and Deborah Wee (Year 3)